USC football is familiar with second-half deficits. The Trojans’ winning formula last season seemed to be keeping the game within a couple of scores and then putting together a miraculous comeback. This time, though, there was no comeback to be had, as Stanford held a 22-point lead entering the fourth and upset the No. 14 Trojans 42-28 Saturday at the Coliseum.
USC — which was favored by 17.5 points entering Saturday’s game — hadn’t lost to an unranked opponent since it played Washington with a third-string quarterback in September 2019.
“When you look at it across the board, they beat us at every phase,” head coach Clay Helton said postgame. “You look at the execution, they out-executed us, and when you look up, we did not do what we did in the first game.”
In their 30-7 win last weekend over San José State, USC had only four penalties for 35 yards. Saturday’s game saw nine for 111 yards, including on the opening kickoff return, when sophomore kicker Parker Lewis was ejected for targeting. The nine penalties also included two pass interference calls and a personal foul in USC territory that were instrumental in Stanford’s touchdown drives. Stanford gained momentum after an offsides call on a field-goal play in the second quarter prompted head coach David Shaw to go for it on fourth down, yielding a 14-7 lead.
Stanford’s inexperience at quarterback looked to be a point of weakness coming in, but sophomore Tanner McKee impressed in his first start with 234 yards, two touchdowns and no sacks or interceptions.
“I thought [McKee] did a nice job of seeing leverage inside and pulling the trigger and getting the ball out before the safeties could get there,” Helton said. “I thought he played like an experienced player. I was extremely impressed with his performance.”
Stanford set the tone early with big plays, including an 87-yard touchdown run by junior Nathaniel Peat on the Cardinal’s second drive and a 49-yard catch-and-run by junior Austin Jones for their third touchdown.
The Trojans’ offense did little to support their struggling defense. USC keyed in on red-zone efficiency after it was forced to settle for three field goals of 30 yards or shorter against San José State. This was still an issue against Stanford — two of the Trojans’ three red zone drives while the game was still within reach ended in field goals — but simply getting to the red zone was also a problem. The Trojans went 6-for-14 on third downs and opened most of their drives deep in their own territory.
“Gosh, I feel like we just played on the long field all night,” Helton said. “We didn’t get the turnovers, we didn’t get the field position and that’s credit to them … They pinned us deep in special teams, they didn’t make the critical error in turning the ball over and they outplayed us tonight. That’s the reality.”
Despite the lack of consistency on offense early this season, there had been one positive: Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis hadn’t thrown a pick (he had seven through six games last year). But his first interception of the season came at the worst time for the Trojans — the Cardinal had lacked offensive momentum up to that point in the third but came away with a pick-six to go up by two touchdowns.
Before long, it was 35-13 Cardinal, and frustrated fans poured out of the stands at the quarter break.
The Trojans will have the opportunity to turn things around against two of their easier opponents in Washington State and Oregon State the next two weeks. They face the Cougars Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in Pullman, Wash.
“We’re just going to come back and hit it. We’re gonna make a statement,” junior linebacker Drake Jackson said. “So just be prepared for next week.”