USC Football: Stanford Loss Raises Questions About Toughness
The Men of Troy fell, 21-14, on the road at Stanford in a grinding contest that featured the punishing hits and erratic quarterback play one would associate with an SEC game. But the biggest takeaway from this affair was how the Cardinal transformed USC into an embodiment of some long-standing perceptions about Pac-12 football -- high on flare, but short on the grit needed to come out on top in bruising encounters.
Quarterback Matt Barkley was sacked five times by a merciless and opportunistic Stanford defense that preyed on center Cyrus Hobbi, the injury replacement for Khaled Holmes. The battle down on the Farm was won and lost in the trenches, where the Trojans struggled to pound the ball against the vaunted Cardinal front seven and got pounded themselves on the defensive side.
The Trojans finished 1-of-13 on third-down conversions as Stanford forced Barkley into uncomfortable situations all night long. The Cardinal did not allow the Heisman hopeful time to set his feet and limited his big play opportunities.
With their 6-foot-2 signal-caller neutralized, the Trojans' running back tandem of Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd fared no better. The two of them churned out a combined 54 yards on 20 carries, as the USC offense finished the game with just 26 net yards rushing.
Head coach Lane Kiffin's squad had little success slowing down the run, too. Stanford used its ground attack to batter the inexperienced Trojans defensive line for 208 rushing yards on 37 carries, led by Stepfan Taylor's 153 yards and one touchdown.
Sloppy tackling allowed Stanford's offense to make third-down plays when it needed them most, like at the start of the fourth quarter when Josh Nunes' 13-yard scramble on 3rd-and-10 set up what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass to Zach Ertz two plays later.
USC rarely faced adversity in tossing aside lightweights Hawaii and Syracuse to start the season, leaving Stanford to play the role of bully to near perfection. The Cardinal defense allowed just 64 yards in total offense during a rare scoreless second half for USC and recorded nine tackles for losses in the game.
And on their last gasp, the Trojans were forced into a fruitless 4th-and-40 situation thanks to a couple of sacks and penalties -- a fitting predicament to end the game for a team that had been shoved backwards for nearly four hours.
It's still too early to write the Trojans off, considering the amount of talent on this roster. After all, running the table the rest of the way (with the possible opportunity of getting to play Oregon twice) could still keep them in the national title hunt, assuming the teams ahead in the rankings suffer letdowns.
But unless Kiffin's squad learns how to punch back after taking a haymaker to the mouth, then all this talk of USC's "unfinished business" could quickly shift into speculation over its Pac-12 title hopes being simply finished.
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