1Q: Card pounding away early (3-0)

The Cardinal have run all eight times this drive, now to the USC 14, and it's probably going to be nine straight on a fourth and inches coming up here. Have I mentioned how much I love us going for all these fourth and shorts this season? Remound Wright comes behind a fullback, and multiple extra offensive linemen -- nine blockers in total, and dives left for two to move the chains.

Pregame: Goodness, I almost forgot how big of a rival USC is. This is going to be fun.

Story time: We were not very good my freshman year (2004), while No. 1 USC had Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, and came back fairly uneventfully from a fluke double-digit deficit for a 31-28 win that was not as close as it looked. Anyway, during that game, the band counted how many times during the game USC played "Fight On", and I thought it was hilarious, because the count got into the 40's. It's at one and counting tonight, and we're not even to kickoff. Funny how a song -- or just a simple chord, repeated endlessly, to be precise -- can put you back to another place and another time, and get you ready for what is always a battle against what I consider our biggest rival. I think USC's the toughest out in the Pac-12 South this and most years, but is there anyone else you'd rather beat for a conference championship?

Some serious star power as Ken Margerum, Jim Plunkett and John Elway come out with Blake Martinez and the other Cardinal captains, decked out in the black unis tonight, for the coin flip. Stanford wins and will receive.

Is it just me, or any time I hear Brad Nessler call a game, do you also think you're listening to a college football video game, and not the real thing?

Switched over just as Golden State won their 21st straight. Have never been a huge NBA guy, but no professional team has ever started 21-0, so that's history in the making with a team that is revolutionizing how the game is played. Pretty cool.

Finally, Alabama has clinched a playoff spot as they wrap up a win over Florida, and the Tide remind me of Stanford. Their defense is obviously at the level of our 2013 or 2014 editions, as opposed to this year's, but their offense isn't the most creative, but darn does it work. Wear you down, wear you down, wear you down, pound the rock, control the clock, and then take the occasional play-action deep shot to bury the opposition late. All that to say Stanford's down to North Carolina for its final out if it hopes to make the College Football Playoff.

Start First Quarter

I think conference officials have, over the years, favored the big-name teams. Most Stanford fans who have watch us battle USC over the decades would certainly agree. Tonight, however, we're the big-name team with an outside shot at a playoff shot that would bring the conference tens of millions of dollars. All that to say I expect any borderline calls might favor the Cardinal tonight. Just something to keep an eye on.

I type that because USC commits two penalties early to keep Stanford's opening drive alive. The first is an offsides before the opening snap. The second is a light pass-interference call after two straight Stanford drops -- Michael Rector and Devon Cajuste at the USC one and the USC 36, respectively, both well-defended, but the receivers had both hands on both balls.

Christian McCaffrey returned the opening kickoff to his 32, and is over 40 rushing yards on this opening drive alone. The last six yards were the most crucial, coming on a third and five after a Kyle Murphy false start on third and inches at the USC five.

However, the Trojans come up big the next two snaps. First, Su'a Cravens gets upfield underneath Rollins Stallworth's down-block to drop Hogan for a seven-yard loss -- otherwise Hogan likely has the edge. Then, the black uniforms come to bite Stallworth and the Cardinal, as Stallworth's black gloves can clearly be seen grabbing Iman Marshall's jersey on a bubble screen to McCaffrey that goes for a touchdown. It's the right call, but silly me for thinking that Stanford might be getting the calls against USC tonight in the first place. Hogan draw gains just a few, so it's third and goal from the 12, and Hogan rolls right to buy time but then fires it away, past the outstretched arms of Rollins Stallworth diving in the end zone toward the right sideline. Frustrating series for Stallworth and the Card, who have to settle for three, and Conrad Ukropina makes it count on a 30-yard try.

Stanford 3, USC 0, 9:08 remaining, first quarter

Adoree Jackson hesitates in the end zone, but returns to the 32 on the strength of a fierce stiff arm. You saw it on the defensive end with Su'a Cravens blowing up that Hogan draw, and you see it now with Jackson's return -- Notre Dame and USC have athletes who can make plays that our other opponents simply cannot.

Stanford's D will have Ronnie Harris and Alijah Holder today, according to a Shaw interview pregame. If I were calling the plays for USC, I would take a few deep shots early and test those guys early. Put Stanford in a difficult position if it appears either is a half-step slow: either have a guy in your secondary who can be picked on all night, or sub back in the second-string unit that has struggled in the last few weeks.

USC, of course, is not without injuries themselves, and is down to a fourth-string center. The Cardinal defensive front gets pressure early -- tipping away a pass, stopping runs for short gains, and forcing the Trojans into third and longs. The first, USC converts as Kevin Palma can't get home on a third-down blitz, and Dallas Lloyd can't wrap up as Cody Kessler scrambled for eight. The second, Juju Smith-Schuster dropped, and then moved his punter back 15 yards by slapping at Ronnie Harris' helmet as Harris tried to help Smith off the ground.

McCaffrey runs on first and third downs to move the chains, but on second, it's Jackson again driving on the ball and breaking up a solid first-down ball to Trent Irwin that no defense we've seen thus far could have broken up.

But it's Stanford -- not USC -- that's running early, as Remound Wright has another great second-effort run, just this one isn't at the goal-line. Instead, it's a second-and-nine handoff that goes for nine to move the chains. Card with a 17-6 edge in plays and a nice, successful mix of play calls so far, all because the Cardinal have been winning the battle at the line of scrimmage so far tonight.

McCaffrey for 23 on a second and five handoff running right. The next snap, McCaffrey drags two USC linebackers for five yards to finish off an eight-yard effort.

Devon Cajuste leaves injured, and the cameras capture him grimacing on the sideline. The Cardinal have run all eight times this drive, now to the USC 14, and it's probably going to be nine straight on a fourth and inches coming up here. Have I mentioned how much I love us going for all these fourth and shorts this season? Remound Wright comes behind a fullback, and multiple extra offensive linemen -- nine blockers in total, and dives left for two to move the chains.

Earlier this quarter, Stanford used tempo to its advantage for the first time that I remember seeing. Christian McCaffrey took a direct snap quickly, before the USC defense was totally set, and got a six-yard gain for his efforts.

Mostly though, it's been all ground and pound. The defense got off the field, while the offense has taken two long drives for 113 rushing yards and counting, as Stanford has been surprisingly dominant on the ground. The Cardinal lead 3-0 after it was the USC defense that stiffened in the red zone, and will be threatening to extend that lead as we start the second.

Stanford 3, USC 0, End First Quarter


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