USC might have been ranked high, but the Trojans were untested.
Easy victories over two undermanned opponents left fans, reporters and perhaps the Trojans wondering if they were legitimate contenders for the Pac-12 Conference title or another overhyped team about to get a dose of reality.
On Saturday at the Coliseum, sixth-ranked USC could not offset the experience of Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in a 41-31 defeat that suddenly puts enormous pressure on the Trojans and Coach Steve Sarkisian.
USC is 2-1 heading into its first road game next week at Arizona State. It will be the first time Sarkisian faces a hostile audience since his embarrassing appearance at the USC’s preseason Salute to Troy event drew national attention and criticism.
“We can’t lay in the weeds of woe is me,” Sarkisian said. “We have to get back up.”
USC’s victories over Arkansas State and Idaho might have enabled the Trojans to evaluate players and develop depth, but it did not prepare them for an experienced quarterback like Hogan.
The senior showed poise, arm strength and accuracy while passing for 279 yards and two touchdowns. He also scrambled for 28 yards and directed time-consuming drives in what had become a Stanford trademark the last few years.
“We knew containment would be big,” Sarkisian said. “We lost containment too many times.”
USC coaches had talked all week about the need to pressure Hogan and prevent him from finding his rhythm.
That did not seem as if it would be a difficult task after the Stanford offense’s dreadful performance in a season-opening loss at Northwestern and last week’s victory over Central Florida, which featured another dull first-half performance.
But, save for two plays in the third quarter, Stanford’s offensive line gave Hogan plenty of time, and multipurpose running back Christian McCaffrey made like former Cardinal workhorse backs Toby Gerhart and Tyler Gaffney, rushing for 115 yards in 26 carries to help set up three short touchdown runs by Remound Wright.
Hogan completed 18 of 23 passes.
“We just didn’t execute,” USC linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “We had ‘em in situations that we wanted to be in. We got them into third down and just couldn’t get off the field.
“With an offense like that, when they’re physical and they keep converting third downs that turn into long drives, it’s hard to stop them.”
Stanford outgained USC, 474-427, and benefited from eight USC penalties, including one that nullified a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Adoree’ Jackson.
“Not only were they penalties,” Sarkisian said, “they were major fouls.”
The Trojans also continued to struggle on third down, converting only four of 10.
But USC’s main fault was consistently failing to wrap up Hogan in the backfield when it had opportunities.
USC’s defensive line was a question mark before the season and it remained one for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox after getting only two sacks in the first two games.
“Everyone else just helped me out and put me on their shoulders,” Hogan said.
USC was ahead, 14-7, at the end of the first quarter and pushed the margin to 21-10 when Cody Kessler connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster on a 54-yard touchdown pass play.
But Hogan directed two scoring drives, finishing the second with a 17-yard touchdown pass to receiver Devon Cajuste for a 24-21 halftime lead.
Kessler completed 25 of 32 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns.
“This doesn’t define this team,” Kessler said of the loss. “It’s a long season. We got a very tough road game next week.… I think this could be turning point.”
Said Jackson: “This is one of those things. You don’t expect it but when it happens you have to bounce back.”
USC defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr. and linebacker Anthony Sarao sacked Hogan on consecutive plays early in the third quarter to spark the Trojans, who took a 28-24 lead on Kessler’s short touchdown pass to Steven Mitchell Jr.
But Stanford scored on consecutive possessions to go ahead, 38-28 early in the fourth quarter.
An Alex Wood field goal pulled USC within seven points with about nine minutes left.
But Hogan engineered another time-consuming drive that former Loyola High kicker Conrad Ukropina ended with a 46-yard field goal, sealing the victory.
“They came ready to play,” Sarkisian said of the Cardinal. “Like I knew they would.”