It's hard to lose a game when you play better than your opponent on both sides of the ball. On Saturday, that was the case.
Stanford outgained USC 413 to 291, and dominated in time of possession 33:47 to 26:13. Stanford executed their clock-grinding scheme so well in the first half that USC only had four possessions (including a one-play kneeldown right before the 2nd quarter whistle). But Stanford still managed to lose. This was partly due to several key mistakes, such as costly fumbles and missed field goals, but it also put the spotlight on the Cardinal's rebuilt o-line.
Stanford lost four starters from its very effective 2013 o-line, which was arguably the best unit not only in the conference but perhaps in the country. Andrus Peat, the lone returning starter, is widely regarded as one of the best offensive tackle prospects in college football. The new faces beside Peat - Johnny Caspers, Graham Shuler, Kyle Murphy, and Joshua Garnett - are all experienced juniors, and all played last season as backups.
However, this new unit has made some costly mistakes so far. Through the team's 14 games in 2013, the Cardinal line committed five penalties, excluding false starts: an illegal block against Washington and holds against Utah, UCLA, Notre Dame, and Michigan State.
In the opening drive of yesterday's game, Stanford committed two penalties, a hold by Peat and a trip by Caspers. These penalties shot the Cardinal offense in the foot. After taking the ball 48 yards for a 2nd and 9 at the USC 21 on the opening possession, the two penalties pushed them back to a 2nd and 32 at the 44. Jordan Williamson then proceeded to cap the drive by missing a 49-yard field goal attempt wide left.
On the Cardinal's next possession, after conceding a touchdown to the Trojans, the o-line was again partly responsible for a missed opportunity inside the 25. Lined up in a wildcat set at the 13, Shuler snapped the ball over Ty Montgomery's head. This resulted in a disastrous loss of 16 yards, pushing the Cardinal back to the 29. The offense couldn't make up after the mistake, and rather than have Williamson attempt another field goal, David Shaw ordered up a Ben Rhyne punt that resulted in a touchback and netted a total of nine yards.
However, the positive takeaway from the offensive line's performance was their performance against the pass rush. Although an injury to All-American lineman Leonard Williams and a third quarter ejection of star linebacker Hayes Pullard may have helped the o-line, USC sacked Kevin Hogan only twice. Unfortunately, those sacks came at the least opportune time for the Cardinal. On the final drive, down 13-10 with a 2nd and 3 at the USC 22, Williams broke through and sacked Hogan for a three yard loss. On the next play, Williams lined up in the middle of the field, and at the snap Caspers pulled to help block the middle of the field. However, USC brought a blitz from the left side, leaving Peat to take on both Antwaun Woods and JR Tuvai. Tuvai got to the quarterback, blindsiding him for a strip sack that was recovered by USC's Scott Felix.
Although the offensive line made these mistakes and a few others, their performance wasn't the only reason for Stanford's stinging loss. If Rhyne's punt had taken a nicer hop, USC would have been backed up in their own territory. The normally surefire Williamson missed two field goal tries. The Cardinal had a -2 turnover differential, uncharacteristic of a team with a strong defense and a conservative offense. But it's also fair to say that as the season goes on, if Stanford wants to bounce back from this loss and contend for the Pac-12 title, the o-line must show more cohesiveness and discipline.