By Jibriel Taha
Although the annual rivalry game was canceled in 2020, the always high-stakes Stanford-USC game was back on Saturday night.
The unranked Cardinal (1-1, 1-0 Pac-12) entered the game as 17.5-point underdogs, and the first play of the game was a sign of the unexpected things to come — No. 14 USC’s (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) starting kicker was ejected for targeting on the opening kickoff.
Ultimately, Stanford would pull off the upset, winning 42-28.
For many players, this game is personal.
As senior linebacker Ricky Miezan said last week, “It’s definitely going to be a bit of an emotional game, because that’s where he [Jacob Mangum-Farrar] and I got injured — at SC. So this is a little bit of a redemption tour for me and him — we’re looking to really get after them.”
Family histories run deep between both programs. Junior corner Kyu Blu Kelly’s dad was a cornerback at USC before going in the second round of the 1998 NFL Draft. Despite the legacy, Kelly was snubbed from an USC offer, and perhaps that chip on his shoulder helped him to his pick-six last night.
Following the ejection in the opening seconds, the teams traded punts to open the game. But things soon got going quickly on the offensive. On the first play of the Cardinal’s second drive, junior running back Nathaniel Peat found a big hole and broke away for an 87-yard touchdown run, giving the Cardinal an early lead.
USC responded with a 15-play, 95-yard touchdown drive capped off by a two-yard touchdown run by senior running back Keaontay Ingram.
Early in the second quarter, sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee, making his first career start, fired a beautiful pass to senior wide receiver Brycen Tremayne for a gain of 25, but the drive stalled inside the 10-yard line, with sophomore kicker Joshua Karty squeaking the ball inside of the left upright to give the Cardinal what appeared to be a 10-7 lead. After an offside call on the Trojans, however, the field goal was called back. That blow changed the calculus for head coach David Shaw, as he brought the offense back onto the field. The gamble paid off: McKee rolled out of the pocket and delivered an under-pressure throw to junior wide receiver Elijah Higgins in the endzone to put the Cardinal up 14-7.
USC answered back with a long, methodical drive of their own, but the Stanford defense held strong deep in their territory, forcing the Trojans to settle for three points.
With little time left in the first half, Cardinal fans got their first look at McKee in a two-minute drill. He passed the test with flying colors, leading a four-play, 66-yard touchdown drive to put Stanford up 21-10 at the half. The drive was capped by a six-yard touchdown reception from Tremayne.
Stanford’s defense held up deep in their territory once again to open up the second half, as USC was only able to cut the lead to 21-13.
Stanford was able to record only one first down on their first drive of the half — but the Cardinal defense made up for the poor first drive. On a 3rd and 5 from the USC 27, Slovis’s pass deflected off his star receiver Drake London and right into the arms of Stanford’s Kelly. Kelly ran it back, lunging toward the pylon to secure the pick-six and put the Cardinal up 28-13 midway through the third quarter.
Kelly was impressive all night long, holding London to only four catches for 68 yards on a total of 10 targets.
The Cardinal kept the momentum going and began to suffocate the Trojans. The defense notched another stop on the Trojan offense, and the Cardinal put up 21-unanswered points to extend the lead to 42-13.
The rout was on, but the Trojans moved the ball in garbage time to bring the final score to a more respectable 42-28.
McKee was stellar in his debut, going 16-for-23 with 234 yards and two touchdowns. He also tacked on seven rushing yards and a rushing touchdown, looking comfortable and in complete command of the offense from start to finish.
“[McKee] earned [the starting job],” Shaw said. “He fought for it. He came out today and played extremely well.”
USC head coach Clay Helton, too, had high praise for McKee, noting that the sophomore “played exceptional … and really didn’t make any mistakes.”
“I thought he played like an experienced player,” Helton added. “I was extremely impressed with his performance.”
The Cardinal will head to Nashville to face Vanderbilt (0-2, 0-0 SEC) on Saturday, where Stanford will look to take care of business and keep the momentum going into a monumental first homestand featuring UCLA (2-0, 0-0 Pac-12) and Oregon (2-0, 0-0 Pac-12).