After getting blown out by No. 1 Alabama to start the season, USC players and coaches kept reminding the media that their season would not be defined by one game. Now, following a 27-10 loss to No. 7 Stanford on Saturday on the road and another uninspiring defeat to a top-10 opponent, perhaps there is more clarity on how this season will be defined.
While not as lopsided as the Alabama loss, USC was outplayed by its conference foe, and drops to 1-2 on its young season.
Head coach Clay Helton, though, expressed optimism in his postgame statements.
“They took a giant leap forward in my mind the way they competed today,” he said. “We played two really good football teams in Alabama and Stanford in our losses. We’ve got to learn how to win those games and we will.”
Stanford star running back Christian McCaffrey, whom the Trojans keyed in on stopping after he torched USC in last season’s Pac-12 Championship Game, still finished with 260 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
USC struggled to convert on third down and with penalties. The Trojans committed false start after false start — six total, stalling progress on their offensive drives.
When asked about the false starts, redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne mentioned that the Stanford defensive line was “saying things” while he was in mid-cadence, and directed the question to redshirt senior offensive tackle Zach Banner. But Banner, a team captain, declined to speak with the media after the game.
“At times we were just stabbing ourselves in the foot towards the end of drives,” Browne said on the offensive struggles. “The name of the game is touchdowns, so we have to correct that and it’s a big thing moving forward.”
It wasn’t like USC didn’t have a chance. The Trojans had clawed within a touchdown with a quick score early in the second half, only to see the Cardinal answer with a field goal and a big play to seize momentum right back.
Up 20-10 midway through the third, the Cardinal ran a reverse, with senior quarterback Ryan Burns faking a handoff to McCaffrey before giving it to redshirt senior wide receiver Michael Rector, who sped around the wide-open left side for a 56-yard touchdown.
“We were playing the strong side of the formation really tight,” Helton said of the play. “We rolled down the strong safety there, and we’re a pursuit football team. We get to the ball and they caught us with a nice play call with the reverse.”
That proved to be the final blow for the Trojans, who could not convert on a fourth down play on their next drive and punted on fourth down from Stanford’s 44-yard line on the following possession with the clock ticking in the fourth quarter. Helton said after the game that he wanted to pin the Cardinal deep, especially with a weapon in McCaffrey.
Senior running back Justin Davis wanted to go for it, though, with his team down by 17 late in the game.
“Did we want to go for it?” he said. “Of course. We don’t like having to put the ball in Stanford’s hands. We were disappointed, but we still have our trust in coaches that they made the best decision possible.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold played the final series of the game, which ended in an interception in the end zone.
“We’ve got to do a better job of finishing games and playing every quarter,” Darnold said. “We were down 17-3 at the half and guys [in the locker room] looked like the game was over. That’s something that cannot happen. We’ve got to change that.”
It turns out the game wasn’t over at halftime — yet.
After a stagnant first half offensively, the Trojans found the end zone quickly in the second half, taking just over three and a half minutes to drive 75 yards downfield. The big play was a 38-yard completion from Browne to wide-open sophomore tight end Tyler Petite, setting up first-and-goal from the 7-yard line.
Two plays later, sophomore running back Ronald Jones II punched in the score from one yard out to draw USC within a touchdown at 17-10.
The positive vibe, though, was short-lived, as Stanford scored the game’s final 10 points.
“We took a couple plays off here and there,” Davis said. “Even if we run the ball [well], we’ve still got to come back and execute the play after. We can’t have any mental lapses.”
Near the end of the half, the Cardinal jumped ahead by two touchdowns, with McCaffrey leaping for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, capping off a 57-yard drive to give Stanford a 17-3 lead into halftime.
At the half, McCaffrey had 101 yards on the ground, 72 yards receiving and 195 all-purpose yards.
After uneventful first drives, Stanford struck first midway through the first quarter on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Burns to McCaffrey after the Trojans failed to cover the other team’s best offensive weapon — McCaffrey appeared to run past sophomore defensive back Marvell Tell III, who let him go through.
“It’s one of those things, we didn’t know who’s [covering] who, and he scored,” junior cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said.
McCaffrey said he was simply able to coast by the defense for the score.
“I don’t know what they were going to give me,” McCaffrey said. “I saw the safety roll down. It was my job to run by him. Burns threw a great ball and from there it’s history.”
The Trojans responded on the ensuing drive with a 47-yard field goal by redshirt junior Matt Boermeester. Stanford came back with a lengthy drive, but USC was able to limit the Cardinal to a field goal, fending off a red-zone opportunity.
It is another deflating loss in the early season for the Trojans, who dropped out of the AP Top 25 after a week and now find themselves in a bigger hole. Helton is also now 1-4 as the full-time head coach.
“It’s not fair for [Helton],” Davis said. “It really isn’t. For him to have his first year as full-time head coach of the Trojans, for us to perform like we did in those two losses, it hurts me.”
Jackson said he believes USC is on the same level as Stanford and Alabama, but the team is simply not capitalizing on its talent.
“We’ve just got to get back in the lab and get better,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, it’s unacceptable. I didn’t come from a losing program. I’m not used to losing.”
USC has a quick turnaround, facing Utah on the road next Friday before playing four of its following five games at home.