Stanford, Calif. -- They're back and happy to be here. And happy to hand it to Stanford for the second straight year in a game that came down to the last whistle.
USC 13, Stanford 10.
Nothing else matters. One team wins. For the second straight year, that team is USC. A resilient USC team that despite having just 52 originally recruited scholarship players available didn't let its own mistakes and timidity at times, or bad breaks and bad calls, get it down.
They knew there'd be adversity, every single one of the Trojans said. They almost welcomed it. As a way to prove they were back. They said they knew bad things would happen to them, as they did-- again and again and again. They knew they'd have to stand in strong at the end, which they did.
But they couldn't know their defensive leader Hayes Pullard would be ejected in the third quarter. Or that AD Pat Haden would get summoned down from the pressbox to take up a discussion with the officials after a bizarre series that saw a delay of game on USC before Steve Sarkisian was hit with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the heels of Hayes' dismissal and penalty. And then Sark realized he had to go back to coaching.
In spite of his health concerns, Haden came down. And made some conversation although saying he really didn't do anything and that "things had been resolved by the time I got down there . . . but I feel a lot better now."
With Hayes exhorting his teammates to hang in there as he left, the Trojans defense with Michael Hutchings standing in for him, got the ball back after shaking it loose from Kevin Hogan on the next play and this one seemed to be turning back USC's way even if it was very much in the balance.
But what really mattered was that the Trojans did hang in there, gathered themselves and got stronger as the game went on. And did beat Stanford, ending the nation's longest home win streak at 17.
That was the plan, anyway. "We could have easily folded our tents," Sark said, "if we weren't a strong-willed team." But they were -- and are.
And a strong-legged team with Andre Heidari reprising his game-winner from a year ago with a career-best 53-yard field goal with 3:32 left after Buck Allen, completing a career-high 154-yards rushing game and getting the game-winning drive going from the USC 7 with runs of 14 and eight yards.
"They made plays and we didn't," Stanford coach David Shaw said. It was that simple. "Bottom line: You don't take advantage of opportunities, you lose games to good football teams."
USC will take that commendation: "Good football team." And they did what good football teams do.
Given another chance with exactly 7:00 left and tied, almost inexplicably with a Stanford team that had dominated nearly every stat but penalties, USC said "Thank you very much. Now that you've left it there for us after driving the ball inside our 35-yard line on every possession of the game and scoring just one TD, we'll take what you've left there for us."
There was a reason, Zach Banner said. "We're the best-conditioned team in the country." And the end of game was all theirs.
But it was more than that. USC was only the second Stanford opponent in the last 41 games not to turn the ball over. And despite running fewer plays in this game (59) than it did in the first half a week ago (62), USC figured out a way to win this one.
"Everybody believed," J.R. Tavai said after missing Hogan three times on scrambles before sacking him and separating the Stanford quarterback from the football on the Cardinal's final shot.
"A warrior effort," Sark said of the other defender who stepped up, Leonard Williams, on an ankle he wasn't certain he could go on after not getting it loose and tweaking it early. But after he was out a series and doing toe raises to get it right, the All-American came back to lead USC in tackles with 11 including a sack.
And they did it against a Stanford team that threw the kitchen sink at it -- "more personnel formations than any team in college football," Shaw said, "three tight ends, four receivers, five receivers, empty, three tight ends, three tackles on the field, . . . three receivers and two backs, three running backs in the backfield, two offensive linemen at tight end."
And managed just one touchdown. Sark said this was "the kind of game a coach I used to work for would call 'a beautiful win'."
As it was. At the end. When it looked like a youngish USC team was coming on and playing faster with more confidence than the home team that hadn't lost here in forever.
USC did it "probably stubbornly," Sark said of sticking to the run as the way to beat Stanford. In the end, with Buck becoming the first player to gain more than 100 yards against Stanford in the last 10 outings, they were right to be stubborn.
"This was going to be a possession game," Sark said. And against all odds against a Stanford team that dominated time of possession 33:47 to 26:13, USC managed to win that gamble.
"They said last year was a fluke," Williams said. "We wanted to show them that wasnt the case.
Not that they won't say that this one wasn't either. But two in a row would also seem to be a pattern.
"This team has come through so much," Kessler said. "These guys have been through a lot. You always hear me talking about it . . . These guys kept fighting. At the end of the day, it wasn't the prettiest win but these guys fought so hard and never gave up. As a quarterback, that's all you can ask from your team."
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