Matt Barkley got knocked to the ground one more time, the victim of yet another offensive line breakdown, another defensive hit. He slowly got back up from the ground, scanned the clock, saw an unfathomable goal at hand: 4th and 40.
He probably looked up at his tormentors for a fleeting moment before trying one last desperate gamble. One thought had to be circulating through his exhausted, stunned mind.
How were they doing this to me again.
A national championship, a Pac-12 championship, a Heisman Trophy, all of those dreams were slipping away from Barkley and the Trojans. And it was Barkley looking up at Stanford yet again.
And it wasn't Andrew Luck who was outdueling him, stealing away two Trojan victories from Barkley just because he was Andrew Luck. It was the Cardinal defense that was clowning him. The Stanford front seven (and at some points only the front four) leaked over and over again into the USC front, wearing them down and then obliterating them in the final few drives. The Trojans were a beaten and broken team by the end of it, and all their dreams for this season looked like they'd remain just dreams.
Jim Harbaugh has been gone two years now, but yesterday's performance sure made it feel like he was back. Never had the Cardinal looked more like the San Francisco 49ers, college edition.
When Harbaugh first arrived in Palo Alto, the Cardinal head coach was all about instilling a tough-minded attitude that would make his football team resilient against anyone. It didn't matter how talented the team was or how talented the other team was. As long as Stanford won the battle in the trenches, they you could beat anyone. Stanford's first marquee victory would be against (yes) the Trojans, in one of the mosts shocking wins in college football history. They've built from there to keep the team trending upward, finally capitalizing when the recruiting picked up and top NFL talents began populating the Farm.
And the offensive line just kept on getting tougher every year, and then came Toby Gerhart to run through them, with Andrew Luck to pass right behind them. And there Stanford was, finding a way to beat pretty much everyone (even Oregon once). Offensively, the Cardinal fit the profile Harbaugh wanted from his team. They were tough, physical, and could go up against any college defense and generally take their best. Two sloppy efforts against Oregon aside, Stanford has pretty much handled their business.
Since Harbaugh found his way to San Francisco, he totally remade his profile. Instead of emphasizing toughness on offense, he embraced the strong defensive personality of the 49ers, game-managing on offense and trusting the defense to not concede too much so as to blow their football games. So far, he's 16-4 as a pro. Pretty remarkable success.
Indeed, Stanford has taken a page from their boss and catered to their strengths. The Cardinal lost most of their offensive playmakers, but the defense came back mostly intact, with plenty of key contributors on the front seven ready to dish out the pain. None of Harbaugh's teams at Stanford were never as tough and physical defensively as the unit that took the field Saturday night against the Trojans. The performance was pure Niner football. (David Shaw even gave a rousing speech!)
The Cardinal defense that had been hemorrhaging yards to San Jose State and Duke suddenly clamped down on all Trojan excursions. Stanford didn't let Robert Woods and Marqise Lee get anything deep on them, draping coverage down the sidelines and over the middle. The Stanford defense exploited the lack of Khaled Holmes by stuffing the A-gaps and not letting either Silas Redd or Curtis McNeal do anything of note. And as the game wore on and USC began to rely heavily on the pass, over and over they came at Barkley, pressuring him, forcing him into uncomfortable spots, and eventually battering him into submission.
All the Stanford offense had to do was enough (considering kicker Jordan Williamson could do nothing). Enough was very well within their means.
No one is going to confuse Josh Nunes for Andrew Luck, much less Troy Nunes. Looking at his stats, Nunes wouldn't strike you as the type of quarterback who could topple the might of Troy. He completes barely half of his passes, which doesn't even put him in the top 100 of college football quarterbacks. Yet just like Alex Smith on his worst of days last season, it was enough for victory.
Nunes's performance against the Trojans looks utterly forgettable on paper (46.9 completion percentage and two interceptions), but everyone on USC's defense is going to remember when he did the slowest juke in Pac-12 history to get past three USC defenders for a first down.
By the time Stanford took the lead, the Cardinal defense was in command. USC went three-and-out on four of their six second half drives. They gained a total of 66 yards on those drives. They held the ball for only four minutes in the fourth quarter and managed to gain a total of 16 yards. And of course they put Barkley on the ground; five sacks in all, two of them in the final three plays.
USC will probably be right back at it soon, but Stanford continues to have their number, stripping the Trojans of their might and beating them at their own game.
Matt Barkley looked dazed and confused afterwards, and gave the Cardinal all the credit for the win. They were the better team, which is a scary prospect for the rest of the Pac-12 considering how good they might look once Nunes gets more comfortable. If Stanford can play defense like this the rest of the way and remix 49er football for their own purposes, they have the capability to beat anyone, even Oregon.
Just like the 49ers, nobody might have it better than them.