Don't let people fool you though. The first half of this game wasn't the blow out that many people are claiming it to be. The Trojans forced the Cardinal into a 4th and 29 situation on their first drive and intercepted Trent Edwards' second pass on their second drive. This game was all but over after those first two drives. The Trojans were leading 10-0 and had the game well in hand as the Cardinal started their third drive of the game. Don't get me wrong, the Cardinal still had a lot of game left and could still put something together in front of a raucous home crowd; but at that point in the game, the Trojans were one big play away from putting the Cardinal to the ground and applying a cleat to their collective throat. And then it happened. After a completion to Alex Smith on the drive's first play, the Trojans forced a fumble. There was the game. A "W" sitting on the ground, waiting for the Trojans to pounce, but instead, Stanford recovered it and kept the drive alive.
Evan Moore brought his team a little momentum with a nice one-handed catch down the sideline on the game's next play. However, Stanford was determined to lose this game as Mark Bradford couldn't hang onto the ball and fumbled exactly one play later. Again, the game was sitting there on the turf. When the Trojans couldn't capitalize on it, they ended up giving up seven points eight plays down the road.
Had the Trojans recovered either of those fumbles, there is no doubt in my mind that USC would have gone up by 17 points and been well on their way to yet another lopsided victory the likes of which we hadn't seen in, well, a week. Instead, the Cardinal found themselves within three points and realized they had the ability to move the ball against the Trojan defense.
Some credit has to go to a Stanford team that found itself in a game with the nation's number one team and held on for as long as it could. However, it was really a series of flukes that allowed the Cardinal to be in the game at all. Along with those two fumble recoveries, Stanford converted a fake field goal, recovered a Trojan fumble and had an improbable 82-yard touchdown run to cap off a ridiculous half of football that had Pete Carroll throwing his hands up and no doubt searching for the reset button.
It wasn't so much the halftime speeches in the Trojan locker room, or Pete Carroll's defensive adjustments that made the second half of the game revert back to the kind of football Trojan fans are used to. It was simply the fact that 20 minutes had gone by and the stars were no longer aligned in Stanford's favor.
During the second half we saw how physically and mentally dominating this Trojan team can be. If I ever had to have three yards late in a game, there isn't an offensive line in America I'd rather run behind than this one. While there are about 116 defenses I'd rather run against.
The calm nature of the Trojan comeback was something remarkable to see as Matt Leinart and company seemed to know exactly what they needed to do to just inch in front of Stanford at the wire to claim the victory. I'm not sure how the team stayed so poised while I was screaming through the television set, but I'm glad they could tune that out. This team has shown the ability to rise to the occasion no matter who the opponent or whatever force is working against them.
In this game, the Trojans demonstrated yet again that they are more than capable of weathering the storm in the opening quarters while finding their opponent's weaknesses to exploit later in the game. While a three point win goes into the win column the same as a 30 point win does, maybe next time the Trojans could pounce on one of those fumbles and save me about five years on the back end of my life.
Pete Carroll: The first game ball goes to Trojan head coach Pete Carroll. He kept his team focused even when anything that could go wrong did go wrong. This team has taken on his attitude. They have fun playing football and know when to get serious and buckle down. At this moment, this team is not where it is (4-0) and this program is not where it is (defending champs), without Pete Carroll.
Matt Leinart: Matt Leinart gets a game ball because he stayed cool and collected while leading his team from behind for two late touchdowns, scoring one of them himself. He took a couple of sacks that you wouldn't normally like to see, but when you're playing quarterback roulette with three bullets labeled sack, interception and intentional grounding, you'll take the sack every time. Leinart also put up over 300 yards passing and a touchdown while throwing no interceptions. I'll take those numbers every time as well.
Reggie Bush: I'm just going to leave Reggie Bush's game ball in the locker room because I'm not going to be able to catch him to present it to him. When Matt Grootegoed leaves I think Bush should bump his number up one because every time he touches the ball, that's all you have to say: "six."
