Almost Is Not Enough

This is what they mean by "bittersweet." Seldom has there been a sweeter first half of football in Stanford Stadium than the 28-17 surprise unleashed by the Cardinal against #1 ranked USC Saturday evening, but there are also few 30-minute stretches more bitter to swallow than the scoreless second half that ended in a 31-28 defeat. Here is the wild tale of two halves from the Pac-10 opener...

It was a dream first half for Stanford Football, racking up 291 yards of offense and scoring 28 points to shock a national college football audience.  The Cardinal coaches had two weeks to prepare for the defending National Champion USC Trojans, and that preparation looked apparent on both sides of the ball.  The offense was methodically moving the ball against the vaunted Pete Carroll defense in ways nobody had yet seen in 2004.  The running game softened up the defense just enough to give redshirt sophomore quarterback Trent Edwards room to throw short high-percentage completions to move the chains and set up scores.  A few surprise big plays helped to spark the scoring margin further still.

On defense, Stanford allowed Heisman hopeful Matt Leinart to complete at a high clip himself, and for bigger gains.  But timely stops held the #1 ranked Trojans to just 10 points through most of the first half.  The SC offense was far from "stuffed," but they were limited by a smart scheme and playcalling by defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff.  Moreover, the Stanford offense held on to the ball for so long the first two quarters that Leinart and company scarcely had chances to answer.

Up 28-17, and making plays in all three phases of the game, Stanford looked inspiring going into the locker room.  For the first time in years, the home crowd was so impressed and overwhelmed by the effort and execution that they rose to their feet for a standing ovation.  Even in the Rose Bowl run of 1999, there was never such a halftime display.

But all that was rosy at Stanford Stadium Saturday night wilted in the second half, as Stanford managed just 12 third quarter offensive yards and 24 fourth quarter offensive yards.  The good guys picked up only two first downs all second half.  The first came on an Edwards scramble on the first possession of the third quarter; the second came on a six-play drive that moved the ball only out to Stanford's own 33-yardline on the final Cardinal possession of the game.  Stanford held the ball 12 1/2 minutes in the second half and converted 1-of-6 on third downs.

Meanwhile, USC continued chipping away at the Cardinal defense.  They never erupted, as many prognosticators figured would happen in this putative mismatch, but they had a low hurdle to clear with Stanford going scoreless in the final 30 minutes.  Down 11 points at the half, SC trailed all the way until the ninth minute of the fourth quarter.  They took a 31-28 lead on a two-yard LenDale White run into the endzone and held on easily for the last 6:15 for the win.

It was a slow and excruciating death to watch unfold.  While it is true that Stanford has seen some leads slip away the last two years in the rocky Buddy Teevens era, there has never been such a dazzling display against such a formidable opponent that has faded so dramatically into the ether.  Emotionally, it was a crushing and bitter loss to swallow.

"We played well there for a quarter and a half, but unfortunately a football game is not a quarter and a half long," lamented Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards afterward.  "You work so hard in the off-season to build to something like this... It just kind of rips your heart out."

"The bottom line is that [USC] made plays in the second half when it mattered the most," commented wide receiver Evan Moore, who led Stanford with 47 yards and one touchdown on five receptions.  "One big play and we win the game.  One big drive."

Truthfully speaking, there were many skeptical Stanford fans who approached this game like a bicycle at the base of Mt. Everest.  There was supposedly enough of a mismatch between USC's talent, depth and coaching against that of the Cardinal that some fans were hoping to see something respectable.  They hoped to see palpable reasons to believe that Stanford belonged on the same field, after getting their butts handed to them in each of the last two meetings with the Trojans.  Critics reminded us the last two weeks that a 2-0 start with wins over San Jose State and BYU may mean nothing, and this USC game would be the real litmus test.  The loss stings, and it will sting for not just days or weeks, but probably years to come.  But many observers walked out of Stanford Stadium this evening with their heads high that they had witnessed a moral victory.  They had a team to believe in again.

"That's not the way it works here," Moore snipped at the mention of a moral victory, however.  "We want real victories."

"We want guys to be really disappointed with the loss," echoed Buddy Teevens afterward.  "We showed that we've got some athletes, some guys who can compete - some guys who care about each other.  But we do not take solace in coming close.

The successful first half did not start out so well for the home team, as they deferred the kickoff to the second half and were mowed down by USC's offense on the first possession for 69 yards.  The only thing that held the Trojans out of the endzone was a late stand at the goalline by the Stanford defense, pushing SC backward two yards on three plays after a 1st and Goal at the two-yardline.  Junior cornerback T.J. Rushing started the stand with a tackle behind the line of scrimmage on LenDale White, and then a blitz from fifth-year senior safety Oshiomogho Atogwe forced an incompletion that was nearly picked off by redshirt junior linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann.  The third down saw another Atogwe-induced hurry, but the pass this time hit its target, only to see SC tight end (and infamous Stanford one-time recruit) Alex Holmes drop the ball at the goalline.  The field goal was a minor victory for Stanford, but the Cardinal offense seized none of the momentum.

