A lot of people were shocked last Saturday night. Many of them were wearing cardinal and gold. Still more were wearing Cardinal and White. That Stanford upset #7 USC at the Coliseum, beating the Trojans for the fifth time in seven years, was enough of a shock, but the manner in which they did it should not have been. This was the only way Stanford was going to beat USC, and we'd said so many, many times. I wrote on Saturday that after years of support from a nationally elite defense, that Kevin Hogan would either pay the check at the Coliseum, or the check wasn't gonna get paid. In fact, I'd talked about this way back in the summer. On July 14, I wrote this:
"This is not to say that Hogan has to be as great as Kessler this year for Stanford to succeed, but he does need to be great. Like, last three games of the year great. Certainly he's going to have to match or outplay Kessler on September 19 in the Coliseum, and these numbers strongly suggest it's not out of the realm of possibility that Hogan is up to the job. When you factor in the insane amount of talent he's got running routes for him from all three receiving positions, the table is certainly set for Hogan to feast on opposing defenses this season."
I quote myself not out of self-congratulation, because nothing in that graph constituted any kind of contrarian or unique sentiment, and there were no shortage of Stanford fans who'd reached similar conclusions.
And then came Northwestern. And after that, the bandwagon emptied. Six quarters of odorous offense plunged Stanford fans into a pit of stunned melancholy. The end times were nigh, and the Day of Reckoning would be September in that Los Angeles venue that in a real way means more to Cardinal fans than any other, maybe even Stanford Stadium. Certainly the Coliseum defined the Jim Harbaugh Era. Its stage proved the apex of Andrew Luck's senior season. And the Cardinal's fall from grace on that same turf in 2013 marked not so much an exasperating defeat but a world gone off its axis, as delirious USC fans stormed the field after beating Stanford. In a sick twisted way, that night marked the truth that Stanford had arrived, but the last two years had many whispers that no sooner had they arrived that they'd be departing, all their sound and fury snuffed out by the re-establishment of five-star supremacy on Figueroa and King.
And yet there was really no other way. Not with Stanford's defense in a far too nascent stage of its development, not with the dominant running game of 2009 and 2011 alive only via DVR, and certainly not with USC sporting a Heisman candidate quarterback with machine-like accuracy and game breakers all over the field. No, Kevin Hogan had to win this game for Stanford, not by doing it all by himself, because the beauty of football is that the game's very nature makes that impossible. Instead, Hogan would have to win that game by being better than he'd ever been before, and still the question lingered in the minds of Cardinal fans: "Would that suffice?"
On Saturday night, Eight was enough.
There were great plays all night long made by both teams in various situations, but to categorize and dissect all of them would be excessive. Both teams at various teams were breathtaking. But one man was great and tough and fearless all night long, and he played for Stanford, and therein lay the margin.
That he was great in the most desperate of times was altogether fitting, because if you're going to apply epic status to a singular moment and you're in the business of legend-making, you need some truth upon which to build. And that brings us to Stanford's eight third down conversions.
#1: On a 3rd and 3, Stanford comes out in a Tight-Staggered Trips Right (Schultz-Irwin-McCaffrey) Single Back Single Left formation, the personnel group that has now become this team's trademark. Wright picks up a blitz, Hogan goes through his progressions (he did this better than I've ever seen on Saturday night), and Stanford gets good route variety, with great spacing between all three receivers. A split second before SC's Rasheem Green crashes into him, Hogan makes a great vertical throw inside the numbers to true freshman Trent Irwin, who picks up 11 yards and the first down.
#2: On a 3rd and 8 with :24 left in the half, Stanford again returns to hits Trips Right Single Back Single Left (Lets call it "Money" from here on in) formation. Pressure flushes Hogan up the middle of the pocket where he then spins left and dashes for the left sideline. He beats Anthony Sarao (who'd inflict some revenge later) to the marker, hops past it on his way out of bounds, and sets Stanford up for a momentous half-closing touchdown on which Cajuste would bring no less than Adoree Jackson to his knees with an ankle shattering Ca-juke move that ended with him cradling the ball on the red turf of the west end zone. But none of that happens without Hogan's mad dash, which we all know by now is the key to #LettingHoganBeHogan.
#3: Stanford once more puts its MONEY on the field, and the SC defensive front lines up shifted under to the weak side. This would be crucial, as it would help create the throwing window to the opposite, and eventual play side. Cajuste as the middle man in the trips formation runs a quick square in and Hogan delivers it just in time for Devon to gather it and use his size to fall over the yard to gain. This was some next level stuff from Hogan, who'd not shown the ability to make a lightning-quick read and then execute an accurate quick hitter like this with consistency. Still, it was his kind of throw (do I even need to repeat it at this point?)
#4: Hogan got by with a lot of help from his friends, especially in the second half. On a 3rd and 2 from the USC 46 with the Cardinal down 28-24, Stanford went I Left with Double Tight Ends. Remound Wright took a toss from Hogan and Kyle Murphy pulled out to lead him to the edge. Dalton Schultz sealed off the play-side B Gap defender, but Chris Hawkins of the Trojans eludes Murphy's missile lock, leaving Wright by himself to make the play at the point of attack. Remound hurdles the USC defender, gets to the second level where Garnett and Marx have sealed the second level of SC's defense, and bursts up the left sideline for a gain of 22 yards before Cameron Smith can push him out of bounds.
