It was apparent Stanford had upped the ante before this 2012
campaign. There was a palpable hunger to fill massive shoes and
build the necessary strength to one-up recent glory.
Nothing has come to better symbolize this upward trajectory than the
rivalry with USC.
After Mark Bradford pulled down Tavita Pritchard's fade to secure
2007's unfathomable upset, a worthy encore in the Stanford-USC
rivalry seemed impossible. But then came 2009's 55-21 Coliseum
beatdown, and the Cardinal found something even more glorious.
That had to be it, right? It couldn't get any better than causing a
traffic jam on the Harbor Freeway in the third quarter.
Wrong. A heroic do-or-die drive as time expired added a legendary
chapter to the saga in 2010. Impressive, until the epic triple
overtime war of 2011, a stomach-turning nailbiter that made the
previous barnburners look like child's play and launched the entire
series into hyperspace.
The fairy tale was supposed to end with that. Andrew Luck left to
the NFL, and Matt Barkley returned in 2012 to complete "unfinished
business," armed with the greatest wide receiver duo in NCAA history.
It turns out that business will remain unfinished. The extra
physical work Gardner and his teammates invested this time shone
brighter than ever. After the Trojans scored early in the second
quarter to take a 14-7 lead, the Cardinal morphed into a foreign
creature, a kind recently seen only in SEC territory and at
Harbaugh's Candlestick Park. That extra muscle, that extra speed,
and that extra nasty were all unleashed in a furious Stanford
defense that was good enough to handily overcome its own sputtering
offense and USC's electric machine.
Quarterback Josh Nunes followed the Tim Tebow model. After a putrid
5-for-16, two-interception first half, the unthinkable started
happening. He scrambled for what David Shaw admitted were "shocking"
first downs while shaking athletic Trojan defenders out of their
uniforms. Unfazed by a handful of inaccurate balls downfield, his
37-yard laser beam to Zach Ertz left USC staggering, dazed, and
wounded with 10 minutes to play. Stanford Stadium pulsated as the
Cardinal grabbed a 21-14 lead. The maturation of a quarterback
unfolded in real time before 50 thousand shaking fans.
As the Trojans staggered, Stanford bled them to death. With freshman
Andrus Peat at left tackle, an offensive line in "Hulk" mode also
blossomed on the big stage, grinding away six minutes of clock
against a helpless USC defense as time waned. It was "character and
cruelty" at its finest, spearheaded by 153-yard man Stepfan Taylor.
The senior looked like the elder Barry Sanders early. (His 59-yard
touchdown run came in the teeth of a nine-man box and featured a
complete stop and direction change.) He looked like Toby Gerhart late. He
averaged 5.7 yards per carry while slipping through an offensive
line that generated greater and greater push against an athletic,
yet relatively undersized, Trojan front.
"It's just weight," Shaw said of his team's butcher shop-like
pounding. "It's mass. It's pure mass."
When it came time for the final kill, the Stanford defense put an
exclamation point on a legendary performance that will go down as
one of the finest in conference history. There was Barkley, the USC
golden boy projected by some to lead his team to a spectacular
50-point output, being body slammed by Trent Murphy. Two plays
later, Chase Thomas concluded the party with another violent
ransacking of the once-untouchable quarterback. The Trojans met
their grisly demise, crumbling in the face of a 4th-and-40 from which even
superhuman forces Marqise Lee and Robert Woods couldn't rescue Troy.
Barkley had been sacked only eight times throughout all of 2011, but
the Cardinal dropped him five times on this night (including former
walk-on David Parry's forced backfield fumble). The count must have
felt more like 10 to Barkley given the savage nature of the
takedowns. Josh Mauro and Ben Gardner also both got in on the party
in the backfield, while Henry Anderson used his length to deflect a
critical pass for the second straight week. As a whole, the
defensive line blasted USC off the ball. They shifted to take full
advantage of redshirt freshman third string center Cyrus Hobbi, who
filled in for the injured Khaled Holmes. Troy's starter dressed,
warmed up, and did everything in his power to play, but was just
physically not able to come to his team's aid.
After USC took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Stanford
defense kicked its play into a gear that had possibly not been seen
in program history. The Trojans' final nine drives, summarized:
fumble, interception, interception, time expiration (halftime),
turnover on downs, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs.
Brief injuries to both USC running backs, Silas Redd and Curtis
McNeal, helped kick-start the malaise while spectacular fireworks
from the Cardinal secondary helped make it permanent. Perhaps the
game's biggest play came courtesy of Stanford's sixth
defensive back with the Cardinal trailing midway through the third
quarter. The Trojans, unsure of walk-on kicker Alex Wood, opted to
go for it on fourth down with their kicking personnel group on the
field. Reserve nickel back Ronnie Harris, on the field goal block
unit, seized his moment of opportunity. He used full extension to
disrupt what looked to be a perfect touchdown strike from Barkley to
Soma Vainaku. A 21-7 deficit, which would have been near-fatal to
Stanford's chances, was avoided. Harris had saved the football game.
The tide turned.
In more conventional formations, Jordan Richards elevated his game
to an unprecedented level. The strong safety, who struggled so
mightily at times during his true freshman campaign, looked like one
of the best at his position in the conference. He
intercepted Barkley once, laid wood on larger USC tight ends
coming across the middle and complemented the solid, team-leading
tackling of Ed Reynolds and Terrence Brown (six stops apiece). Brown
picked off another errant Barkley throw, giving the Cardinal two
interceptions on consecutive defensive plays during a crucial second-quarter
stretch. The Trojan quarterback had thrown just seven picks in 446
attempts a year earlier.
As the game progressed, Stanford turned primarily to its veterans on
the second level. Shayne Skov (who laid wood even away from the
ball), Jarek Lancaster, A.J. Tarpley, and Alex Debniak combined with
Murphy and Thomas to limit USC to 26 total rushing yards. Despite
their large offensive line, top-flight backfield talent, and
legitimate passing threat downfield, the Trojans were not able
to muster even one yard per carry (0.9 per).
The resulting one-dimensional Barkley was toast. His USC team went
1-for-13 on third down. The Trojans were shut out for the final
two-thirds of the game. They were badly outpaced in the yardage
department by Stanford, too. The final tally, 417-285, was
especially shocking considering that the Cardinal spent
much of the evening trying to figure out how to move the ball
Time and time again in the first half, Stanford lit golden
opportunities on fire. The Cardinal wasted Ty Montgomery's
game-opening 64-yard kickoff return and squandered a first and goal
from the USC two yard line. In both instances, they came up
completely empty, thanks in large part to the disconcerting
struggles of kicker Jordan Williamson, who finished 0-for-3.
In the immediate afterglow of this victory, though, those concerns
were secondary. Because on this Saturday evening, sloppiness was
rendered moot. The superhuman Stanford defense overcame anything and
everything. On Pete Carroll's 61st birthday, no less, the unit
smothered USC and kept giving the Cardinal offense the gift of the
football. 21-14 the final, unlike anything ever experienced before
in Stanford football history.
To those who thought 2011's triple overtime epic was unbeatable, how
was that for an encore?
David Lombardi, a TV and radio
(95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and
Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on
KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford
calls and other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Are you fully subscribed to The
Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on
all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our
award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in
Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com