PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It is only Sept. 15, USC. Jan. 7 in Miami is 11 games away. It is entirely possible that you Trojans will run out of the tunnel at Sun Life Stadium and play for the school's third national championship in the last decade, give or take a vacated trophy.
On that happy night in south Florida, what happened at Stanford Stadium on Saturday will be a distant memory. Only the Cardinal fans will recall how No. 21 Stanford wore down a No. 2 USC diminished by scholarship penalties, injuries and the sheer physicality of the Cardinal on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
That is how the Trojans and their fans must think. They must forget the reality of their 21-14 loss before a sellout crowd of 50,360. They must tuck away the disappointment in losing a fourth straight to Stanford for the first time since the rivalry began in 1905. They must ignore the other possibility, that for all the attention paid to Matt Barkley & Co., USC only looked the part of a national championship contender.
The Trojans appeared real -- blond, good-looking quarterback, playmaking wide receivers, hype out the wazoo. This may come as a surprise to anyone outside the moviemaking capital of the world, but appearances can deceive. Hollywood's Team played Saturday night as if it had been constructed by a Hollywood set designer. Behind the façade, there wasn't a whole lot.
USC couldn't run the ball, couldn't kick a field goal, couldn't give Barkley time to throw and couldn't stop the Cardinal from moving the chains in the fourth quarter. The longer the game went on, the less effective the Trojans played. Their time of possession dropped in each quarter, from a high of 8:58 in the first quarter to a low of 4:33 in the last. The Trojans gained 64 yards of total offense in the second half.
"I'm surprised," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "At the same time, I'm not. I know what happened out there."
Before the season, Kiffin promoted his team as a national contender. He did so even as he admitted, because NCAA penalties have left him with only 71 scholarship players, that USC would need some luck to make it through a 14-game season intact.
That luck didn't last three games. As good as Barkley is, and as talented as wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are, it became obvious against Stanford that the one player USC cannot do without is fifth-year senior center Khaled Holmes.
Every team deals with injuries. But just about every other team has more players than the Trojans. Holmes wasn't the only one. Both tailbacks, Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, got banged up during the game. At one point, fullback Soma Vainuku lined up at tailback. Starting kicker Andre Heidari wasn't available. With a 14-7 lead, on fourth-and-2 at the Stanford 13, Kiffin chose to go for it. Vainuku couldn't hold onto Barkley's pass.
But USC missed Holmes terribly. He came out for the coin toss fully dressed and never set foot on the field again. Come to think of it, he lost the toss.
"If there was a game on the schedule you wouldn't want to be missing your senior center, this is it," Kiffin said.
Kiffin made that observation because of the depth and strength of the Stanford front seven. USC had no answer for the Stanford offensive front as well. The Cardinal pounded Stepfan Taylor (27 carries, 153 yards, one touchdown) between the tackles all night. The gains of one and two yards early in the game became seven and eight yards in the fourth quarter.
The longer the game went on, the more that Stanford used jumbo sets -- eight guys tight on the line of scrimmage.
"I'd say they were pretty tired toward the end," Cardinal tackle-guard David Yankey said. "That's what we love to do -- wear the other team down with the run game in the fourth quarter. We really grinded on them with the run game. We had a lot of good answers with big people, extra bodies."
USC tried to disguise its lack of numbers with schemes and gimmicks. On a few plays, senior free safety T.J. McDonald lined up at defensive end. But they couldn't disguise what Stanford head coach David Shaw described in scientific terms.
"It's just weight," Shaw said. "It's mass. It's pure mass."
Stanford heard and read all the hype about the Trojans. "ESPN was talking about USC and Stanford and not a word about Stanford," defensive end Ben Gardner said. Earlier in the week, Gardner said that this program had been more than "Andrew and the Luckettes."
"First of all, it was a great pleasure playing alongside Andrew Luck," Gardner said. "But I tell you what. There's a ton of talent on this team. There's a ton of heart and determination and guys that can really play football. Maybe some of that was lost behind No. 12. I'm just glad we were able to show it tonight with a great performance."
Gardner had one of the four sacks of Barkley. Two of them came in the final minute of the game. When Barkley and McDonald came into the media tent after the game, their jerseys had more in common than the No. 7. Barkley's jersey had as many grass stains as McDonald's.
Barkley appeared as disconsolate as any player who ever appeared in a postgame news conference. He spoke in a monotone, never looked up, and rarely made an attempt to answer a question.
"We were prepared," Barkley said. "They played better. They outplayed us."
Barkley sounded like a shell of himself. Then again, USC looked like the shell of a national championship contender. The Trojans needed only three games to learn that the hype about them couldn't match the reality of a 14-game season.