Trent Edwards went under center in nice field position after an exciting Marcus McCutcheon kickoff return, but the "O" went backward 20 yards in three plays and punted.  The intent was for offensive coordinator Bill Cubit to mix things up and show the vaunted Trojan defense some new formations, personnel groups and plays.  The first play from scrimmage put four receivers on the field, stacked on both sides, and the pass was completed for a short gain to sophomore Mark Bradford.  On second down, Cubit went with a "big" lineup by putting three tight ends on the field in and running the ball from a power formation.  It picked up six yards but a holding penalty on the offensive line erased the gain and 3rd and short to instead present 2nd and 18.  Cubit was undeterred and looked long, as he had Edwards throw to a streaking sophomore Evan Moore down the field.  Moore had his cornerback beaten but was a half-step short, the ball trickling off his fingertips.  Third down was a mess as USC brought pressure and forced Edwards to throw the ball away in what would be flagged intentional grounding.

The next series, Edwards picked up Stanford's first first down of the day on a 19-yard scramble on 3rd and 9, but two plays later he stared down Moore, his favorite target, on a little crossing pattern.  The ball was on target, but the 6'7" sophomore wideout could not get there because Trojan cornerback Kevin Arbet read Edwards' eyes as the quarterback stared down his target.  With a nice break after the read, Arbet picked off the pass and ran 66 yards for a near-touchdown, saved only by a racing Moore who caught him from behind.  It mattered not, though, as USC scored on the first play with an easy two-yard strike in the endzone.

Down a quick 10-0 and having far more gaffes than good on offense, Stanford looked like they might be headed for a repeat of the 2002 and 2003 blowout losses to their 99-year rivals.  They moved the ball on their third offensive possession, but again they were plagued by mistakes.  On first down, fifth-year senior tight end Alex Smith lined up at fullback and then caught a pass at the line of scrimmage and rumbled up the field for a first down, but he fumbled as he was hit.  The ball was surrounded by a handful of cardinal and gold jerseys, a sure turnover, but redshirt sophomore tight end Matt Traverso made a lunge into the USC pile and miraculously secured the ball to complete the shaky 17-yard gain.  Two plays later, it was another completed pass that ended in a fumble.  This time Bradford caught the ball and ran for a first down, only to have it stripped as he was gang tackled.  Moore was the man to jump on this loose ball.  Even with their first tastes of success, the execution was more sour than sweet for Stanford.

But after a mix of runs by redshirt junior J.R. Lemon and completions to classmate Justin McCullum, Stanford steadied the ship and found themselves in the red zone.  A pass in the middle of the field to Smith gave the Card 1st and Goal at the three-yardline.  On second down, they brought in a "Jumbo" power formation with an I-formation in the backfield and two tight ends on the right side of the line.  Moore was split wide on the left as the only receiver, and the defense guessed a running play.  The Trojan defenders all came toward the line as Edwards took a quick drop and lofted a fade pass to the back left corner of the endzone, with Moore in just single coverage.  The pass hit the 6'7" sophomore perfectly for the touchdown, fittingly completed against Arbet in coverage.

Stanford had struck back and showed that they would not wilt, though few in attendance had an idea of just how hard they were about to strike.  USC went three and out on their next possession, giving Stanford the ball on their own 24-yardline after a booming Tom Malone punt.  What followed was a very impressive 14-play drive that covered 76 yards and consumed a full half a quarter of clock.  This drive lacked any big plays that picked up chunks of yardage, but it instead moved the ball with high precision steadily down the field.  Edwards was a surgical 9-of-10 on the drive, with his longest completion going for just nine yards.  The only double-digit gainer was a run by fifth-year senior Kenneth Tolon.  Equally impressive and unusual was the fact that the first six gainers of the drive put the ball in six different sets of hands.  The 14-play effort culminated in a critical 3rd and 1 at the two-yardline.  Stanford lined up in a triple-I set, with sophomore Patrick Danahy and redshirt junior Kris Bonifas set in front of Lemon.  Play-action and the multi-directional spread of the three backs confused the Trojan defenders, leaving Danahy open on the right side of the endzone for a touchdown reception.  The Cardinal took the lead for the first time in the game, 14-10, with 6:03 remaining in the half.

The Stanford offense got the ball back in a hurry once again, this time without all the hassle of three downs and a punt.  Matt Leinart connected with Steve Smith 27 yards down the field for what momentarily looked like a big gainer, but Smith was sandwiched by sophomore safety Brandon Harrison and redshirt junior linebacker Jon Alston and coughed up the ball.  Redshirt sophomore linebacker Mike Silva, in the first start of his college career to replace suspended fifth-year senior David Bergeron, dove to catch the ball before it hit the ground.  Real-time it looked like an interception but was officially ruled a reception and fumble.  Either way, Stanford had the ball back again, with their shortest field of the half at USC's 33 yard-line.  The offense sputtered a little this time, requiring a tough 10-yard Bradford reception on 3rd and long to move the chains.  The next set of downs, Stanford stalled at the 11-yardline and faced 4th and 2.  The field goal unit came on the field for a 28-yard attempt, but redshirt junior quarterback-turned-holder Kyle Matter had something else in mind.

Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn had studied USC's field goal block unit and thought he saw a weakness his guys could exploit.  Just as it was drawn up, the designed fake had Matter roll out to the right side while two "blockers" went in motion as receivers.  Bonifas curled underneath and ran to the left side of the field, while Smith ran in front of Matter.  It was a run-pass option play, and Matter saw enough green plus Smith's block to keep the ball.

"We like Kyle in that position because he makes good decisions," praised Teevens afterward.

Smith laid out a block on the one Trojan defender who had a chance to make a play on Matter, and then the nimble fourth-year quarterback took a leaping dive to the corner cone.  He just made it inside for the touchdown, putting Stanford up by a stunning 21-10 score.  The 21 unanswered points by the Cardinal fell in line with what they had done in their first two games of the year, with slow offensive starts and then big scoring explosions.  Against San Jose State and BYU, Stanford scored 36-0 and 37-0 runs, respectively.

The top-ranked Trojans would not lay silent, however, in the face of this Stanford insurgence.  They held on to the ball on their next possession, and marched decisively down the field 66 yards in just six plays.  They went to a hurry-up offense as the clock ticked away late in the second quarter, and on three straight plays they picked up first downs with double-digit yardage pass completions.  The final scoring play came as All-American candidate all-purpose back Reggie Bush took the ball up the middle on a running play and then improvised to bounce it back outside for a 17-yard score.  SC had their answer and tightened the game to a 21-17 score, with just 52 seconds remaining in the half.

Stanford had yet to show a big play offense that could possibly move the ball far enough down the field in that little time to be a threat, and their hopes were further dampened when for the first time in the game, Ryan Killeen put his kickoff unreturnable out the back of the endzone.  Rushing and McCutcheon were both dangerous threats that could possibly have given Stanford a shorter and more reasonable field to attack, but with 80 yards of green and only 52 ticks on the clock, it was no surprise to see the Card conservatively hand off the ball.  The dim hope of a quick ground gain was darkened when Edwards had to go down to the ground after a missed handoff on a broken running play.  The clock was now under 20 seconds with a field of 82 yards ahead, so the handoff went to Lemon for a simple inside draw, which has been run countless times the last three years on The Farm.  Lemon is known as more of a power back than a speedster, but he bounced through the line and suddenly was past the third level of the USC defense and off to the races.  He could not be caught and reached paydirt with 0:00 left on the clock.

After 30 minutes of surprises and twists, this was the biggest stumper of all.  Not only did Lemon race for an uncharacteristic long gain that few could have predicted, and in doing so record the sixth longest touchdown run in Stanford history, but he had single-handedly erased the USC score that had tightened the game less than a minute earlier.  Going into the locker room, the unranked Cardinal had seized again full control of the momentum in the game, and it brought the fans in the stands to their feet.  28-17 was a score that was quickly being repeated on media outlets all over the country, and it was immediately the story of the college football weekend.

The second half story was just as dramatic, but for all the wrong reasons.  Stanford's offense sputtered as USC brought defenders closer to the line of scrimmage to take away both the ground game and the short passing game.  The Card floundered like a fish out of water for the last 30 minutes, sniffing just one chance.  On their first possession, which came right out of the locker room given the coin toss deferral decision, Stanford started in USC territory after a Rushing kickoff return of 54 yards.  Stanford picked up a first down on an Edwards scramble to put the ball down at the USC 32-yardline.  But a costly holding penalty marched the Card out of field goal position.  Those possible three points were the difference in the final score.  To make matters worse, Edwards was sacked by speed rush linebacker Keith Rivers two plays later.  Stanford punted away and never again tasted the USC side of the field.  They went three and out their next three possessions and moved the ball only a token amount in their final possession before succumbing on a failed fourth down on their own 33-yardline.

"We couldn't do anything productive on offense in the second half to keep [USC's offense] on the sideline," said Teevens in summation of the second stanza fizzle.  "We had too many three-and-out's and put too much pressure on our defense."

The debate and analysis of this game will stretch for some time to come, but the 2-1 Stanford Cardinal have to quickly regroup for the visiting Washington Huskies (0-3).  Though this game looks promising for the good guys on paper, there is a real risk of an emotional hangover.  Stanford just put two weeks of preparation into this USC game, and emotions peaked in anticipation.  To have such a magnificent win slip from your grasp in this manner hurts tremendously.  There is no time for mourning as the next preparation begins already on Sunday for the Huskies, who Stanford has not beaten in the last 10 years.  The Cardinal have beaten their Northwest nemesis just twice in the lifetimes of the eldest seniors on the current roster.

"We have a very businesslike mindset - not a lot of highs and lows," Teevens commented on the emotional reset his team needs.  "Pre-game there was not a lot said in the locker room.  It's easier to recover with a mindset like that."

Complete game box score: USC 31 - Stanford 28

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