Behind an unrivaled resilience on both sides of the ball, the Trojans embodied the ‘one team, one heartbeat’ message that interim head coach Ed Orgeron had been preaching to them all week long leading up to Saturday’s showdown with the No. 4-ranked Stanford Cardinal.
And on one kick, with the game hanging in the balance, tied at 17-17, USC kicker Andre Heidari, who has struggles this season, was able to lift the Trojans (8-3, 5-2 Pac-12) to upset the Cardinal (8-2, 6-2), 20-17 in front of a sold out crowd at the Coliseum that also had a renewed ‘heartbeat’ instilled into it.
Heidari’s 47-yard field goal with just 19 seconds remaining is what ultimately allowed the Trojans to shock a Stanford team that was fresh off an upset of their own when they defeated a No. 3 ranked Oregon team, 26-20.
“I did what I needed to do,” Heidari said. “I’m glad my team put me into the position and that my teammates believed me.”
It was apparent throughout the game, the ‘GameDay’ hype and electricity that began very early Saturday morning at McCarthy Quad transitioned to the Coliseum, and the Trojans fed off of that energy, defeating Stanford for the first time in five meetings.
Once the clock hit double zeros, thousands of fans paraded the field to celebrate USC’s first victory over a ranked a team since 2011 and that has been playing inspired football ever since Orgeron took over for the fired Lane Kiffin.
“This was a win for the entire Trojan family,” Orgeron said. “I’m happy for the fans, it’s been a long time coming.”
The Trojans are 5-1 with Orgeron at the helm, spurring up even more conversation that the former defensive line coach could become the Trojan’s next head football coach.
“Obviously there’s going to be some decisions made here after we play UCLA ,” Orgeron said. “That’s out of my hands.”
Orgeron, who has now led the Trojans to four consecutive wins, could not have been more happy about this win for his team.
“In our tight-knit family, there was a belief that we were going to find a way to win the game,” Orgeron said. “I’m proud of our young men. This is something that they’ve wanted for a long time now.”
On a night when former USC quarterback and Heisman trophy Matt Leinart winner led the Trojans out of the tunnel, red shirt sophomore Cody Kessler looked sharp against a tough Stanford defense. He passed for 288 yards and a touchdown, while completing 25 of his 37 passes.
In the first half, only two of Kessler’s pass attempts were incompletions.
The most important of Kessler’s completions was came on a forth down completion on a slant pass to wide receiver Marquise Lee for 13 yards to continue the Trojan’s drive to win the game with just over a minute remaining in the game. Lee proceeded to hobble off the field following the play, due to what he thought was a bone bruise.
“I knew I was taking a chance, but I looked inside there eyes, and as a coach, I wanted to give the guys a chance to win the game,” Orgeron said in regards to going for it on fourth and two at midfield in that situation. “I had no hesitation at all to go for it.”
The 2012 Biletnikoff winner, who claimed he was back at one hundred percent earlier in the week, had six catches for 83 yards.
“I knew he [Lee] was in pain, but I had trust in him that he was going to be open and I just threw the ball and he was there to make the play,” said Kessler.
Nelson Agholor had another big game, catching eight passes for 104 yards.
When the offense began to struggle in the second half, though, it was the Trojan’s stalwart defense that made the big plays USC needed in order to stay in the game.
After a Kessler fumble in USC territory, the defense had halted the Stanford offense to just a field goal before freshman offensive tackle Chad Wheeler blocked it to keep the game tied at 17-17.
Also, in the fourth quarter, the Cardinal were knocking on the door at the USC six-yard line when on third down, Dion Bailey intercepted Hogan’s pass.
“It was one of the most electrifying atmospheres I have in my four years here,” said Bailey. “This was a great win for the university.”
Later in the fourth with only three minutes left to play, Su’a Cravens would intercept a tipped pass that set up the USC offense for a drive and win the game.
The defense not only limited the Cardinal to just a touchdown in the second half, but held them to their lowest point total of the entire season.
In fact, USC played only 2 defensive subs during the the majority of the game.
“An outstanding job by Clancy Pendergast [defensive coordinator], Pete Jenkins [defensive line coach], and all of our linebackers for hanging in there toe to toe with the Stanford offensive line,” Orgeron said.
The USC running game, which had been so successful in recent weeks, really struggled to get going as they complied a combined a season-low 23 yards. Javorius ‘Buck’ Allen scored a one-yard rushing touchdown late in the first quarter to give USC a 14-7 lead.
“The whole game was a grind and it could have gone either way at any second,” said Orgeron.
Stanford’s running game, however, was the ‘bread and butter’ of their offense, as they rushed for 210 yards behind their stout offensive line.
The Cardinal’s Tyler Gaffney took 24 carries for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Kevin Hogan didn’t turn the ball over, but went 14 of 25 for just 127 yards.
Gaffney scored on a 35-yard run in the first quarter to answer Kessler’s one-yard touchdown pass to full back Soma Vainuku on the Trojan’s first drive of the game.
USC’s win avenges the three past defeats that the Trojans have suffered at the hands of the Cardinal in the Coliseum, including a triple-overtime loss two years ago when Andrew Luck was the Stanford quarterback.
The Trojans not only derailed the Cardinal’s national title aspirations by pulling off the upset, but also kept their own Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl hopes alive with two games remaining, one of those coming against cross-town rival UCLA.
However, before they match up with the Bruins for what is sure to be another thrilling game at the Coliseum, USC will travel to Boulder, Colo. next Saturday (Nov. 23) to take on the Colorado Buffaloes.
Follow Darian on Twitter @dariannourian