LOS ANGELES - Tyler Gaffney ran for more than 100 yards for the fifth straight game, but Stanford dropped a 20-17 decision to USC Saturday night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Gaffney dashed for 158 yards on 24 carries and both Cardinal touchdowns.
After the teams carried a 17-17 tie throughout the fourth quarter, USC pulled ahead with a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari with 19 seconds to play.
“They made the plays at the end to win it and we didn’t,” said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football.
The Cardinal (8-2 overall, 6-2 Pac-12) dug itself a 17-7 hole by the 9:05 mark of the second quarter, as USC (8-3, 5-2) scored on each of its first three possessions, including two first-quarter touchdowns, with commanding marches down the field. Stanford had previously allowed just one first-quarter drive by its opponent to finish in the end zone this season.
USC quarterback Cody Kessler was hitting his talented receiving corps while in the pocket and on the run. He went 12 of 14 in the first half for 158 yards and a touchdown, before finishing with 288 yards on 25 of 37 passing.
Gaffney put together the highlight of the night in the first half on a 35-yard touchdown to give the Cardinal its only lead of the day, 7-6. The running back was bottled up after getting a hand off and looked like he would be taken down for a loss before bouncing outside and finding open field to the goal line.
“You don’t ever assume you’re stopped as a ball carrier,” Gaffney said of the run. “You keep going until the whistle blows and sometimes even shortly thereafter.”
Stanford manufactured a field goal to end the first half to cut the Trojans’ lead to 17-10, closing the gap to one possession heading to the locker room. Gaffney led the Cardinal in the first 30 minutes with 80 yards on 12 rushes.
“We were lucky to be down seven,” admitted Shaw. “We held on as long as we could. [USC] played great in the first half, they really got after us.”
The Cardinal quickly turned the momentum of the game after the break with a 10-play, 92-yard drive. Gaffney ended it with an 18-yard scamper to even the score at 17, where it would stay for the next 23:03 of elapsed game time.
Stanford’s defense was punishing for the remainder of the contest, but the Cardinal continued to miss opportunities to take the lead. On the ensuing drive after Gaffney’s second touchdown, Stanford had a 30-yard field goal blocked and would later add two fourth-quarter interceptions to the list of squandered chances.
“In the second half we did a heck of a job. We didn’t make enough plays on offense and when we did make plays, they didn’t result in points,” Shaw added. “We got down there twice and got the field goal blocked and threw an interception. That’s not going to win on the road in this conference.”
The defense, which held USC to 23 yards on 13 carries in the first half, blanked the Trojans for zero rushing yards over 14 second-half carries. Linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov (9 tackles) led the charge. Murphy was a frequent visitor to the USC backfield, pestering the Trojans with eight tackles, two sacks and four tackles for loss.
Kessler called Stanford, “the best running defense we’ve faced all year” and went on to say, “Guys were doing their assignment and making blocks but seemed like those guys didn’t want to be moved. They were so big it was hard to get them off their blocks.”
USC’s five drives leading up to its game-winning field goal each went for 26 yards or less thanks to Murphy, Skov and the rest of the Cardinal front, before an untimely interception gave the Trojans prime field position to set up the finishing effort.
Su’a Cravens’ interception of Kevin Hogan gave the Trojans the ball at their own 44-yard line with 3:02 left. USC ate the clock with a series of run plays, short passes and a key fourth-down connection between Kessler and Marqise Lee to bring the ball to the Stanford 29-yard line with 25 seconds left. It was enough to give Heidari, who was previously 3-8 from 40 or more yards an opportunity for the winner.
“We lost, it’s not a good feeling,” Gaffney remarked. “We expect to win every game. This is the first time I’ve lost to them, I think it’s the first time anyone on the team has lost to them. It’s a tough thing to swallow.”
The Cardinal snapped a program-best four-game winning streak over USC with the loss. Stanford also falls from the top spot of the Pac-12 North Division.
The season continues next Saturday as Stanford plays host to California in the Big Game. The game time is to be announced.