Key no. 1: secondary open-field tackling
This all-important component of the game didn't begin well for Stanford, and perhaps that made the final dominant defensive result all the more impressive. If Cardinal fans didn't experience a sinking sensation in their stomachs when Nelson Agholor broke a tackle to turn a short pass into a 49-yard gain on USC's second possession, they certainly did when Robert Woods made the defense look silly on his 23-yard fourth-and-19 catch-and-run a little later.
Both plays screamed a familiar line: "Stanford isn't athletic enough in space to deal with the Trojans' track stars, and this is a repeat of the downfield meltdown against Oklahoma State - except that Andrew Luck is not around to provide a bailout this time." The Woods play was especially devastating, considering the fact that USC made it look like a video game set to "rookie" mode. Seriously, where else does someone go for it on 4th and 19 in the second quarter? Trent Murphy took a terrible angle against Woods, whose full head of steam made the Cardinal linebacker look like he was chained to the turf.
The Trojans scored to take a 14-7 immediately thereafter. Then, suddenly, the nightmare stopped. The ghosts of Stanford's slow past vanished, and the Cardinal defense shut out USC's attack for the remaining 41 minutes, 19 seconds of the game. Zip, zilch, zero, nada for an offense that looked like a lock to have a field day. Without warning, the storm clouds parted for sunshine - or the other way around, from USC's perspective.
Ed Reynolds (six tackles), Terrence Brown (five stops), Wayne Lyons, Barry Browning, and Usua Amanam never let Woods or Marqise Lee free again. Reserve nickel back Ronnie Harris made the game's biggest play when he broke up a potential fourth down touchdown pass. Fundamentally and athletically, the Cardinal secondary was elite in space. In the consummate team effort, they funneled Trojans back to Stanford's predatory linebackers for the kill. In fact, 24 different Stanford players were credited with stops, compared with only 13 Trojans (courtesy Steve Durrett). How one finishes is more important than how one starts. That much was evident here.
Key no. 2: winning with as few men as possible up front
Stanford dominated the line of scrimmage for 60 minutes without respite. The Trojans' weakness, discussed in detail here leading up the game, was the center position missing the injured Khaled Holmes. The Cardinal adjusted accordingly, shifting their defensive line to exploit redshirt freshman replacement Cyrus Hobbi. With Stanford in the nickel package for much of the contest, defensive end Ben Gardner (Pac-12 defensive player of the week) occasionally shifted over toward the middle of the line and unleashed hell on a confused USC interior. Gardner finished with 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and six stops total.
A good portion of that damage also came against USC left tackle Aundrey Walker, who has replaced departed All-American Matt Kalil. USC's coach publicly skewered Walker after watching film.
"We have a standard here, an expectation that our team is well aware of and Aundrey is well aware of," Lane Kiffin said. "He understands that. He saw it on film."
The Trojans' problems were bigger than one position, though. Gardner was complemented by a fantastic Josh Mauro, who generated massive push all evening even though he had only one sack to show for it in the box score. But it was the former walk-on David Parry who set the tone of dominance: in the second quarter, he was the first to truly reach Barkley. He grabbed Troy's golden boy by the ankles, allowing Murphy to swoop him and break him. The ball came loose. USC was sent into retreat. No. 7 never looked comfortable in the pocket from that point onward.
The biggest testament of the Stanford defensive front's dominance came through their suffocation of the Trojans' running game. USC finished with only 26 rushing yards, with 30 coming on a meaningless Curtis McNeal scamper against a prevent defense to end the first half. Troy's second half rushing output: negative thirteen yards.
This smothering made USC one-dimensional, and that opened the floodgates up front. In a brilliantly risky move, Stanford's defense opted to wait until the play clock neared expiration to make its pre-snap shifts so that Barkley would not be able to counteract them with audibles. This was something that had the potential to blow up in Derek Mason's face, but execution here was perfect. As a result, Barkley would need an extra second or two to decode the Cardinal coverage once the play had already started, and he never enjoyed that luxury. Stanford's rush was too physical, and their blitzes were just too well-timed. The Cardinal recorded five sacks (if Murphy's forced fumble following Parry's penetration is included) after the Trojans gave up only eight of them all of last year.
