Jaffe: Stanford-USC transcends (most) numbers

Oct. 31, 2011, 1:32 a.m.

Saturday marked the zeroth anniversary of one of the most thrilling and memorable games in Stanford football history. Stat on the Back looks at how it all went down at the Coliseum.

Number of the game: 0, as in the number of statistics that can accurately describe the madness that was Stanford vs. USC.

Let’s be clear: I love stats. I mean, really, I have an unhealthy obsession with everything from third-down conversion rate to punt-return defense. Every time I watch a game, I find every random stat I can, and I have yet to meet a person that cares half as much about the stats I babble as I do.

That said, this game was less about stats than any game I have ever seen. This game was about intangibles and grit, momentum and fight, hostile environment and motivation and every other term I usually ignore. In most games, a play-by-play and box score can tell you everything you need to know, but in this one, you had to be there. You had to be a part of that atmosphere, and you had to see the drama unfold to understand just what took place.

Let’s be clear on one thing: the fact that Stanford very narrowly beat a USC team that has somehow flown under the radar should not diminish anyone’s view of the Cardinal.

For one thing, USC is a high-caliber team with NFL talent overflowing on both sides of the ball. There could be three top-10 picks on the offense alone, as quarterback Matt Barkley and left tackle Matt Kalil are projected to enter the draft this year, and wide receiver Robert Woods will be among the nation’s best prospects when he is eligible.

Just as importantly, USC had as much intangible benefit as I could imagine in this game. While I usually downplay the importance of things like “motivation” (doesn’t everyone want to win every game?), I changed my tune after seeing the Trojans. The local radio before the game was abuzz with the most anticipation fans had had for any game in years. People have talked about USC having nothing to play for, because the Trojans cannot make the Pac-12 Championship Game or a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions.

Immediately upon entering the Coliseum parking lot, it became apparent that this game really was “USC’s Super Bowl.” ESPN’s College GameDay brought an even greater media presence than usual to USC football, throngs of fans filled the Coliseum and the players were as riled up as any team I’ve seen for a regular-season matchup.

After taking a second-half lead, the Trojans did their best Georgia impression, acting as though each and every player had just won the lottery at the exact same time. With over 25 minutes to go in regulation, USC players were jumping on benches, huddling up and screaming along with their tens of thousands of fans.

Call it what you will, but there was little doubt that the Trojans were playing at their peak effort level all game long. USC, with or without sanctions, usually has the best talent on the field no matter what team it plays, but the issue can sometimes be effort. There was no lack of energy from USC from the first snap to the last, and that makes USC nearly impossible to beat, especially with the home crowd providing such support. Add in huge momentum boosts for the Trojans—chief among them being the pick-six by Nickell Robey in the waning minutes—and it would take a miraculous effort by the Cardinal to pull out the victory.

And that’s just what happened. Now, don’t get me wrong. Stanford was far from perfect—very far. Penalties, bad play-calling, poor throws, dropped passes, bad blocking, missed tackles, bad special teams play…to say there was room for improvement is an understatement. But as the saying goes, big-time players make big-time plays, and that’s just what the Cardinal did.

Looking forward, many people question how Stanford can compete with an even better opponent (Oregon) when the Cardinal struggled so mightily with USC. The notion of a transitive property—for those of you far removed from math class, that is the idea that Oregon is way better than USC and USC almost beat Stanford so Oregon should beat Stanford—does not hold true in the sports world.

Oregon is a very different team with very different matchup problems from the ones offered by USC. The game will be played in a much different atmosphere (Stanford Stadium) with different personnel (such as Delano Howell, hopefully) on a different week (12 days away and counting). Previous results give you an idea of what a team will do, but they don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes there’s more to a game than the numbers.

Of course, numbers can still say a whole lot, and this is Stat on the Back, so let’s take a look at the numbers that mattered:

6, 4: Coming into the game, Stanford had not trailed a single time all season and had not been tied at any point after the first score. In this game, there were six lead changes and four ties, half of which came in the overtimes. To say Stanford was finally challenged is putting it lightly.

