Andrew Luck finished his 20-of-24, three-touchdown day with the most important of his 285 passing yards, moving the Card from their 25 to the Trojan 13 in the game's final 1:12. Of course, Luck had some help – a USC late hit on a five-yard dump-off, a Stepfan Taylor 16-yard run off left tackle to the Trojan 15, and a USC defense that suddenly went vanilla, bringing no pressure and seeming content to take their chances with the All-American candidate Luck driving for the game-winning score.
Still, the game turned on Stanford's players' abilities to redeem themselves time and again. Luck fumbled in the first half? He flawlessly executed the rest of the day, lit up a USC DB on a touchdown-saving tackle off a fumble recovery, and marched Stanford down the field for the winning kick. Whitaker missed an extra point? As the final horn sounds, he goes to 11-of-11 on field goals for the year with his biggest kick yet. Stepfan Taylor fumbled twice? It was his final run that moved Stanford from an iffy 47-yard attempt to a much more comfortable 30-yard kick, and quite possibly turned an L into a W.
As the Cardinal entered the USC contest 10-point favorites by kickoff (a phrase this Stanford alum never thought he would write), that they needed Luck, Taylor and Whitaker's last-second heroics was a mild surprise. Pundits expected USC's defense to pose little resistance to Stanford's offense, and that was largely true, as Stanford rolled up 478 yards on the evening, and probably would have cracked the 500 mark if not for a Chris Owusu kickoff return to the Trojan nine in the fourth.
So what made this game closer than expected? Well, to put it mildly, events did not go as well as Stanford might have hoped when USC had the ball. Here's why:
- Credit USC for running plays to leverage their incredible athleticism. Coaching and focus may be question marks for this year's Trojans, but no one argues that USC's athleticism is anything but elite, and the visitors took advantage. The Trojans completed a dozen passes to receiver Ronald Woods, and he rewarded his team with 224 yards and three touchdowns, beating Stanford's secondary in one-on-one matchups (or one-on-two and one-on-three matchups, it didn't seem to matter) with a combination of strength, speed and agility Stanford's defenders simply could not match.
- A three-week gauntlet of Notre Dame, Oregon and USC could wear down any defense, especially a Stanford defense with little depth to begin with. Today, Stanford's defense looked tired late, and with a bye week and Washington State on deck, they'll have a great opportunity to recover.
- Then again, these last two weeks have shown that it's not just fatigue -- Stanford still does not match up defensively with quicker teams like Oregon or USC, and USC exploited that to the tune of 498 total yards, and very nearly a victory. Stanford had more than its share of good moments on the day, but when USC's offense and Stanford's D were running out in space, it looked like 2005 all over again at times. Last week's opponent and venue were truly exceptional, but this week, it's harder to avoid the conclusion that the defense disappointed.
Still, Stanford beat archrival USC on a last-second kick in front of a packed home crowd that stormed the field after the win. The Cardinal overcame three turnovers to earn the victory, mainly by executing its offense crisply enough in the clutch to overcome its defensive liabilities – exactly what Stanford needed to do against Oregon, but could not.
So it was ugly defensively, but the Stanford offense reestablished itself after a poor second half last week, and a win is a win, especially when it comes over the most talented team remaining on the schedule.
The Card can now enjoy their bye week and their virtual bye week, and attack a backstretch of vs. Washington State, at Washington, vs. Arizona, at Arizona State, at California and vs. Oregon State. Stanford, which may be favored in all of those games, went 5-1 against a front half of the schedule that was as difficult if not more so, and so a 5-1 or 6-0 finish is not out of the question.
Stanford has been a first-half team in the Harbaugh era, but today, they closed in the second half as strong as they started in the first. If the Card can play the second half of 2010 as well as they did the first half, say hello to a BCS bowl at a minimum.
That's our take. Here are links from around the country.
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