When Stanford reviews its 13-10 loss to USC on Saturday, it will look at a series of lost opportunities.
Andre Heidari kicked a career-long 53-yard field goal with 2:30 left to win it for USC, which snapped Stanford’s 17-game home winning streak, the longest in the nation, and earned its second consecutive victory over the Cardinal.
However, the game essentially ended with Stanford on the Trojans’ 25-yard line in the final minute when Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan was blindsided by a blitzing linebacker, fumbled, and the Trojans recovered to win the Pac-12 Conference opener for both teams.
“You don’t take advantage of opportunities, you lose games to good football teams,” said David Shaw, Stanford’s Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.
Stanford held a 10-7 lead in the third quarter and had several chances to put some distance on the Trojans. But a nightmare sequence in which Stanford failed to score on consecutive trips inside the USC 10-yard line and fumbled in Trojan territory on the next series proved to be the Cardinal’s downfall at Stanford Stadium.
“We’ve got to score more than 10. If we scored 16, we win,” Shaw said. “If we can make two field goals, we can win. If we convert on the fourth-and-one, we have a chance to win the football game.”
Still, Stanford had its chances and, midway through the fourth quarter, it appeared to retake the lead. Hogan found wide open Austin Hooper in the end zone for an apparent 23-yard touchdown. But as the Stanford band was in the midst of a triumphant “All Right Now,” the USC band began its own triumphant tune. The Trojan band was celebrating a Stanford chop block penalty that wiped out the play.
Stanford was forced to punt from the USC 32-yard line and Trojans, taking over at its 7 with 7:00 to play, embarked on its winning drive.
Stanford had one more chance and countered swiftly, with Hogan hitting five consecutive passes for a combined 53 yards, reaching the USC 22 with 51 seconds left. Hogan was dropped for a three-yard loss on a keeper and the clock continued to run as Stanford lined up for another play.
This time, Hogan dropped back, but was hit from behind by J.R. Tavai, fumbling the ball, and USC's Matt Lopes recovered with 19 seconds left.
“That last play was a run pass option,” Shaw said. “If it didn't work, if we still had the ball, we get a chance for a timeout, kick a field goal.”
Overall, Stanford scored only twice on five trips inside the 20, and only one was a touchdown.
“We were solid on third down and not good enough in the red zone,” Shaw said. “When you're not good enough in the red zone, you lose games. You’ve got to make field goals, you’ve got to take advantage of field position. We just did not. This is what happens.”
Ty Montgomery proved to be the workhorse for Stanford (1-1, 0-1), which outgained USC, 413-291. Montgomery had nine catches for 83 yards and 113 in return yardage. However, as befits this game, his 44-yard punt return to the USC 30-yard line went for naught. Stanford came away without a point when Jordan Williamson missed a 25-yard field goal, his second miss of the game.
On the next series, Stanford drove 61 yards on nine plays, advancing to the USC 3. But on fourth-and-one, fullback Daniel Marx was stopped short. USC, seemingly rejuvenated, pushed downfield for a tying field goal by Heidari, this one from 25 yards, and it was 10-10.
“I go for it on fourth down when the defense is playing great,” Shaw said. “You want your defense to stand up and keep the field position. I'm going to keep making those calls. I feel great about our defense.”
Stanford moved the ball well throughout the game and Hogan completed 22 of 30 passes for 285 yards with no interceptions. Eight Stanford runners combined for 128 yards on 38 carries, with Wright leading the Cardinal with 60 yards on 11 carries.
USC (2-0, 1-0) relied mainly on Javorius Allen, who gained a career-high 154 yards on 23 carries. Quarterback Cody Kessler completed 15 of 22 passes for 135 yards. Nine of those passes were caught by Nelson Agholor, for 91 yards.
“Defensively, I thought we played pretty well,” Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley said. “We stood up good or better than we have before.”
Stanford was far from polished in the first half, but it did maintain strong time-consuming drives throughout. A week earlier, USC had run more than 100 plays in a rout of Fresno State, but Shaw knew that to neutralize the Trojans spread offense Stanford would need to sustain its own drives to take USC out of its fast tempo.
Stanford certainly did so, running 39 first-half plays to 28 and outgaining the Trojans, 230-91. On Stanford’s four first-half possessions, the Cardinal ran 11, 8, 11, and 11 plays. Shaw knew Stanford couldn’t afford three-and-outs, and the Cardinal had none, keeping possession for 19:12.
The downside was that Stanford went into the half ahead only 10-7. On the glass is half-full side, Stanford rallied from a 7-0 deficit with two second-quarter scores. On the half-empty side, the Cardinal hurt itself with a series of uncharacteristic penalties and mistakes that proved costly.
Stanford’s first two drives reached as far as the USC 20 and the 13. But back-to-back penalties for holding and tripping stopped the first, which ended on a missed 49-yard field-goal try. On its next series, a high snap over the head of Ty Montgomery, lined up in the Wildcat formation, resulted in a 16-yard loss and Shaw elected to punt from the USC 29.
Mistakes aside, Hogan continues to direct the offense with control and efficiency, which he’d done for the past two years. The Cardinal’s tying scoring drive – after USC took the initial lead on Justin Davis’ 1-yard first-quarter run – was an 11-play, 77-yard gem.
Stanford began the series by jumping into a hurry-up offense. A four-yard dive by Wright (7 first-half carries for 44 yards) on third-and-1 kept the drive alive and a 21-yard pass to Hooper pushed Stanford to the 22.
With third-and-goal at the 2, fullback Patrick Skov followed left tackle Casey Tucker, who came in on that play for starter Andrus Peat, who had to come off because of a bloody nose, and scored his first collegiate touchdown.
A defensive stand, highlighted by linebacker Peter Kalambayi’s sack and a third-down pass breakup by Noor Davis, set up the Cardinal for a final drive with 3:05 left in the first half.
Hogan completed five passes for 65 yards, including gains of 21 to Devon Cajuste and 19 to Eric Cotton to set up Williamson’s 33-yard field goal with 11 seconds left to give the Cardinal the lead.
But, in the end, the good things did not outweigh the bad for Stanford.
“We lost, bottom line,” Tarpley said. “The guys in our locker room, we know who we have. We know what we have is all we need.
“If you want to be a great team, you come every week ready to play. If we’re a great team – we think we can be a great team – then our mentality shouldn’t change.”