PALO ALTO, Calif. – Stanford’s Kevin Danser was living an offensive lineman’s dream Saturday night.
“You finish your block and you’re on the ground, and then you look up and your running back is still going,” said Stanford’s guard. “Man, that’s a great feeling. How about that guy? Man, not a lot of people can do what 33 can do.”
That guy -- 33 -- is Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, who was the offensive catalyst in Stanford’s ugly-but-effective 21-14 victory over No. 2 USC in front of a sold-out (50,360) Stanford Stadium. Classes don’t start until next week, but that didn’t stop the students in attendance from rushing the field and celebrating Stanford’s fourth consecutive win over the Trojans.
It’s the second time in the past five meetings that Stanford has beaten USC when the Trojans were ranked second nationally. They did it in Los Angeles in 2007 on a last-minute touchdown pass by Tavita Pritchard, winning 24-23 when Stanford was a 41-point underdog.
Saturday night, the Trojans (2-1) weren’t as heavily favored, but they were still considered a grade above No. 21 Stanford (3-0). Taylor saw to disprove that. He chipped, chipped and then broke through. Then he chipped and chipped again. And then he broke through again. And when he was done chipping, he had broken USC’s defense.
“That guy is a rock,” said Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt. “I get to see his yards after contact because he usually blows right by me. And it’s impressive.”
Taylor looked like the best player on the field Saturday night -- not exactly a passing statement when he was sharing the field with USC quarterback Matt Barkley and A-list wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. Taylor rushed for 153 yards on 27 carries (5.9 average) and a touchdown to go with five catches for 60 yards and a score.
“We were going to keep giving him the ball,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “He never gets tired. He drags people, he breaks tackles. By one out-of-town paper I was called 'the king of hyperbole' [when talking about Taylor] but that is why I love talking about him. We typically like to rest him, but when we need him, I told him two years ago, we are going to put a saddle on him and ride him.”
And Stanford needed him Saturday. With a new quarterback still learning his way around the offense and a rebuilt offensive line, the Cardinal looked stilted at times on offense. Then again, so did Barkley, the Heisman frontrunner who probably lost a few voters with his 20-of-41 performance and two interceptions. But more damning to his campaign were the zero touchdowns -- almost unheard of with playmakers like Lee and Woods at his disposal. The Cardinal kept Barkley under constant pressure and sacked him four times.
“They played better football than us,” said an extremely despondent Barkley. “We were prepared. They played better.”
Taylor certainly had his share of highlights. His 59-yard touchdown run that knotted the score at 7-7 in the first quarter was pretty. So was his 23-yard screen pass that went for a touchdown, tying the score at 14-14 in the third quarter. But he saved some of his best running for the end of the game -- and he didn’t even get in the end zone. His 2- and 3-yard runs were turning into 7- and 8-yard runs by the second half. The final 8 minutes, 40 seconds was exactly the kind of football Shaw wants his team to play. The Cardinal started at their own 19 and pounded; Taylor for 1, Taylor for 7, Taylor for 2, Taylor for 8, etc., etc., etc. At the end of the scoreless drive, the Cardinal had run 10 plays and eaten 5 minutes, 56 seconds of clock.
The Trojans took over with 2 minutes, 44 seconds left at their own 11, trailing 21-14. But penalties and a pair of Stanford sacks ended the drive, and the game. The Cardinal threw all kinds of blitzes and pressure at Barkley all night -- and without starting center Khaled Holmes, the Trojans were unable to adjust.
“If you sit back there, the quarterback is too good,” Shaw said. “Regardless of what happened tonight, that is the best quarterback in the country. If you give him too much time, he will kill you. You have to get after him. Those receivers are really good. We had to mix it up. Some plays we came after him and some plays we sat back. Our secondary made all the tackles.”
For Josh Nunes, tasked with replacing Andrew Luck as Stanford’s quarterback, having a back like Taylor has made life a lot easier. He was 15-of-32 for 215 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He’s a quarterback’s best friend,” Nunes said. “This game was a testament to our style of football, the guys up front, and certainly Stepfan Taylor."