Expectations are curious things. Just ask USC, a team carrying expectations of a national title, Heisman Trophy, and historically good offense. In just their third game of the season, the Trojans buckled under the weight of these expectations, all but ending their chances of fulfilling any of them.
Stanford knows a little something about expectations. Last year, Andrew Luck was expected to take the Heisman with ease, but he fell just short (again). Without Luck, this year's squad looked ill-prepared for the expectations of a top-25 team in week one against San Jose State, but rebounded with a better performance against Duke.
This week, the Cardinal finally played a game with hardly any expectations. Of course the team and its fans still believed in Stanford, but outside the Bay Area, roughly 99.8 percent of the pregame talk focused on the visitors. It made sense; on paper, USC has the best offensive trio in recent memory, and the Trojans appeared to be as talented as any team in the country coming in. Say what you will about preseason rankings (and trust me, I hate them) but you don't get to No. 1 in the nation for nothing.
So for once, Stanford wasn't expected to do much. And if you really think about it, there haven't been too many games like that recently. In fact, I think you could make the argument that Stanford hasn't had a game with less pressure since 2009, when another highly ranked opponent (Oregon) made its way to Stanford Stadium. And I don't think it's any coincidence that those games had a lot in common: highly ranked conference team comes to Palo Alto with big-name players, Stanford is on the rise but no one is sure how much, two teams trade blows all game, Stanford comes out on top, rest of the nation is shocked, Stanford isn't. If you switch offense and defense, these two games were nearly identical.
But before we pretend that this is just a case of the media not giving Stanford enough credit, let's be clear: Stanford did not play to anyone's expectations. If you're sitting at home smugly remembering how you predicted this exactly right, you're kidding yourself. No one knew it would happen like that, least of all me.
I thought Stanford would lose, and I know I was far from alone in that thought. In order to beat USC, I thought Stanford would need to do several things right: put tons of pressure on Matt Barkley, get a consistent push on the offensive line, avoid mistakes, get a few breaks, and capitalize on every opportunity.
These seemed like reasonable expectations, until you consider the fact that for much of the game, Stanford failed to accomplish any of these, yet the Cardinal still came out on top. Hearing sports talk after the fact, people seem to be under the impression that Stanford just blitzed Barkley all day and pounded out a win by being too physical for USC. That is a severe case of people framing the upset how they expected to frame it. If Stanford wins, it will be because of X, Y, and Z.
But of course, Stanford didn't play to expectations. Through the first 34 minutes of the game, the Cardinal got exactly one sack, and that came on one of USC's touchdown drives. Stanford had run 14 designed rushing plays and had just one carry for over six yards and nine carries that netted three yards or fewer. Josh Nunes was 7-19 for 80 yards and two interceptions, and Stanford had failed to score following all three of USC's turnovers. Oh, and Jordan Williamson was 0-3 on field-goal attempts.
So the fact that the Cardinal was even in striking distance at that point is beyond all expectations. The main reasons Stanford was in the game at all were Stepfan Taylor's incredible touchdown run and an excellent job of tackling and coverage by the Stanford defense. Yes, I just said that. The front seven shutting down the running game was crucial and somewhat expected based on the team's talent and recent history there. The secondary giving Barkley nowhere to throw and the receivers nowhere to run after the catch? No one, and I mean, no one expected that.
After Trojan fullback Soma Vainuku couldn't hold on to a touchdown catch on fourth down in the third quarter, the game changed. Suddenly, the Cardinal started winning the battle on both lines of scrimmage, and every college football writer in America pulled out their "if Stanford wins" template for the recap. What people overlook, and what is probably the most unexpected part of the whole game, is that Nunes unequivocally outplayed Barkley for the rest of the game.
In fact, he outplayed him for the whole game, but particularly the final quarter-and-a-half. In crunch time, Nunes's stats: 8-13, 135 yards, two touchdowns, no sacks taken. Barkley's stats: 5-13, 49 yards, no touchdowns, three sacks taken. Who's the Heisman favorite again?
Still, as expected, Stanford won in large part thanks to the best player on the field: Stepfan Taylor. Not counting the final kneel, the Cardinal ran 68 offensive plays. Taylor had the ball in his hands on 32 of them, accounting for 213 of Stanford's 417 total yards and two of its three touchdowns. For comparison, USC's two best running backs, Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd, and two best receivers, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, combined for 192 yards and two touchdowns and a turnover on 32 touches. In other words, Stepfan Taylor singlehandedly outperformed USC's top four skill-position players.
The win elevates Stanford from "trying to replace Andrew Luck" to the No. 9 team in the AP poll, and with that spot comes a whole new set of expectations.
So what should our expectations be for this team? Some people thought this team would struggle to make a bowl game, and now some are talking Pac-12 title. Stanford quite literally has a tough road ahead, with six of its final nine contests away from home. The task will be difficult immediately, as the Cardinal's next three games - at Washington, vs. Arizona, at Notre Dame, come against teams with a combined 8-1 record. Stanford has four games left against teams that are currently ranked, and three of them will be on the road. And let's not forget, the Cardinal likely cannot win the division crown without beating Oregon, the team that's had Stanford's number in recent years.
Of course, if Stanford plays like it did against USC, who knows where this team can go? If there's one thing we can expect, it's that this season won't go the way we're expecting.