Nov 16, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans fans storm the field after the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated Stanford 20-17. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

USC vs. Stanford: Trojans land knockout punch in the 20-17 upset

The losing streak has been snapped.

Behind a 47-yard Andre Heidari field goal with 19 seconds to play, USC defeated No.4 ranked Stanford, 20-17.

Some will call it an upset, but for the Trojans, the train continues to roll on.

The teams exchanged momentum swings throughout the first half, and the Cardinal dominated the second half, but it was the Trojans who were able to come up big when it mattered most.

If there was a weakness in the Cardinal defense, it was their struggle to defend the pass.

Taking advantage of that, Cody Kessler began the game on fire as he led the Trojans to a 17-10 lead at halftime.

As you would expect from a veteran defense, the Cardinal made adjustments to limit Kessler’s effectiveness in the second half.

He finished the game 25 of 37 for 288 yards and one touchdown.  Kessler was sacked and fumbled the ball in the third quarter, which the Cardinal recovered, but other than that he limited his mistakes.

With the Cardinal limiting the trio of Javorius Allen, Ty Isaac, and Tre Madden to a combined 39 rushing yards, Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee picked up the slack.

Agholor hauled in eight receptions for 104 yards and Lee had six receptions for 83 yards.

Lee’s numbers won’t wow anyone simply by looking at them.  Instead, it was his ability to come up with a clutch play time and time again.

Lee’s first big play came on a two-point conversion catch in the corner of the end zone that gave the Trojans the early 14-7 lead.

Then in the fourth quarter, he took a fourth down slant pass 13 yards for a first down.

Moments prior to Lee’s fourth down catch he limped off the field with an apparent knee injury.

Whether it was due to fatigue or simply succumbing to the Cardinal onslaught, the Trojan defense missed tackles and suffered mental lapses that led to Cardinal points.

Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 24 times for 158 rushing yards and two touchdowns. One of his touchdown runs came on a play where he was stood up at the line of scrimmage but was able to fight off tacklers and break free for a 35-yard score.

However, the defense rose to the occasion in key situations.

A week after converting on 14 of 21 third downs, the Cardinal managed to convert on only four of their 12 third down attempts.

A key factor to the Trojans dominating that stat was the defenses’ ability to win on first and second down.  Instead of third and short situations, the Cardinal often faced long yardage situations.

With the game tied at 17-17 in the fourth quarter, Dion Bailey picked off Kevin Hogan’s third down pass in the red zone.  The Trojans were unable to turn that into points, but the defense responded yet again.

Later in the fourth quarter, with the game still tied, Su’a Cravens intercepted a poorly thrown pass by Hogan.  It would end up being the difference maker in the game as the Trojans were sure to convert on that turnover.

A linchpin of the Trojans’ BCS run under Pete Carroll was the ability to win games in November.

Ed Orgeron has the Trojans 3-0 in November with two games remaining.

One team, one heartbeat, lives on.

Dick's Sporting Goods presents "Hell Week":

Tags: Football USC Trojans

  • Ben Factor

    Matthew, I agreed with you before the game that Stanford would likely win. Let’s congratulate Alicia on beating out the boys again.

    Alicia was also right that Orgeron’s ability to elicit performance from his players has a lot more in common with Pete Carroll’s than with Lane Kiffin’s.

    This was a significant achievement for the entire group of players and coaches. Very well done. Coach O showed his usual savvy in giving all credit to the players for the turnaround. Well done.

    I want to add two cautionary notes. Helton’s play calling in the second half had a lot more common with Lane Kiffin’s than with Pete Carroll’s. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at half-time. I would think that Helton, Martin, Robinson, and the OL boys would have conferred about what adjustments were expected from Stanford, and how best to use misdirection to take advantage of those adjustments. Either no one considered that, or no one is particularly imaginative. It seems pretty obvious that (1) first-down play action was a likely winner, (2) the running attack had to focus on “series” variations (misdirections) of what had been tried in the first half, and (3) the RBs could not reliably block Stanford’s blitzing LBs, which meant that something had to change. There seemed to be a self-destructive determination to reenact the Notre Dame game. Not very well done.

    In fairness, I have some sympathy for Helton. Kessler missed four of five critical passes to open targets in the second half, when he had time to throw an accurate pass. He also failed to see the right target at least twice in the second half, again with sufficient time to do his job. If Kessler’s play had risen, instead of fallen, when the game was on the line, Helton would have looked a lot smarter.

