Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey always seemed to be one cut away from tearing a huge chunk out of USC’s defense Saturday evening. There were exceptions: On some plays, he actually did tear huge chunks out of USC’s defense.
There was a long touchdown reception when he was inexplicably uncovered. There was one of the patient, tackle-shedding runs that have made him a Heisman Trophy favorite. Mostly, though, he wore USC down with consistency.
USC could not get in McCaffrey’s way often enough, nor could it get out of its own way with enough frequency. The Trojans hobbled themselves with penalties and muddled play calls in a 27-10 loss to the No. 7 Cardinal in a Pac-12 Conference opener.
USC committed six false starts. Officials threw eight flags on USC overall, for 56 penalty yards, enough to saddle the offense with too many third-and-long tries.
“We clean up the errors, we will be a good football team,” Coach Clay Helton said after the game.
Instead, USC was left gawking at another masterpiece by McCaffrey, who has quickly become a vexing nemesis. Last season, in two games against USC, McCaffrey tallied 710 all-purpose yards against USC, including 461 in the Pac-12 title game. In the past 20 years, only two FBS players had more all-purpose yards against the same opponent in a two-game span.
This season, McCaffrey relegated USC to 1-2, with a suddenly crucial trip to Utah on Friday looming over the Trojans like an anvil.
“They took a giant leap forward in my mind the way they competed today,” he said. “This is going to become a good football team.”
But some players questioned USC’s fight. Running back Justin Davis II said the halftime locker room felt deflated.
“It looked like the game was over in the locker room,” quarterback Sam Darnold said. “That’s something that cannot happen.”
McCaffrey has had that effect. He was Stanford’s leading rusher, with 30 carries for 165 yards and a touchdown. He was Stanford’s leading receiver, with four catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. He added another 22 on kickoff returns.
He amassed 260 all-purpose yards and accounted for almost 60% of Stanford’s offense.
He wheeled out of the backfield in the first quarter, past safety Marvell Tell III, caught the wide-open pass and waltzed into the end zone for a 56-yard reception.
After a USC field goal, he hobbled safety Chris Hawkins with a stop-and-go route. The pass failed to connect for another touchdown only because it was overthrown.
He stuttered, burst through a hole and shrugged off a tackle attempt by Tell before halftime, then went 33 yards to set up his second touchdown, a one-yard dive. It put Stanford up 17-3 at the break.
Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey crosses the goal line with a touchdown reception in the first quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Trojans receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster can’t make the catch over Stanford’s Alijah Holder during the first quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster recovers a fumble by teamate Tyler Petite (not pictured) in front of Stanford safety Zach Hoffpauir in the second quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Stanford fans cheer after Christian McCaffrey scored a touchdown against USC.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Stanford quarterback Ryan Burns manges to complete a pass despite defensive pressure from USC’s Uchenna Nwasu, left, and Porter Gustin.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Stanford wide receiver Michael Rector gets past USC’s Malik Dorton for a 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC’s Chris Hawkins’ diving attempt can’t stop Stanford wide receiver Michael Rector on a 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (2) prevents Stanford receiver Michael Rector from making a catch in the third quarter.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Stanford quarterback Ryan Burns picks up big yards as USC linebacker Uchenna Nwasu tumbles to the turf.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Coach Clay Helton reacts after the Trojans turned the ball over on downs to the Cardinal late in the game.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The score belied the fact that USC’s offense mostly kept apace. But Stanford scored two touchdowns, one gifted by the miscommunication in the secondary. USC failed to advance the ball into the red zone, mostly because of penalties and muddled play calling.
Right guard Viane Talamaivao said after the game that Stanford’s defense was mimicking USC’s snap count. Eventually, USC switched to a silent count.
Quarterback Max Browne played efficiently, completing 18 of 28 passes for 191 yards. Tight end Tyler Petite led USC with 73 receiving yards, on three catches. Davis and Ronald Jones II each rushed for 63 yards — Davis on 14 carries, Jones on 11. Jones also added a touchdown.
“The biggest thing,” Helton said, “was eliminating errors that are killing us.”
Also killing them was McCaffrey. He occupied a large swath of USC’s psyche. After USC began the second half with a convincing touchdown drive, set up by a 38-yard connection between Browne and Petite, Stanford (2-0) answered with a field goal, then a gut punch.
McCaffrey was too hard to ignore.
“He ran hard,” linebacker Cameron Smith said. “To be expected.”
“He might get hit and it’s a two yard gain, and you look up and it’s a five-yard gain,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said.
USC threatened to make a game of it once after that. A pass went off JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hand in the end zone, when a defender appeared to be holding his off hand. Then, on fourth down, Jones tripped over a lineman’s leg and fell about a foot short of a first down.
Little fight remained. Down 17, with little more than nine minutes left, in Stanford territory, USC faced a fourth and six.
It sent out the punt team.