The college football world predicted an upset for USC vs. Stanford. Instead, the Trojans stood up and showed what they are made of.
The week ahead of USC’s rivalry tilt with Stanford was full of questions and skepticism. The Trojans heard every word of it.
“Everybody doubted us,” safety Chris Hawkins said on Saturday night, fresh off a statement victory, 42-24, over No. 14 Stanford at the Coliseum.
“We watch College Gameday just like everybody else. We watch every single show just like everybody else,” he continued. “When they doubt you it’s automatic motivation.”
The Trojans were understandably doubted following a closer-than-expected 49-31 win against 27-point underdog Western Michigan.
The Broncos ran all over USC’s defense. Sam Darnold looked human throwing two interceptions with no passing touchdowns. The Trojans were sloppy as a whole before pulling away in the fourth quarter.
Even though their record said 1-0, USC’s satisfaction levels were low.
After the AP dropped the Trojans from No. 4 to No. 6 in the Top 25 rankings, after a panel of experts on ESPN’s College Gameday picked Stanford to upset USC at the Coliseum, after the college football world asked what these Trojans were made of, they stood up to be counted.
“We knew we could play like this. The country doubted us after last week, but we knew.”
“We knew we could play like this,” Hawkins said. “The country doubted us after last week, but we knew…I think our team as a whole set a statement tonight.”
The statement on a team level was clear—USC deserved the No. 4 ranking to start the season. USC can out-physical a physical team. USC can run you over or pass around you. USC may give you a mile in the first half, but they won’t give you an inch in the second.
That team statement was built on a mountain of statements at the individual level as the Trojans took responsibility for their at-times lackluster performance against Western Michigan.
Darnold bounced back from a pedestrian Week 1 showing by tossing four touchdowns and completing a career-high 80 percent of his passes. He was so sharp from the start that his first incompletion came halfway through the second quarter.
Wide receivers Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell were both solid versus Western Michigan, but they took it to another level on Saturday, stepping up to help Darnold elevate the passing attack.
Mitchell was exceptional with four catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns.
Burnett was spectacular. If the former three-star receiver who was added late to USC’s 2015 recruiting class as a blueshirt had arrived with the fanfare of a five-star prospect, he would already be a household name in college football.
As it is, the junior’s nine-catch, 121-yard, two-touchdown performance featuring a jaw-dropping one-handed third down conversion and diving scoring reception rivals any of the great receiver performances at USC in recent memory.
Who will replace the production of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers? Question asked and answered.
Another question asked: Could Ronald Jones II replicate his Week 1 output versus a strong defense like Stanford?
Twenty-three carries, 116 yards and two touchdowns later, Jones II stands tall as one of the top running backs in college football. And he wasn’t even the Trojans leader rusher on the night, with freshman Steven Carr gashing the Cardinal for 119 yards.
At the front of it all, USC’s offensive line imposed their will on Stanford’s always-stout defensive front.
Facing one of the toughest defenses on their schedule, the Trojan offense passed the test.
But the offense didn’t have the most to prove against Stanford. The Trojan defense did. They too answered the call.
Granted, it wasn’t an immediate answer. The Cardinal scored twice on their first three drives, including a 75-yard touchdown run by Bryce Love, who took advantage of a massive hole in the middle of USC’s front line.
Still, in both games of the 2017 season, Clancy Pendergast’s squad has proven themselves resilient.
After giving up 145 yards rushing in the first half, the Trojans held Stanford’s potent ground attack to just 29 yards in the second half. Though the Cardinal matched USC score for score in the first half, they managed only ten more points after the Trojans took a 21-14 lead early in the second quarter.
The individuals made their mark there too.
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Uchenna Nwosu’s Game 1 performance left something to be desired. He came back and put on a show, justifying the observations of many in the media who called him a dark horse All-American candidate this offseason. On top of a sack, the senior captain broke up five passes, including two third down attempts and one on fourth down.
Much-maligned after USC’s defensive line appeared outmatched by Western Michigan and due for even more criticism after being cleared out on Love’s long run, nose tackle Josh Fatu came back with a seven-yard sack of Keller Chryst on Stanford’s first play of the third quarter. That play set the tone defensively for the Trojans in the second half.
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He wasn’t the only one who offered a major contribution despite an earlier stumble. Nickelback Ajene Harris helped Stanford convert a third-and-18 when he got hit with a pass interference penalty. He turned around and stopped Love for a five-yard loss on third-and-five a few plays later.
The ability to bounce back has become a staple of USC’s defense since they crumbled in the season opener against Alabama last year.
Now it’s three games in a row, they’ve stiffened when it mattered, stopping Penn State, Western Michigan and Stanford in their tracks in the final and most critical stages of the game.
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It’s also 11-straight games that Clay Helton’s Trojans have emerged victorious. If they keep playing like they did on Saturday, taking responsibility for prior short-comings and rising to the occasion, that streak will continue to grow.