NCF Nation: Cardinal-Trojans 102911

Despite adversity, Cardinal prevail

October, 30, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- Atlas doesn’t carry this much on his shoulders. And yet, Stanford’s world keeps turning.

Stanford is still in the hunt. Still in the conversation. Still perfect on a night when the Cardinal were anything but. Still in the game when fate’s dice seemed so unbelievably loaded.

In an epic contest that made last year’s last-minute nail biter look like a Swedish massage, the Cardinal overcame three deficits before topping USC 56-48 in triple-overtime.

It wasn’t just the fact that they won. It was the burdens they had to carry on their way to victory lane.


  • For the second consecutive week, they were without safety Delano Howell (and he was missed).
  • Before kickoff, it was decided that kicker Jordan Williamson, Mr. Accuracy himself, would not play.
  • Before quarterback Andrew Luck even took the field, tight end Zach Ertz, one of his biggest and most reliable weapons, was lost for the game with an injury on the opening kickoff.
  • Add the weight of the nation’s longest win streak (now 16 games) and playing in a hostile environment with national championship aspirations and it would be easy to see how they’d collapse.

And they almost did.

But they didn’t.

“We talk about fighting adversity, but I didn’t know it was going to be this much adversity,” said head coach David Shaw. “But the kids fought through it and I love them to death for it.”

The Cardinal overcame their first deficit of the season – three deficits in regulation, to be exact – but fought back each time. They overcame injuries to three starting offensive linemen that cost all of them some time. And with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game, they overcame a horrendous miscue from Luck, their unflappable signal caller.

[+] EnlargeStanford's AJ Tarpley
Gary A. Vasquez/US PRESSWIREStanford linebacker AJ Tarpley celebrates after recovering a fumble in triple overtime to seal the victory over USC.
With the score tied at 27-27, the stage was set for Luck to march the Cardinal down the field for the go-ahead score. But even though we’re in sight of the Hollywood sign, things don’t always go as scripted. USC corner back Nickell Robey jumped Luck’s pass intended for Chris Owusu and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown and a 34-27 lead.

The weight could have been crushing. It wasn’t.

“I was very disappointed in myself,” said Luck, calling it a bad decision from the start. “There were a couple of seconds there when I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself. But the guys believed in me. For that I was grateful. I was happy there was still some time on the play clock to go down there again.”

And they did, moving 76 yards on 10 plays and capping the overtime-forcing drive with a 2-yard Stepfan Taylor run. From there, the Cardinal and Trojans went blow-for-blow until Taylor’s 5-yard score put them ahead and USC failed to answer, with Curtis McNeal fumbling into the end zone to cap the game.

“When a bad play happens, he goes completely down in the dumps,” Shaw said of his quarterback. “He’s so mad, so upset, so furious. Then it’s like flushing a toilet. He flushes it and it’s like it never happened and he moves on more determined. The look in his eye was ‘We’re going to get this done.’ That’s what he said. He went up and down and told everybody, ‘We’re going to get this done.’ He was so mad at himself. He was not going to let that play lose the game for us.”

Without Ertz, much of Stanford’s offensive identity is lost. The Cardinal’s three-tight end formations are as much their calling card as Luck.

“It’s probably 25-30 percent (of our offense),” Shaw said. “It's a healthy chunk. And we also have a lot of two-tight-end stuff. And between those two, it’s doggone near 50 percent. We had to count on other guys stepping up.”

To lose that significant portion of the offense right before it takes the field has to be daunting. There are game plans. Scripted plays. It would crush most teams. Right?

“We had to regroup and restructure part of our game plan,” said offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. “… It was a character-building game. Our group, collectively they do a great job of maintaining their focus. Tonight was a night where we had a lot of adversity … It’s a testament to the poise of our head coach. What you see is what you get. He never panics. I tend to get emotionally hijacked at times. He calmed us all down. Our kids feed off his temperament. It was a night when we were only as good as our last play and we were focused on winning each play.”

And then there was the kicker situation. An undisclosed injury kept Williamson out of the game. So it was up to Eric Whitaker – who was yet to kick a field goal in a game this season — to step in and perform. While he was shaky on kickoffs, putting two of them out of bounds, he made both of his field goals (33 and 29 yards) and converted all six PATs – including two in overtime.

The weight could have been crushing. It wasn’t. Not when the Cardinal fell behind by 10 points in the third quarter.

“We had talked all week about the fact that Stanford hadn’t had to go into the fourth quarter trailing,” said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. “Our goal was to keep it close and take the lead in the second half and see what happened. They haven’t been in that situation before.”

Now they have. Even when Luck’s pick-six put them in the hole, the players had overtime on their minds.

“We always talk about how adversity is an opportunity for greatness,” said defensive end Ben Gardner. “This was our first chance to show our mettle in the face of adversity. We got behind, but we never lost faith. It was a struggle, but when the time came, we made the plays.”

Video: Stanford OC Pep Hamilton

October, 30, 2011

Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton talks about the legend of Andrew Luck and the Cardinal’s big win over USC.

