College football’s elite programs get only so many chances in the long slog of a season to earn their reputations. For USC, this early trip north to play No. 10 Stanford represented one of those moments to show its mettle against a known equal on a prime-time stage.
The Trojans will have to wait for the next opportunity after whiffing big in a 17-3 loss to the Cardinal that felt competitive throughout but couldn’t quite get there on the Stanford Stadium scoreboard.
“All our hopes and aspirations and dreams are still out there,” USC coach Clay Helton said, “and our team understands that.”
The Trojans, 1-1 and 0-1 in the Pac-12, also know they have a multitude of improvements to make if they’re going to emerge as a team with meaningful games to play in late November.
Coming in, USC thought it had put in the work the last eight months to avoid being humbled again. The Trojans thought outings like their 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl was behind them. On their way to the Pac-12 championship last season, they had beaten Stanford twice, but the Cardinal, who improved to 9-5 against USC since 2007, were back to their old ways.
Because when playing Stanford, teams get only so many chances. David Shaw’s team squeezes the game and makes every mistake feel more torturous.
USC trailed 7-0 at the end of the first half and had a drive moving into scoring territory at the Cardinal’s 40-yard line. At that point, the Trojans’ formula for victory was holding strong — they had more yards rushing than Stanford and had forced the Cardinal into several third-and-longs. There was a growing sense that freshman quarterback JT Daniels, who had exited the game in the first quarter with a bruised hand, was working himself back into a rhythm.
The Trojans had third and two, and, coming off a completion to Tyler Vaughns, rushed to the line for a quick run play. But Stephen Carr was stuffed, forcing fourth down. USC called timeout, feeling just how crucial this exchange would be. Helton decided to go for it.
“I walked in here and told our team we would play fearless and be aggressive,” Helton said, “and in that time, with our defense playing well and us just creating a little flow offensively, I wanted to take that opportunity.”
It would end up as one of those plays that Stanford simply doesn’t let you get back.
Daniels dropped back to pass and was stripped by Joey Alfieri, giving Stanford the ball at its 49 with 1:18 left.
The Cardinal’s response was all too on-brand. Stanford drove 51 yards in five plays and scored on a nine-yard fade pass from KJ Costello to tight end Colby Parkinson.
Stanford led 14-0, setting the game’s eventual winning margin by halftime.
“I don’t think that was a big turning point,” Daniels said of the fumble. “We didn’t play well the whole game. We left a lot of things on the board. There were plays that we should have made that we didn’t make, a lot on my part.”
As late as the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Daniels kept pushing to get USC back into the game. He hit Amon-ra St. Brown for a 28-yard gain that moved the Trojans to the Stanford 15. On the next play, though, he underthrew St. Brown on a corner route that should have been a touchdown to pull USC within 17-10. Instead, it was intercepted by Stanford free safety Malik Antoine.
Daniels would throw another interception to Antoine on USC’s final possession.
Daniels said after the game that his hand was swollen and that he had to alter the way he gripped the football. He also said it was no excuse for how he played. He finished 16 of 34 for 215 yards and two interceptions. He was sacked four times.
Daniels always knew that playing quarterback at USC was going to be a much different ballgame than at Santa Ana Mater Dei, surrounded by high-profile recruits and whipping inferior opponents.
But it was almost cruel that his first college road game came against a disciplined outfit like Stanford. Maybe it was necessary for quicker maturation.
A tussle at Texas — a much more hostile environment than Stanford — looms.