When USC took the field on Saturday afternoon in Palo Alto, they were the Pac-12’s crown jewel and a legitimate national title front runner. After a 21-14 loss to Stanford for the fourth consecutive time, they’ll tumble in the rankings and find themselves in a hole, no longer controlling their destiny and showing the Trojans have a long way to go before being seemingly invincible anytime soon, especially on offense.
It was a tale of two halves, but not in the traditional sense. The first half was a display of how a couple of big offensive gains for both teams could dictate a score, rather than two very defensive teams making each other try extra hard to do anything on offensive, only to ultimately be unsuccessful.
But despite being sporadic in the first half, the Trojans still showed signs of a revitalized offensive scheme, as early in the first quarter, Matt Barkley took the initiative to throw to his targets over the middle. Plus, Barkley had his first pass attempt to a receiver not named Woods or Lee, when he completed a 49-yard pass to Nelson Agholor that set up Silas Redd’s first touchdown.
So there were signs that the USC offense would be OK, even though the first half was extremely defensive. In the second half, not only could the Trojans not run the ball, they couldn’t move the ball period.
Throughout the game there were breakdowns on the offensive line that left Barkley under constant duress. Early on, the Trojans were able to find ways around the pressure in the passing game by going over the middle to the tight ends or finding Marqise Lee on short patterns. As the game progressed, not only did Stanford cut off the short lanes on the perimeter, they forced Barkley to rush his passes, creating numerous poorly thrown balls and drops.
For a team that gave up barely any sacks last season, it’s not a surprise that Barkley wasn’t used to playing under such immense heat. He looked frazzled, uncomfortable and constantly hurried. Yet, despite the adversity, there were plenty of opportunities for Barkley, Woods or Lee to grab the team by the back of the neck and propel them to victory. A Heisman moment, if you will.
There was none. Stanford made sure it wouldn’t happen and the Trojans didn’t have the pep in their step or the fight to overcome the pressure.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes, Stanford is a team that is seemingly built to beat USC, but this was supposed to the be the invincible offense, yet without a running game or an offensive line, the Trojans looked awfully average.
On the other side of the ball,Stanford’s offense made sure that they did their part by completely wearing down the USC defense. Even though at the beginning of the game the Trojans were holding Stanford and forcing Josh Nunes to throw, by the end of the game USC just couldn’t stop Stepfan Taylor or the short passing game that the Cardinal were deploying to supplant USC’s rush.
Football is a game of adjustments and the Trojans couldn’t make any that worked. They shifted play calling, used their third receiver and even put Soma Vainuku at tailback when it looked like Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal were both down with injuries. Yet, Stanford’s David Shaw had an answer for everything and those answers were to put a ton of pressure on USC’s playmakers and make them beat the Cardinal as a result of blowing up the Trojan offense line. In the end, the Trojans’ stars on offense couldn’t make the plays when they needed to, nor could the offensive line or the defense respond to getting worn down.