#5: Hogan faced 3rd and 5 from the USC 41, and the Cardinal, sensing a blitz, lines up with twins right instead of its preferred trips in order to keep a pro set split back set-up for Hogan to maximize protection. The USC defense seems confused, as Lamar Dawson has his head turned away from the line of scrimmage after the snap. Hogan then masterfully looks the defense away from his intended target and hits Irwin on a comeback route on another great throw inside the numbers. Iman Marshall respected Irwin's speed on this play, allowing for the space Hogan needed to make the throw. Even after everything we'd suspected (again, look at my quote from July) about Stanford's skill position athletes, it was still quite impressive to see USC's athletes put on their heals by Stanford's playmakers. From Cajuste to Irwin to Wright to Christian McCaffrey, SC defenders seemed ill-prepared for the reality of Stanford's athleticism, and look at what I just typed for God's sake.
#6: ANYWAY, Stanford had 3rd and 6 on the USC 27 with the Cardinal holding a three point lead. Stanford goes five-wide with Trips Right and Twins Left. SC lines up in a Monster formation with five defenders at the line of scrimmage but with zero defenders over either A Gap. At the snap, Stanford pulls Caspers and Su'a Cravens and Greg Townsend Jr. barrel down the right side of the defense. Hogan looks left and Cravens leaves his feet for no reason at all. Hogan steps up towards the middle where defensive tackle Delvon Simmons falls, then as Hogan runs right up the middle, turns away from Hogan as he crosses the line of scrimmage. Hooper and Cajuste hold blocks downfield, allowing Hogan to gain ten yards and then get to the ground by his own impetus to convert. I don't know if this was some Jedi Mind Trick or Inception, but Hogan's Run put his guts on full display, as his ankle had been badly sprained early that half and he'd spent the rest of the night hobbling around between plays.
#7: Moments later, the Cardinal was in the soup again, this time with a 3rd and 4 that became a 3rd and 9 after a delay of game penalty at the USC 16. Stanford comes back to its Money formation (remember the talk before the game of Stanford streamlining the Terabyte-sized playbook? It sure seemed like it helped this week) and SC, for one of the few times all night, sends seven. Austin Hooper, who'd just owned the SC secondary all night, squares in from the furthest inside spot of the trips, and Hogan hits him in stride at the one-yard line. Stanford would take its first two-score lead two plays later. We wanted to see the tight ends showcased, and with Schultz and Hooper combining on seven catches for 119 yards, we got what we wanted. Make no mistake. Stanford has this personnel advantage over every single one of its opponents this year.
#8: Stanford saves its best for last in so many ways on this play. With the clock under five minutes and Stanford attempting to salt the game away, the Cardinal returns to a Twins Left Pro Set Single Right formation. The genius in this play is in all the little details. McCaffrey (you didn't think we were going a whole piece without #5 did you?) lines up to Hogan's left and Bryce Love, who'd had one catch for 21 yards at this point of the game, to Hogan's right. Love goes in motion at the snap and is at full speed into the left flat when Shuler's snap reaches Hogan. With two bottles of lightning on the field, the right side of SC's defense keys on Love. Hogan adds to the subterfuge by looking left towards Love. Meanwhile, Rector on the right side is taking Jackson up the sideline and clearing that side of a perimeter defender. Hooper runs up the seam on the left, forcing the linebackers to freeze and respect both Love bursting into the left flat and Hooper streaking up the left seam.
Meanwhile, Christian the Lion has blended into the rush for a moment, until he slips out into the right flat. Hogan turns and dumps it right into his hands. While all this is happening, Garnett, Shuler, and Caspers have formed a convoy, and McCaffrey bursts down the right sideline for stepping out of bounds after a 22-yard gain but not before he juked Hawkins literally off the field. And all this happened in seconds, with Hogan and the entire offense carrying out their duties with the same precision and power that they'd used to batter the Trojans' spirit all game long. Spectacular design, perfectly timed call, and flawlessly realized on the field. Stanford's eighth and final third down conversion (on 12 tries) of the night set up the Coliseum for the devastating climax, and set in motion as satisfying a denouement as the Cardinal had enjoyed in quite a while.
And so after an icing field goal from Conrad Ukropina, Stanford had ascended to the lofty expectations everybody inside and outside the program laid at their feet. That the team never lowered those expectations after the awful afternoon in Evanston is a testament to the guys who wear the cleats and the sideline polos, because certainly many outside the Cardinal locker room did. Stanford was confronted with the choice to evolve or die, and they evolved. But that's not telling the whole story. The Cardinal did it their way, by leaning on its talent in ways that enabled its playmakers to make big plays, but also by reaching back and reassuming a startling and refreshing resemblance to the dominant, Power-running teams of the past. Stanford's line blocked as hard and as well as they had in two seasons, and its running backs ran hard inside and outside the tackles. Stanford beat USC both wide and inside, and in so doing put on game film an offense that will be keeping defensive coordinators up into the wee hours from this point forward.
It was only Game 3, but it felt like so much more was at stake, certainly with the way 2014 crumbled after a loss in this very game. Stanford Football showed up in every possible way in Los Angeles, and they gave their fans a dazzling display of execution that took the best of the old and fused it with the breathtaking new. And at the center of it all, bridging the gap with his running and passing, was Number Eight. When expectations cannot be lowered, the only choice is to meet them, and on a perfect night in the City of Angels, The Cardinal's Heart and Soul upstaged the QB Who Would Be King. And so it was that one of the game's hallowed grounds bore witness not to the program's demise, but quite possibly the next rise of Stanford Football.
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