This certainly lived up to the billing.
Let’s be clear, it wasn’t the prettiest of efforts, but the ending was pure beauty for USC fans as Andre Heidari hit a 53-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter and the Trojans held on to beat Stanford 13-10.
The majority of the game was a possession battle, with the Trojans’ up-tempo offense being stifled by a strong Stanford defense and a Cardinal offense that picked apart the USC defense, particularly in the passing game, where the Trojans surrendered 285 yards. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan completed 22 of 30 passes (13 yards per completion) and was rarely under pressure until the final seconds with the game on the line. That’s when USC defensive lineman J.R. Tavai came in for the sack and forced fumble which was recovered by Scott Felix.
“It says a lot about our team to come away with a win in a game that wasn’t really going our way,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said.
The offensive numbers, which had been so gaudy a week ago, were a bit more limited today for the Trojans with 16 first downs, 135 yards passing and 59 total plays. They ran for 156 yards, which is a respectable number against Stanford, but even that total is a bit misleading as 154 of those yards were gained by Javorius Allen, who carried the ball 23 times and was the consistent force for the Trojans throughout the game.
“We were going to run the ball today,” Sarkisian said. “We knew it wasn’t always going to be pretty but we were stubborn about it because we knew we had to hang with it. Buck was able to break some critical tackles in the fourth quarter, which is what great backs do.”
The day started off well for the Trojans as Stanford missed a field goal on its opening drive. Cody Kessler then led a textbook 12-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a Justin Davis touchdown run for an early 7-0 lead. But the Cardinal were having success moving the ball, and 14 of their 17 snaps in the first quarter were on the USC side of the field. This was especially concerning for Trojans fans considering the iffy health status of All-American defensive end Leonard Williams, who rolled an ankle earlier this week in practice.
Williams was able to stay in the game and eventually tied for the team lead in tackles with 11, none bigger that a 4th-down stop at the USC 3-yard line late in the third quarter when the Cardinal were already up 10-7. The Trojans responded with a long drive that featured a 50-yard Allen run, eventually settling for a field goal to tie the score.
What followed was a strange sequence that saw Sarkisian get a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, a personal foul on the ensuing kickoff that resulted in Hayes Pullard being ejected from the game, and USC athletic director Pat Haden heading down from the press box to the sidelines to “discuss” things with the officials. It was an animated moment from Haden that, combined with Pullard urging his teammates on as he left the field, seemed to put a spark in the Trojans.
From that point on the game was a back-and-forth affair that saw Stanford get a touchdown called back, and the Trojans driving the ball late before being faced with a fourth-down call from the Cardinal 35-yard line. At first Sarkisian had the offense on the field but then called a timeout and sent Heidari out. Heidari booted a kick that sailed through the uprights to cause a celebration on the USC sidelines.
“It speaks volumes that Sark would have that kind of trust in me,” Heidari said. “I knew the minute I hit it that it was good, absolutely.”
It was the second straight year that Heidari has hit a game-winning field goal against Stanford.
Of course, even after the made kick there was still plenty of drama left as the Cardinal promptly drove to the USC 25-yard line and were in field goal range before Tavai came from Hogan’s blindside to force the final turnover.
“I’m overwhelmed right now,” Tavai said. “Hogan is elusive, a great quarterback, but he couldn’t run away that last play. I’m just happy about that.”
Tonight, so is the USC program. You can’t overstate the importance of this kind of early season win on the road against a tough opponent, especially for a team that dressed only 52 scholarship players. As Sarkisian said, things didn’t always go the Trojans’ way in this game, but it says a lot that they were able to hang on and find a way to come out with the victory.