Video: Stanford OT Jonathan Martin

October, 30, 2011

Stanford offensive tackle Jonathan Martin talks about his reaction to the final play of the game and more after the Cardinal’s triple-overtime win.

Video: Stanford's Andrew Luck

October, 30, 2011

Andrew Luck talks to Chris Fowler after leading Stanford past USC, 56-48 in 3OTs.

LOS ANGELES -- Quick observations on an epic game in Southern California.

How the game was won: First, Stepfan Taylor scored from 2 yards out with 38 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 34-34. Then Taylor plowed in from 5 yards out in the third overtime period and Andrew Luck completed the 2-point conversion to Coby Fleener. USC’s Curtis McNeal fumbled to end the game.

Turning point: USC wide receiver Robert Woods failed to get out of bounds at the Stanford 35 as time expired. Despite two timeouts, USC was unable to get a field-goal attempt because Woods went for the sidelines rather than going down and taking a timeout.

Stat of the game: Two — the number of times Luck was sacked this game after being sacked just twice in the previous seven games. Both came on third down.

Best call: Stanford’s double-reverse, wide-receiver pass out of the wildcat. Running back Tyler Gaffney took the direct snap, handed off to Anthony Wilkerson on an end-around, who flipped it to Luck, who was lined up as a wide receiver. Luck then connected with Ty Montgomery for a 62-yard gain.

Unsung hero of the game: Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley played his best game of the season, notching an interception in the first half and finishing the game with nine tackles. He also recovered McNeal’s fumble on the game’s final play.

Second guessing: With Stanford knocking on the door, trailing 27-24 in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal went back to the wildcat on third-and-8 on the USC 13 with 5:20 remaining. Gaffney took the direct snap and ran for just 2 yards. Eric Whitaker converted the 29-yard field goal to tie the game, but I wasn’t a fan of taking the ball out of Luck’s hands at a crucial point in the game.

What it means: The Cardinal are still in the conversation for a spot in the national championship game.

3Q: Stanford 24, USC 20

October, 29, 2011
Sometimes, you just have to run the double-reverse, wide-receiver throw from the Wildcat formation.

The Cardinal have fought back from a 10-point deficit and re-taken the lead behind Andrew Luck and a little offensive innovation. First, Luck hooked up with fullback Ryan Hewitt on a 5-yard touchdown pass to cut USC's lead to 20-17.

On Stanford's next possession, running back Tyler Gaffney took the snap in the wildcat, handed off to Anthony Wilkerson, who then flipped it to Luck, who started off in the wide receiver hole. Luck connected with Ty Montgomery for a 62-yard gain. After converting a fourth-and-1 at the USC 4, Luck finished the drive himself, leaping in from 2 yards out to give Stanford the lead.

3Q: USC 20, Stanford 10

October, 29, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- There's the running game.

After it was essentially non-existent in the first half, USC's running game has come alive early in the third quarter behind a pair of Curtis McNeal touchdown runs. He came out on USC's first drive and went 61 yards untouched to give the Trojans a 13-10 lead. It was the first time all season the Cardinal have trailed.

After the Cardinal failed to convert in their own territory when Andrew Luck was sacked, and following a shanked punt, McNeal went in again from 25 yards out.

USC looks completely dominant and for the first time this year, Stanford looks fragile.

USC holding up on third down

October, 29, 2011
USC owned field position in the first half against Stanford. It also got the Cardinal off the field on third down.

Stanford was just 3 of 7 on third down in the first half. It was 2-2 on its lone touchdown drive. The Cardinal entered the game converting on 54 percent of its third-down plays, which led the Pac-12.

As for field position, Stanford started three possessions inside its 20-yard line. The Trojans started three on their 40 or better.

Stanford had made great halftime adjustments all season. Will that pattern of second-half dominance continue?

Or with the Trojans notch the major upset?

The first half was about defense. Wonder if a quarterback will step up?

Halftime: Stanford 10, USC 6

October, 29, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- Some observations from the first half of Stanford-USC.

Turning point: There were two. First, when Zach Ertz went down on the opening kickoff. Stanford's offensive identity revolves around the three tight ends and the way they are used schematically. A large portion of the playbook gets lost when those three can't be on the field at the same time. The second turning point was A.J. Tarpley's interception, which led to a Stanford field goal.

Stat of the half: Seven rushes, 25 passes for USC. It appears the Trojans think they can get it done in the air rather than on the ground. They haven't abandoned the running game -- but they certainly haven't put much emphasis on it. USC quarterback Matt Barkley is 14-of-25 with 127 yards.

Best player for Stanford: Tarpley is having a whale of a half. He had the interception, forced a fumble (which was recovered by USC) and has six tackles from his middle linebacker position.

Best player for USC: Kicker Andre Heidari appears to be the only kicker who can do something against the Cardinal. Kickers in previous games were just 2-of-11 on field goal attempts. Heidari hit a 22-yarder in the first quarter and then nailed a 50-yarder in the closing minute of the first half.

2Q: Stanford 10, USC 3

October, 29, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- Midway through the second quarter, the Stanford Cardinal continue to punish opponents for committing turnovers.

