North Carolina 3, Clemson 0, first quarter. I know it's early, but I would argue the combination of a Stanford win and a UNC upset would put today in the conversation of the best-ever days for Stanford Football. Alas, it's now Clemson 7, UNC 3.
Cardinal bring out the counter to their rushing attack at the perfect time. It had been runs on 19 of 23 plays, and Barry Sanders looked dead to rights after taking a pitch toward the left, short side of the field. But Sanders flips to a reversing Christian McCaffrey, on replay we see Dalton Schultz running into the end zone and occupying the middle of the USC defense, and so it's Hogan who slips out to the right, toward the wide sideline undetected. McCaffrey throws to Hogan for one of the easiest touchdowns we'll have all year. Just a beautiful call.
Stanford 10, USC 0, 14:54 remaining, second quarter
I smell blood in the water as a short run, a false start and a throwaway lead to third and 12 for USC. On third down, Joey Alfieri comes through on a stunt to nail Cody Kessler, whose resulting throw lands yards short of its intended target.
Stanford with an opportunity now to seize firm control of this game (not to mention make an impressive statement to a playoff committee should UNC pull its upset). Card start with 13:34 to go in the second quarter and the ball at its 35. Card have run 19 times for 113 yards, nearly a six-yard average. Hogan is just 1-of-4 for four yards, so McCaffrey is your leading passer on the day thanks to his touchdown pass.
McCaffrey's also your leading rusher, and now seemingly by a mile, as he's blocked through to the second level untouched and then makes a freshman safety miss badly. Michael Rector couldn't quite block the last Trojan defender out of the play, and so he forces McCaffrey out at the sideline after a 50-yard gain. A touchdown here and it's a three-score game: third and three at the USC eight, what do you call?
David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren like the McCaffrey keeper as Barry Sanders motions into the backfield so that the Trojans can't key on McCaffrey. McCaffrey gains 3.5, first and goal.
UNC 9, Clemson 7 -- if only we had a time machine to advance time three hours from right now.
After a Josh Garnett false start (is that his first of the season?), Remound Wright takes the second and goal handoff from the seven to the USC one. Here's guessing he earns himself the next carry too. He does, but can gain only half the distance. I would go for the fourth and goal from the one-inch line -- we'll convert that 80 percent of the time, and make USC move the ball from there if we miss it. But instead, in comes Conrad Ukropina, and it's another three that feels a tad disappointing. If Stanford can keep winning the battle at both lines of scrimmage like it has so far, it isn't going to matter though.
Stanford 13, USC 0, 8:32 remaining, second quarter
59-yard, eight-play drive. Card have run 18 plays in the red zone alone tonight! USC from their 21, make that their 16 after 12 men on the field. Between USC shooting itself in the foot and Stanford pounding the rock, this one is reminding of the 2011 "What's Your Deal" game early.
USC takes the deep shot but Quenton Meeks comes through, breaking up against Juju Smith. You knew that shot was coming and was going to have a big impact on today's outcome, and Meeks stood tall there. The next snap, USC drops a slant that would have resulted in a third and managable. So it's third and 15 instead, and Brendan Scarlett gets home, dropping Cody Kessler at his five.
McCaffrey takes a short punt after two bounces and returns down the right sideline for 31 yards to the USC 19. The resulting yardage exactly ties him with Barry Sanders for the NCAA record. Bryce Love runs through a two would-be tackles for first-down yardage to the Trojan five, but then the USC red zone defense holds yet again.
McCaffrey runs twice to advance to the one, but then the Remound Wright dive is stuffed. We go for this fourth down, and there's a wide-open receiver in the end zone -- only Kevin Hogan can never get it to him because Trojan linebacker Porter Gustin doesn't bite on the handoff fake and drops Hogan back at the six. That Trojan defense has to be dog-tired though, and if Stanford can get off the field here, with the great field position, I'd like our chances to finally punch one in before the half. (We'll be forced to go two-minute, and we have been nearly unstoppable in that offense, besides.)
Clemson 14, UNC 9, early second quarter.
Instead, though, USC is starting to move the rock, and despite Stanford's dominance on the field so far, the Cardinal lead by less than two scores. It's conceivable that, if they were to score at the end of the first half, USC could actually take the lead before the Cardinal offense sees the ball again. Incredible given how one-sided this one has been so far. Of course, more likely than a 180 degree reversal from what we've seen thus far is more of the same.
An 11-yard run and a 16-yard pass move the Trojans to their 35, but a first-down run gains just two and the Trojans have to use their first timeout of the half. So far, USC has eight runs for 26 yards, compared to Stanford's 31 for 194. As we've said, dominance. Hogan is just 2-of-5 for five yards, but Kessler is just 2-of-8 for 12 yards, so basically a push there.
USC is across midfield though after a 13-yard run and a five-yard pass, so they're starting to move it a little bit here, now to the Card 41 on a drive that started at their six. Aziz Shittu with a TFL to force third and 13 on Justin Davis, one of USC's two-headed attack at tailback, and Shittu goes to the ground limping. He has to be helped off. Next to Kevin Hogan, guys on the defensive line are the most irreplacable players on the squad for the Cardinal given how thin the unit is. Won't hurt as badly with USC in two-minute mode, but may open up the ground attack for the Trojans in the second half.
Smith-Schuster makes an impressive sideline catch in front of Alameen Murphy to bring up fourth and short at the Cardinal 31. USC has two short gains in a row, both in-bounds -- so they get the first down, but they have to burn both of their remaining timeouts with 25 seconds left in the half and the ball at the Card 27. Smith-Schuster is forced out of bounds at the Cardinal 23 on a third-down checkdown, and this is a win for the Stanford defense, as field goals aren't going to erase a 13-point lead.
Stanford 13, USC 3, 10 seconds remaining, first half
Note that Stanford didn't score on fourth and goal, but because USC had to start at its six, they had to go 94 yards for a score, instead of, say, 70 yards had the Trojans started from the 30. Admittedly, I'm choosing my numbers strategically, as USC was able to drive it 71 yards before bogging down on their last drive of the half, but the point remains. Going for the fourth down may have cost Stanford three points on the drive -- but saved the Cardinal four points the next drive. Think we should always be going for those!
McCaffrey pads his return yardage to the 29, Hogan knees, and it's halftime.
Stanford 13, USC 3, Halftime
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