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A well-grounded 2nd half

Trojans 17, Stanford 17, all tied up at halftime?

Anyone who cared one bit about this game, anyone who watched last year’s upset for the ages in Los Angeles, was very nearly in a state of shock as the second quarter wound down at Stanford Stadium on Saturday. Nobody more than the members of the USC football team, who at the half loped into their small, cinder-block locker room dazed, confused, disappointed and probably, truth be told, a bit scared.

It was at that point, recalled Stafon Johnson, that the USC running backs huddled together, said they’d had enough, and vowed that they would take over the game in the final two quarters.

“We knew at one time or another we were going to have to run the ball and get some control of the clock,” Johnson remembered. “If we run the ball, then we were going to have to be effective with it, and that is what happened.”

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It certainly did, and at just the right moment.

During the final half of the game the Trojans ran smoothly, powerfully and efficiently. It was the first time this season they’d done so against a team not from the state of Washington.

“It just felt good to show what we could do,” said Johnson, steam rising from his body and eye-black dripping down his cheeks at game’s end. “We knew we could do it, we said we could do it, we just had to show it.”

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Along with C.J. Gable and Joe McKnight, Johnson helped push the Trojans’ totals from 39 rushing yards in this game’s first half-hour to 282 yards when it was all done.

It couldn’t have happened at a more important moment. The way Stanford was playing, the running attack staved off what could well have been another monumental upset. It also kept alive both the Trojans’ distant dream of sneaking into the national title game in Miami, and their more realistic hopes of passing Oregon State in the Pacific 10 Conference standings and making it to the Rose Bowl.

You may not have believed the running game could be this effective if you’d only watched the opening moments.

Ugly? You bet. For one thing, Mark Sanchez threw wobbly pass after wobbly pass, reverting back to the unsure quarterback that we’ve seen every other week this season.

You’d think that with Sanchez’s passes bouncing in the dirt with great consistency, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian would have simply told his offensive line to plow straight forward and let Johnson and his mates make matters right. But Sarkisian, as has been his habit this year, kept calling oddly timed passes and misdirection plays that kept the offensive line moving sideways or nowhere at all.

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And the running backs? They had nothing in the way of rhythm. One play you’d look up and there would be McKnight with the ball. The next play Gable would crouch in his backfield stance but do nothing more than block. Then Johnson would push his way through the revolving door, run in for a play, get a carry, and then trot to the sideline as if he needed to cool off.

And so it was -- a huge dose of very uncomfortable deja vu for the Trojans and their fans. It had been hoped by USC partisans that the Trojans would make the Cardinal look like Washington State in this game.

But it very quickly became clear that Stanford, which entered this with a 5-5 record and a mushy team, would be buoyed by self-belief they deservedly earned in Los Angeles last year. On its very first drive the Cardinal stuffed the ball down the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, lighting the scoreboard with a-yard jaunt to the end zone by Toby Gerhart.

The fight was on. Stanford’s fans rocked their boxy stadium. On the field, the Trojans played catch-up.

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After two quarters, Gerhart led Stanford with 85 pounding yards; USC was led by Johnson’s 15.

Then came halftime and a third and fourth quarter in which the Trojans threesome slashed, dashed and buried the Cardinal.

“We just dug deep” and talked it out, said Johnson, who finished with 115 yards and two touchdowns. “We knew we had to get this thing going.”

As you might expect, none of the running backs said anything negative about the offensive play-calling, which will certainly be the topic of much conversation before USC’s next game.

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For his part, Coach Pete Carroll went out of his way to praise Sarkisian, though with that praise came the key to what has ailed USC’s underachieving offense all year.

“We kind of mixed around so much early in the game that we couldn’t find the running game,” Carroll said. “But once Sark went after it, I thought he just figured it out and then did a fantastic job of changing the night.”

In other words, once Sarkisian began to simplify matters by handing the ball to the pumped-up trio that huddled together and decided that this game would be theirs, the outcome became what we all thought it would be: Trojans 45, Stanford 23.

USC’s thin dreams of playing in either Miami or Pasadena remain alive for another game.

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kurt.streeter@latimes.com


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