A.J. Tarpley intercepted Matt Barkley, which led to a 33-yard Eric Whitaker field goal.

The Cardinal are now 12-of-12 on the season turning turnovers into points -- with 10 touchdowns and two field goals.

1Q: Stanford 7, USC 3

October, 29, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- Tough start for Stanford. On the opening kickoff, tight end Zach Ertz came limping off, leaving the Cardinal without one of their "Big 3" tight ends. By the end of the first quarter, he had a brace on his right leg and he was on crutches.

But that still didn't stop Andrew Luck from completing his first five passes on an opening drive touchdown march that spanned 83 yards and ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Tyler Gaffney.

Stanford has thrived this season with its three tight end formations. Will be interesting to see how they move forward the rest of the game and what this does to their overall offensive scheme.

USC -- after punting on its opening possession, moved deep into Cardinal territory but were turned away (and the Cardinal might have gotten away with a pass interference) so the Trojans settled for a field goal.

Woods looks ready to go for USC

October, 29, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- Couple of quick notes before USC and Stanford kickoff.
  • USC injury questions: Wide receiver Robert Woods looks good to go, as does kicker Andrew Heidari. Running back George Farmer, however, is sporting a boot and won't play.
  • Lots of future NFL players on the field. Seven NFL scouts on hand, including two from the Atlanta Falcons. Also with scouts in the press box: Green Bay, Houston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and the New York Giants.

My guess is that USC coach Lane Kiffin lets it all hang out Saturday night.

Expect to see some trick plays. Expect for him to go for it on fourth down a bunch. I expect the Trojans to come out goosed early. That might include an early lead.

Know what would be a big confidence builder? If the Trojans could get an early sack of Andrew Luck. The Cardinal has yielded just two sacks this season, fewest in the nation.

Further, with Stanford missing safety Delano Howell, it's hard to believe Kiffin isn't going to be looking for every way possible to free Woods up in space and see if he can make something happen in the Cardinal back half.
LOS ANGELES -- Should today's Stanford-USC game mimic last year's contest -- which the Cardinal won on a last-minute field goal -- it might not be Jordan Williamson doing the kicking.

The Stanford kicker will be a game time decision, according to a school spokesman, who did not elaborate on the injury.

On the season, Williamson is 11-of-12 on field goals. His only miss of the season came on a 47-yard attempt against Colorado.

If Williamson, who also handles kickoffs, is unable to play, Eric Whitaker will handle the kicking. Williamson did not take any kicks during pregame warmup.

Ironically, it was Whitaker's older brother Nate who hit the 30-yard field goal as time expired last year to lift the Cardinal to a 37-35 victory at Stanford Stadium.

USC-Stanford: Who owns the lines late?

October, 29, 2011
LOS ANGELES -- Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is almost certainly going to be the No. 1 overall pick in this spring's NFL draft. USC quarterback Matt Barkley is likely to follow him some time in the first round.

So the quarterback matchup between the No. 6 Cardinal and 20th-ranked Trojans is a good one. You might have read something about that this week.

But as big a role as those two figure to play -- last year they combined for six touchdown passes and no interceptions -- it's as likely we will be pointing at something else as the reason for how this one ends up in the Coliseum.

Let's skip the first half then and ask this question: How well will the USC run defense be holding up halfway through the third quarter?

The Trojans have been good against the run this year. They rank second in the Pac-12 in run defense -- behind Stanford -- and they shut down Notre Dame's running game last week. But they've yet to face a team that runs like the Cardinal. Or, more important, blocks like them.

Often a team runs early to set up the run late. The idea is that a front-seven is juiced early but wears down due to repeated body blows. Stanford wins a lot of games by TKO. Ask Washington, which yielded 446 yards to the Cardinal last week and looked utterly whipped by game's end.

The Trojans only rotate about six defensive linemen. How will they be holding up as we close in on the fourth quarter? Will those 3-yard runs in the first quarter become four-, five- or 10-yard runs? And will that cause the defense to start leaning forward, setting itself up for Luck to beat it over the top, either with his three outstanding tight ends or speedy wideout Chris Owusu?

Or, might the Trojans hold the line? It's not a matter of shutting down the Stanford run game. It's about making enough plays on first and second down that Luck faces tough chunks on third down. Both teams don't go three-and-out often -- they, in fact, have the lowest percentage of three-and-out drives in FBS football -- but Stanford leads the Pac-12 in third-down conversion rate at 53.4 percent.

If USC can push down that number close to 40 percent, that means its defense gets off the field and rests. And more touches for Barkley and wide receiver Robert Woods, who will be running around in a secondary expected to be missing safety Delano Howell.

It also, of course, would help if the Trojans aren't one-dimensional against the Cardinal defense. Washington gashed Stanford in the running game in the first half last week. Perhaps the Huskies revealed some vulnerabilities in the Cardinal front?

Football is all about the line of scrimmage. You hear that often. But it will be worth watching to see who owns it when the screws tighten in the game's final 20 or so minutes.

If the Trojans' big bodies can at least approach a stalemate, then the Trojans' fast guys -- of which they have more than Stanford -- can become difference-makers.

Perhaps upset makers.