    Coaches from Jimmy Johnson to John Madden have said that great players play great in big games. Kessler has not shown that so far. Don’t get me wrong–he wasn’t a bum today, not even close. But as the pressure racheted up, he lacked some accuracy and target-choosing smarts on important plays.

    Kessler is short, and he lacks a great arm. If he really wants to be an professional QB, he can’t afford to play like he did in the second half. He’s got to play better then, not worse. If he doesn’t find it in himself to do that, he won’t have a future in the NFL. (Some will say I’m too harsh. I think it’s more that I’m dispassionately realistic.)

    • Matthew Moreno

      I definitely agree that the play calling in the second half was borderline atrocious.

      Stanford had already begun to make defensive adjustments on USC’s last drive in the first half, and I expected even more pressure from them in the second half.

      Establishing the run is extremely important, but I felt as though the Trojans were almost better off abandoning the run (at least for a drive or two). I also would’ve liked to have seen more play action on first down.

      It seemed like more times than not, first down runs were going for no yards or negative yards.

      I thought if the Trojans came out in running formations on first down and opted to pass instead, it would’ve continued to keep the Cardinal off balance. After a few snaps of that variety, then hit them with a draw or some other run play.

      As for Kessler, there’s some difficulty in analyzing his play, for me at least. Could he have done better? Sure. But, this was the best defense he’s faced and he had some things working against him.

      The way the Cardinal stop the run, it was essentially on Kessler to win or lose the game. Yes, he missed some reads, hurried some throws, but he stepped up when he absolutely needed to.

      I also felt as though his pocket presence was much better than it’s been. He was far from perfect, but he was what we’ve heard about him… A gamer.

      • Ben Factor

        If you and I could see improved strategies that might have been attempted by Helton, and even if our strategies would have been wrong, that some change in approach was required in the second half, why couldn’t the USC offensive group see it, and why couldn’t Orgeron see it, and command it? I ask this rhetorically, to those who dogmatically insist that Orgeron be the permanent HC, and/or that no changes in staff be made. It’s a question to be taken seriously.

        By the way, I think that Pendergast deserves a gold star for his part in the recent defensive efforts, particularly in light of injuries and inevitable fatigue. And Orgeron gets a star, too, since I’m pretty sure that he is more involved in the details of the defense than in those of the offense.

        Re Kessler, IMHO, it’s not enough to say that Stanford was the best defense he has faced.

        I recall some earlier games when unblocked DLs and/or LBs were on him before he had time to do anything except secure the ball. I never criticized him for that.

        He drew an intentional grounding call several weeks ago, and I didn’t criticize that either. It showed the right intention, just that he needed to practice the technique more, so that he knew where to throw the ball into the ground.

        He was severely rushed yesterday at times, and those aren’t the plays I’m criticizing. (Well, on his fumble, perhaps he didn’t make much effort to secure the ball.)

        But on a half dozen second-half plays, he didn’t do his job. Given time and “open” targets at “manageable” range, a top QB who isn’t hurt should almost always deliver a catchable ball. There is a problem that he did not do that in the second half of a big game. KESSLER was the weak link yesterday in the second half. That’s not OK on a team with high aspirations.

        • Matthew Moreno

          My best guess is Oregron decided to stick to his hands off ways. He’s been very open about letting his coordinators and position coaches coach and in the coordinators cases, call plays.

          Helton has been an improvement over Kiffin in the sense that I don’t think he’s as predictable. But, I certainly don’t think Helton is the longterm solution as the offensive coordinator, which I first wrote back when Kiffin was fired.

          I think you bring up good points about Kessler, but we’ll probably have to agree to disagree. At the risk of it sounding like I’m making an excuse for him, we have to keep in mind who he is.

          We’re 11 games in, but this is still his first season. And arguably, because of how the quarterback competition was handled, maybe throw out the first two games?

          He was rattled at times in the second half. But like I said, Stanford really placed the onus on him to make plays, which he ultimately was able to.

          He might not be the elite quarterback USC is accustomed to having, but all things considered, I think he’s more than adequate.

          He didn’t show early jitters in a big game, which some may have expected. Without the kind of start he had, who knows where the Trojans are by halftime.

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