Pressure efficiency up front allowed the Stanford safeties to stay back and continue what they had done so effectively against San Jose State and Duke: read the quarterback. On top of his interception, Richards disrupted four passes (he leads the country with eight passes defended) and laid wood alongside Reynolds all game. USC's physical tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer faced repeated punishment over the middle. Stanford has now intercepted six passes on the young season, a year after only picking off seven throughout all of 2011.
Key no. 3: find way to exploit USC's second cornerback spot
USC's cornerback opposite Nickell Robey had been vulnerable through the Trojans' first two games, and the Cardinal targeted him without using their receiving corp. The Trojans did not make Robey follow Ty Montgomery around, leaving Stanford's top receiver frequently lined up against Torin Harris at USC's soft spot. Stanford passed on that match-up, though: Cardinal receivers combined for only three catches and 36 yards. The opted instead to pick on Harris by splitting their supernatural tight ends out wide, a brilliant move that is discussed next...
Key no. 4: don't forget the tight ends
Remember the speculation surrounding Stanford's tight ends following the season-opening squeak-by over San Jose State, in which the big boys had combined for only 39 receiving yards. Was David Shaw operating with a limited playbook so he that wouldn't show his cards to USC?
The answer: a resounding yes. The Cardinal used Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo as de facto receivers, spreading them out wide even in non-fade situations. The plan was to abuse the USC secondary with sheer length. Toilolo made the most athletic play of his career on a leaping seam reception early, but Josh Nunes struggled to accurately deliver the football to him early on.
It was Ertz's elite speed that ultimately blew the top off. In the fourth quarter, he lined up in single coverage against the cornerback Harris, blowing by him on the skinny post. Nunes delivered a perfect bullet for the 33-yard touchdown that gave Stanford the 21-14 lead. The Cardinal tight ends combined for six catches and 118 essential yards. They also blocked well for Stepfan Taylor's magnificent performance, especially on his 23-yard touchdown screen reception that evened the score at 14. Taylor, by the way, is the Pac-12's offensive player of the week.
Key no. 5: force Trojan field goal decisions
For Stanford, this was the game's most blatant tactical high point. With regular kicker Andre Heidari sidelined, Lane Kiffin's lack of trust in his back-up was puzzling. Alex Wood looked solid on his two extra point attempts, so why didn't Kiffin trust him on fourth down from the Stanford 13-yard line? Was a 30-yard field goal that would have given the Trojans a two-possession lead too much to ask for? Supposedly, Wood had nailed a 52-yarder in high school.
Alas, USC went for it. Ronnie Harris broke up Barkley's pass, and the Trojans never came close to scoring again. The Stanford defense forced Kiffin into the decision discussed last week, and it ended up paying huge dividends in the Cardinal victory.
Concerns outside of the keys
Attention must now be turned to Stanford's own kicking woes; Jordan Williamson was 0-for-3. Nunes' atrocious first half must also not be forgotten. He was a jittery 5-for-16 with two interceptions. Perhaps the worst mistake? A delay of game penalty on the first play from scrimmage following Montgomery's game-opening 64-yard kickoff return. That was a tailor-made momentum killer.
Nunes' command of the offense and overall performance markedly improved in the second half, when he threw two touchdowns and perfectly managed the Cardinal's game-killing drive that featured six minutes of Hulk-formation torture for the Trojans. This improvement was reminiscent of the new quarterback's second-half surge against Duke a week earlier. Still, he must start faster at Washington two Thursdays from now, because early mistakes on the road are much more difficult to conceal.
In the end, the Cardinal defense buried a plethora of its offense's woes - six first-half penalties, failed goal line execution - with a showing for the ages. Consistency is the next key, both for the defense when it tries to repeat its virtuoso performance and for the offense as it strives to put together its first true 60 minutes of good football. Encouragingly, it didn't take close to that many to beat USC. That's how talented the rest of this football team really is.
David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. Follow him on Twitter at: @davidmlombardi. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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