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The Rivalry is Alive and Well; (Lack of) Defensive Speed and Depth Exposed; Is North Really Better?

The play of the game, A.J. Tarpley sealed one of Stanford football's most exciting games in its 119-year history.
The play of the game, A.J. Tarpley sealed one of Stanford football's most exciting games in its 119-year history.

Good news, everyone!  Stanford bested the USC record 55-points scored against it had in 2009 by scoring 56 points this year.

If you had known that Stanford would beat its own record before the game against the Trojans, what would you have thought?  Would you have thought that Stanford would have won easily?  Or would you think that Stanford would have to eke out a triple overtime win in order to do it?

In what may end up being the game of the Pac-12 this year, in front of a (mostly) national audience and a sold-out Coliseum crowd of 93,607, the Stanford Cardinal defeated the USC Trojans for the third straight year, making it three straight times in the Coliseum and four of the past five years.  Who would have thought that just five years ago?

Stanford came out looking like it was ready for a battle early.  After losing the coin-toss, Tyler Gaffney pulled some acrobatic stunts around USC defenders to stretch into the endzone for a quick Stanford lead on its first possession.  That touchdown would prove critical as it was Stanford's only touchdown in the first half.

It quickly became evident that both teams' defenses were going to be the stars of the game.  After Gaffney's touchdown, neither team scored a touchdown.  Stanford held USC to two field goals while USC held the Cardinal to only one field goal, coming in the second quarter.  That field goal was courtesy of an A.J. Tarpley interception of Matt Barkley that would end up playing second fiddle to a later defensive play by Tarpley.

In fact, if there was a fault by any team before the half, it was Stanford's atrocious kicking.  After starting kicker Jordan Williamson strained himself in the pre-game warmups, Eric Whitaker was called in to play, and whether it was nerves or lack of preparation, Whitaker couldn't have chosen a worse time to kick a ball out of bounds, giving USC short yardage.  To add insult to injury, as Scott pointed out earlier today, Daniel Zychlinski kicked an 18-yard punt that gave USC short yardage within the Stanford 40.  For a season marked by a ridiculous amount of messed up kicks by opposing teams, it was Stanford that all of a sudden caught the error-kicking bug.

Special team woes aside, something happened at the half that perhaps Stanford had not expected.  In its seven games previous, whatever mistakes or slow starts that Stanford had in the first half were corrected and and improved upon immensely after the half.  With the Trojans receiving the ball for the second half, though, USC rode the momentum it had after kicking a FG to close the first half to score 14 unanswered points in less than five minutes against the Cardinal, putting Stanford in a 20-10 hole quickly.  For once, a team came out of the half with an even better response than Stanford, including a Curtis McNeal 61-yard run for a TD, and as a result Stanford had to play from behind for the first time this season.

Undeterred, though, as QB Andrew Luck would later recount after the game, this football team had immense faith in its starting quarterback to bring them back.  Sure enough, Stanford responded to the Trojans' opening barrage by firing off 14 points of their own.  From there, Stanford and USC traded off equivalent points for the remainder of regulation.

What made this game one of the most memorable Stanford-USC football games ever, though, was what transpired in the final 3:45 of the fourth quarter.  After Stanford kicked a game-tying FG (on a drive that included a very questionable Wildcat play on 3rd-and-8 for two yards) and then held Matt Barkley to only four plays to force a USC punt, Andrew Luck began Stanford's drive at his own 16.  Luck needed to move the ball downfield out of Stanford's territory before the offense could start up its power running game.  This in part explains why Luck threw (an incomplete pass) on first down.

After Gaffney rushed for a seven yard gain, Luck needed to get a Stanford first down or else he risked USC getting possession of the ball and running down the clock and kicking a field goal or scoring a touchdown to end the game.  Knowing this, Luck decided on a pass to get the first down.  Unfortunately for him, the star quarterback's Heisman hopes and Stanford's quest for its 16th straight win seemingly went up in smoke as Luck threw a half second too late to receiver Chris Owusu that instead was intercepted by SC's Nickell Robey.  For a touchdown.  After kicking the extra point, USC now held a 34-27 advantage and a charged up Coliseum crowd.

However, in a move reminiscent of last year's Stanford-USC thriller, the Trojans scored with too much time remaining on the clock.  In retrospect, it may have been more beneficial for Robey to not score on the interception and instead gone out or sat down short of the goal line and let Barkley take over.  In all honesty, at that point in the game, Stanford's defense was so gassed that it's hard to see them preventing a score by SC's offense.

After the pick-6, Luck redeemed himself nicely by driving down the field and giving the Cardinal the opportunity to score the tying touchdown on a Stepfan Taylor two yard rush.  It didn't come without a price, though.  Trojan defender T.J. McDonald clobbered Owusu (who else) with a helmet-to-helmet hit that left Owusu splayed out on the field.  As several people noted after the game, both here on RoT and around Palo Alto, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify having Owusu out on the field.  While he had some spectacular returns in '09 and is by far our most experienced WR, his concussions in last year's Oregon game coupled with the brutal hits in Arizona, Washington State, and now USC, a serious conversation must be had between Stanford's staff, Stanford Hospital, and Owusu about putting him back out on the field.

Following Stanford's tying touchdown, that's when the real fireworks started.  Stanford scored with 38 seconds remaining on the clock.  Barkley took control at his own 25 and knew that all he needed was to put the Trojans in FG range in order to get his first win against the Cardinal.  While Barkley was able to make mince meat out of Stanford's secondary with Robert Woods and Randall Telfer giving SC easy first downs all the way to the Stanford 40 yard line.  However, in a gaffe that has resulted in a merry-go-round circus of the blame game afterward, with only nine seconds remaining, Barkeley set up a screen pass to Woods with the intention that Woods would run out of bounds with the minimal amount of time remaining left for a game-winning field goal.

