The USC Trojans football team dropped their first game of the season to Stanford in Palo Alto on Saturday, marking the first time USC has lost four straight to the Cardinal.
It wasn’t quite as shocking a loss as many have claimed; Stanford was ranked, after all, and they’ve had USC’s number the last few seasons. Losing to a ranked opponent by one touchdown on the road isn’t really an upset; it is, however, a blow to USC’s national title hopes and to Matt Barkley’s Heisman campaign.
So what went wrong?
The Stanford defense manhandled USC’s offensive line.
The Trojans were without fifth-year senior center Khaled Holmes, who was injured in the game against Syracuse. USC desperately needed him; redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, who got the start at center, just couldn’t stand up to Stanford.
Having Holmes would’ve helped, but he’s not the entire solution. When he was on the field against Syracuse, Barkley still didn’t have time to throw downfield.
On Saturday, Hobbi struggled as the Cardinal repeatedly drove at the middle of the line, but he wasn’t the only weak link.
Redshirt freshman Aundrey Walker, who replaced Matt Kalil at left tackle, has his predecessor’s size but not his experience and couldn’t protect the quarterback, and right guard John Martinez also let one of Stanford’s defenders get right to Barkley.
Last season, USC surrendered just eight sacks. On Saturday, Barkley was dropped five times. There’s always going to be some letdown when a fourth-overall NFL draft pick is replaced by a redshirt freshman, but the line play was such a huge concern that head coach Lane Kiffin is considering starting true freshman Max Tuerk over Walker.
During preseason, Kiffin praised Tuerk as the freshman who was most ready to play; he got a lot of reps during camp when Walker was injured. Walker didn’t have any career starts prior to this season either, so there won’t be a huge drop in experience if Tuerk gets a shot this week.
USC had no rushing attack.
Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd combined for 54 yards on 20 carries, but the Trojans netted just 26 rushing yards in the game, gaining less than a yard per carry (26 yards on 28 attempts). Stanford, by contrast, had an almost perfectly balanced offense, with 202 yards on the ground and 215 in the air.
Both McNeal and Redd missed chunks of the game with mystery ailments, and fortunately, both were able to return, but they didn’t do much. A lot of their struggles, of course, are related to the problems on the O-line, but Redd’s lost fumble – his second in three games – didn’t help.
Matt Barkley had a lousy game.
Kiffin said afterward that Barkley’s two interceptions (on consecutive passes, wrapped around a Stanford INT) were “probably two of his worst decisions” in the last few seasons. Barkley had a rough night but it’s hard to blame him. Who wouldn’t be in a hurry to get rid of the ball and get out of the way of the brutal Cardinal defense?
Barkley had two interceptions but no touchdowns, for the first time since November 2010, and he was just 20 of 41 for 254 yards, although those stats would undoubtedly have been better if he hadn’t been beaten to a pulp all game. He should probably consider himself lucky that the biggest injuries were to his pride (Stanford is the only Pac-12 team he hasn’t beaten) and his Heisman hopes.
They couldn’t convert on third down.
USC converted just one of their 13 third downs in the game. One. Stanford and head coach David Shaw just out-coached and out-maneuvered the Trojans. The Cardinal almost always seemed to know what was coming and how to defend it. USC, on the other hand, didn’t seem prepared even when it was obvious what Stanford was going to do.
They couldn’t kick a field goal.
Couldn’t, or wouldn’t? With kicker Andre Heidari out, the Trojans have relied on freshman walk-on Alex Wood for PAT attempts but haven’t tested his field goal kicking in a game. Kiffin said if they’d had Heidari on Saturday, they would’ve kicked a 30-yarder when they had the chance. They went for it on fourth down instead, and while the coach didn’t say why Wood didn’t the kick, USC clearly doesn’t have much confidence in his leg.
The Cardinal running back needed just five rushing yards to hit the 3,000 mark, but he didn’t stop there. He had 27 carries (more than all of USC’s rushers combined) for 153 yards and a touchdown, on a 59-yard run. He also caught three passes for 60 yards and another score. Taylor accounted for more than half of Stanford’s total offense; like Toby Gerhart back in 2009, the Trojans just couldn’t figure out how to stop him.