Buddy Teevens: Cardinal coach Buddy Teevens doesn't escape without a game ball. With Evan Moore at wide receiver and an 11 point lead, the Cardinal really did have a shot at holding off the Trojans. I mean, did you see that one-handed catch Moore had down the sideline? How do you not throw jump balls to this guy 30 times a game? He's half a foot taller than almost every defensive back in the nation and can haul in high passes like he's picking apples from the tree tops. The fact that Moore wasn't even looked at in the second half has to be mind boggling to Cardinal fans. It was as if Teevens called the fake field goal, stuck around for the halftime interview and then watched the rest of the game in the locker room.
The TBS announcers: Game balls to the announcers. They did a good job of shifting excitement from the initial Cardinal upset to the eventual Trojan comeback. Also, they get a ball simply because I didn't have to sit through things like, "All teams should go back to putting names on the backs of their jerseys," and, "Shhhtanford ish looking for the upshhhhet."
Thomas Williams: Thomas Williams gets a game ball for that hit he put on T.J. Rushing during the last kickoff return. Had Stanford returned that the way they'd been returning all day, getting into field goal position and eventually tying the game wouldn't have been out of the question. However, the hit by Williams pinned the Cardinal at their own ten yard line and set the tone for the defense's last stand.
Me: I'm giving myself a game ball because I've never gotten one before and I want one. Besides, one of the things you're not going to find in the stat sheet was my crucial decision to switch from the green papasan chair to the white recliner during halftime.
Fred Davis: I'm giving a ball to the entire receiving corps later, but this one goes to Fred Davis. He hauled in the first of what promises to be many receptions of his Trojan career. I have a feeling he's going to find himself being split out wide more times than not during the season's remaining games.
The receiving corps: I promised it and here it is. If you caught a pass against Stanford this ball is for you. That means Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett, Alex Holmes, Chris McFoy and David Kirtman, (Reggie Bush and Fred Davis already have theirs). There were some big catches turned in by this group. From Alex Holmes' outlet catch and rumble for 25 yards, to Dwayne Jarrett getting rid of the dropsies to Chris McFoy's incredibly clutch catch to give the Trojans a first down on their way to the winning score, this group played about as well as anyone could have asked. It's just in time too, because a formidable passing game will make all the difference against Cal and on down the road.
Ryan Killeen: Ryan Killeen gets a game ball, so put your hand down and stop your whining. Killeen made five kicks in this game. He was responsible for seven points. If he's making his extra points and putting his kickoffs in the end zone, I'll take any extra points he puts up. He's not going to make every kick he takes, but this Trojan offense should score enough touchdowns to win any game.
The Trojan Defense: The entire unit gets one game ball because the unit is judged on how well they play together. I'm not quite sure why people are talking about this game like Stanford handled the Trojan defense and Trent Edwards picked them apart. If you take away the fluke 82-yard run, the Trojans allowed less than 250 yards of offense and under 65 yards rushing, which will win you pretty much every game (unless you're playing Ohio State). However, they earned this ball with the absolute clinic they put on in the second half where they pitched a shut out and allowed something like .005 total yards. Nine times out of ten, this defense will fall on one of those fumbles and will be all over that run up the middle. It's said that defense wins championships. Well, in this case, defense wins game balls.
Offensive Line: Last but not least, a game ball goes to the offensive line. It's partly because they played exceptionally well during crunch time, moving the pile for extra yards and willing the Trojans to a victory, and partly because I don't want any of them upset with me for not getting them a game ball. The line really has improved by leaps and bounds since that Virginia Tech game of oh so long ago. What's really impressive about the line is its collective strength and stamina. If this Trojan team is constantly able to run the ball for eight and nine yards in the fourth quarter, I don't know how big of a lead is safe for the opposing team.
This Trojan team is amazing to watch. There's an exciting mix of game-proven seniors and talented freshman looking to make their mark. It'll be fun to see how they continue to react to playing games as the number one team in the nation. That bulls-eye is getting bigger and bigger each week. However, after the bye this week, the hunted becomes the hunter as they will look to turn the Coliseum into a trap for those Northern Cal Bears.
Erik McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org