Unfortunately, there was a major miscommunication breakdown somewhere as USC still had two timeouts remaining.  All Woods needed to do was run forward as close to the first down marker as possible, get down (with more than a second remaining), and then one of the SC coaches could call a timeout to stop the clock.  Instead, Woods ran towards the near side, and in a fortuitous break for Stanford, was down in-bounds with only a second remaining, preventing head coach Lane Kiffin from calling a timeout (despite his protests that he had a verbal agreement with the line judge that if one second remained on the clock at the end of the play, USC would use one of its timeouts before time expired).  Because of Woods' failure to get out of bounds, upon review, the referees determined that time ran out and that overtime was necessary.

From there, three overtime periods were played that saw both teams score touchdowns on the first two overtimes.  On the third, Luck handed the ball off to Taylor again, who gave Stanford a 54-48 lead.  A Coby Fleener connection on a mandatory 2-point conversion resulted in a 56-48 score.  At this point, it was clearly evident that both offenses and defenses were simply tired, and unlike the 2010 game, instead of the game coming down to who had the ball last, it became who flinched first.  On USC's second play of the third overtime, Terrence Stephens knocked loose the ball out of Trojan RB Curtis McNeal, who fumbled it forward into the endzone where it was recovered by Tarpley, and a nearly four-hour game finally ended.

Let's get a few things clear here: USC is a good team that is worthy of respect.  Despite its early season misfires against ASU and Minnesota, the Trojans have gotten immensely better within the past two weeks.  Add to the fact that USC matches up very favorably against Stanford (the combined point total in regulation in 2011 was only four points off from the 2010 total) and it's very easy to see why Stanford and USC played to three overtimes.

Concerning officiating, it was some of the worst of the season for both Stanford and SC, and that's including Stanford's game against Washington State.  There were extremely favorable spots for both teams, missed calls on both sides, and very inconsistent penalty calling.  A holding against SC in the first overtime was equalized by a blatant pass interference by Stanford in the end zone, yet neither penalty was called by on-field officials.  Blaming the refs for going to 3OT or for USC losing would do an extreme injustice to the amazing game that occurred.  However, after Larry Scott promised to clean up officiating last summer, its now appearing that officiating is worse than it has been in recent memory for all conference teams.

Going forward, Stanford now has an extremely important game against the Beavers.  Lose, and Stanford's season quickly becomes clouded with trips to Pasadena or even San Antonio on the line.  Win, and, well, let's just cross that bridge if we come to it next weekend.  For now, Stanford desperately needs to improve its defense.  It became clear that it can't keep up with speedy offenses on defense, and without Shayne Skov and Delano Howell in the lineups, Stanford's depth issues become glaring problems.  Coupled with a trip to Corvallis that has ended many a top-ranked Pac-10's team dream run (just ask USC and Cal for a reminder) and this game against Oregon State is far more critical than perhaps some of us fans are giving it credit.  Stanford has exactly four games left in the season to improve its defense and prevent the kind of shellacking that happened in the Coliseum Saturday night, although to have the kind of season that many a Stanford alum has only dreamed of prior to this year, it may only have one game left.

Stanford 56, USC 48

As an added bonus this week, here's one view of how Stanford students back in Palo Alto treated the win against USC, seen through the eyes of a freshman.


For many Pac-12 followers, it seemed a given that the North division was better than the South.  But with Cal's loss to UCLA and Oregon State's loss to previously winless in the conference Utah (as well as Washington State's loss to UCLA earlier in the season), does the North have more depth?

Washington State 28, Oregon 43 -- While the final score indicates a 15-point win for the Ducks (one of their smallest margins of victory at Autzen in the past three years), it was clear that Wazzu wasn't going to win this game from the get-go.  However, in a development that doesn't bode well for Oregon, the Cougars outgained Oregon in the air and on the ground.
Colorado 14, Arizona State 48 -- What more can be said about Colorado?  The Buffs extended their road game futility with the loss to the Sun Devils in Tempe.  For ASU, the question now is who can stop them from a seemingly inevitable march to the Pac-12 Championship Game?
Oregon State 8, Utah 27 -- Utah fans rejoice: the Utes finally won a conference game.  How did they do it?  The same way they won their other games -- by minimizing turnovers.  For the Beavers, it was a big step backwards after surprising Washington State in Seattle, with things looking gloomy for OSU with remaining games against Stanford, Washington, Cal, and Oregon.
Cal 14, UCLA 31 -- Wouldn't you know, UCLA continued it's Jekyll-and-Hyde personality by responding to having several starters suspended by defeating rival Cal in the Rose Bowl.  Cal now needs two wins in its final four games, with many in the media stating that if they don't win next week against Wazzu, it can effectively kiss its bowl hopes goodbye.  The Bruins, meanwhile, are an upset win over ASU away from being in the drivers seat for winning the Pac-12 South division.
Arizona 31, Washington 42 -- The Huskies were perilously close to giving this game away in the first quarter, but behind a monster game by Chris Polk, who had over 100 yards rushing and receiving, Washington was able to put away the Wildcats, setting up a phenomenal closing game at Husky Stadium against Oregon.  Arizona, though, is reeling.  After a blowout win against the Bruins, the Wildcats followed up with a loss so typical of their other losses -- fall behind and play catch up in the second half.