11, 91: Known as a disciplined team, the Cardinal was anything but against the Trojans and their crowd. Stanford committed 11 penalties for 91 yards after averaging roughly half those totals (five penalties for 45 yards) the rest of the season. Some penalties, such as a pass interference call against Robert Woods, were somewhat justified. Others, like a pair of delay-of-game calls on Luck, a too-many-men-in-the huddle call and two offsides penalties on nose tackle Terrence Stephens, were much sloppier. In a close game, these penalties almost cost Stanford its undefeated season.

145, 2: USC running back Curtis McNeal looked like LaMichael James as he gashed Stanford’s previously stout rush defense for 145 yards and two touchdowns, both career highs. McNeal came in as the second-best running back on a pass-centered offense, but when Marc Tyler went down to injury, McNeal stepped up in a big way (at least until the final play of the game). The Cardinal defense is still ranked sixth in the country in rushing yards allowed, but the past few weeks have exposed some glaring weaknesses against the run.

2, 0: Many people thought this game would come down to line play, and Stanford had arguably the nation’s best lines on paper before the game. Despite allowing just two sacks all season, the Cardinal offensive line let USC double that total with a pair of sacks of Luck among several QB hurries. Meanwhile, the much-praised Stanford pass rush hardly got to Matt Barkley at all and failed to record a sack. In fact, the Cardinal registered just four tackles for loss, only half its season average.

17: It was a good day for players wearing No. 17. Linebacker A.J. Tarpley—starting in place of the injured Shayne Skov—picked off Barkley in the first half and later forced a fumble. His biggest contribution of all, though, was falling on McNeal’s fumble in the end zone to end the game.

The leading receiver in the game, with 102 yards receiving, was…Griff Whalen? Yep, Luck’s roommate (the other No. 17) was his favorite target on big third-down plays, and Whalen responded with some great catches. Meanwhile, Woods, possibly the best receiver in the nation, finished with 89 receiving yards on nine catches and didn’t even lead his own team in receiving. The Stanford defense had many flaws, but it did hold Woods down.

99: Stepfan Taylor was just a yard away from notching his fifth 100-yard rushing game in the past six contests. Taylor carried the load for Stanford, setting a season high with 23 carries, and his two touchdowns were in the most crucial situations. The first one tied the game with 38 seconds to play in regulation, and the second one proved to be the game-winner in triple overtime. Just like nearly every other game, the running game eventually overpowered the USC defense after a slow start.

39: Thanks to Jordan Williamson being a late scratch due to an undisclosed injury, Stanford had to rely on its backup kicker, Eric Whitaker. He responded by making all six of his extra points and both his field goal attempts, but kickoffs were another story. Whitaker kicked off out of bounds twice, and in all, half of USC’s 12 drives started at the Trojan 39 or better. That kind of field-position advantage is tough to overcome, and the Cardinal likely can’t afford a repeat of that performance.

47-for-47: Helped by Whitaker’s kicking, Stanford remained perfect in the red zone this season (despite an error in some versions of the box score that credits Stanford with a phantom zero-second drive at the end of regulation). The Cardinal scored on all nine trips inside the USC 20, with seven of those scores being touchdowns. Stanford remains the only team in the nation without a red zone miss this season.

93,607: The listed attendance of 93,607 means that the game was a sellout, and I have no doubt that there were at least 90,000 people in attendance. Apart from the obvious impact in terms of noise and momentum, the sellout (the first at the Coliseum since 2009) shows just how important this game was to USC.

3: The win was Stanford’s third straight in the Coliseum. The last time the Cardinal won three straight road games with USC? The 1930s. This really was a historic win.

16: It might have been the narrowest escape in years, but Stanford’s winning streak is intact.

56-48: Just admire that score. It’s never going to get old.

 

Jacob Jaffe nearly fell off of his perch atop the roof of the Los Angeles Coliseum when Tarpley fell on the loose ball in the end zone. Only divine intervention and Jaffe’s tremendous core strength allowed him to enjoy the Stanford victory in his own bed and not a hospital. For more details, or pics of Jaffe’s abs, email him at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.

 

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