In the week leading up to this year’s USC-Stanford clash, USC head coach Clay Helton was talking up the Cardinal as the team that USC “wants to be” right now.
Saturday’s methodical 27-10 victory for No. 7 Stanford showed that those Trojans still have a long way to go.
The gulf between Stanford and USC wasn’t as evident as it was in, say, Alabama’s 52-6 trouncing of the Trojans two weeks ago. But you could tell by the way the Tunnel Workers Union pushed USC’s defensive line around for the final three quarters and by the way JuJu Smith-Schuster was essentially a non-factor and – especially – by the way USC punted in the fourth quarter while down 17 points that the Trojans were absolutely facing a better team and, more importantly, they knew it.
There wasn’t any fire. There wasn’t a big spectacle. There wasn’t excessive chippiness or showmanship on either side – as you’d expect from USC when playing Stanford.
There was, however, Clay Helton sitting in the postgame presser insisting that he was proud of the way the Trojans competed. There was Max Browne saying “we did a lot of great things.”
USC scored 10 points.
Can you imagine anything less USC-like? This is one of the proudest programs in college football history, meekly swallowing a three-score loss to a heated rival and pointing out the moral victories in their seventh loss in nine games to Stanford. Who are you and what have you done with USC?
Christian McCaffrey was “held” to 260 all-purpose yards in another stellar performance against the Trojans but contributed to the highlight reel (as usual) with a 56-yard touchdown pass on play action in the first quarter where he ran a wheel out of the backfield and the entire USC defense just… lost him. Kind of important to keep an eye on that guy, no?
More significantly, McCaffrey toted the rock 30 times for 168 yards on the ground. (Shaw: “Doesn't necessarily need 30 carries every single game, especially now that Bryce is back”). Major props to the entire offensive line, which had an up-and-down game against K-State but really ravaged the Trojans’ D-line (who refused to substitute --- why?) down the stretch.
Also a welcome back to Bryce Love, who ran 11 times for 54 yards and looked every bit the shifty and fast yet “big” back that we expected him to be upon his return. He almost broke free for a big touchdown in the third quarter after navigating through a sea of Trojans, ultimately getting tripped up by the last man standing.
How about that secondary? Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks looked incredible in space, making one-on-one tackles and holding JuJu to just three catches for 34 yards. Stanford dared USC to throw the ball, and its secondary was up for the challenge. The Cardinal got some great pressure up front from a pair of new faces – Casey Toohill and Mike Tyler – as well. The depth in this defense – well, it really runs deep. Bodes well for a stretch run.
It was honestly a bit of a surprise that USC chose not to just keep running the ball down Stanford’s throats given the lack of Harrison Phillips and the Cardinal’s consistent rotation at inside linebacker, especially given how well it was working in the early goings.
Max Browne didn’t actually have a bad game at quarterback, but the Trojans, confoundingly, didn’t choose to take advantage of their skill player weapons for big plays and chose to play more dink-and-dunk ball with Browne through the air. The Trojans clearly respected Stanford’s secondary – and the secondary clearly earned that with its performance tonight.
Stanford was the better team in all phases of the game. I knew it. Clay Helton knew it. David Shaw knew it. USC fans knew it. My grandma who doesn’t know what college football knew it.
On to UCLA.