By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Competing against the second-ranked team in the country in only your third collegiate start is a tall task. Doing it against a Monte Kiffin-coached defense compounds the challenge.
The veteran Kiffin, father of USC head coach Lane Kiffin, is officially listed as associate head coach. But his specialty is defense, which he coached in the NFL for 26 years.
For much of the game Saturday night at sold-out Stanford Stadium, Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes struggled to find his rhythm. But when it really mattered, he came through big, throwing a game-winning 37-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Ertz early in the fourth quarter to lead 21st-ranked Stanford to a 21-14 upset over the second-ranked Trojans.
"They did a few different wrinkles," said Nunes, now 3-0 as a starter. "They have a really sound defense. They know what they want to do and did it well." Nunes completed 15-of-32 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns, and was intercepted twice. But he kept his poise, and for the first time this season, used his legs to extend drives, running three times for 33 yards.
"Just the right opportunity to do it," a blushing Nunes said. "I'm not really known as a runner. I've got to do a better job of protecting myself. They got some good hits on me."
The scrambles were definitely spontaneous.
"Shocking is what it was," said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "He's not a runner. It's heart is what it was. He never did it in high school. He made some unbelievable runs and broke some tackles."
After watching Nunes connect on only 6-of-17 first-half passes for 78 yards, Shaw was especially pleased with the way he hung tough and kept battling.
"Josh was never rattled," he said. "He's a fighter. He's steady as a rock." The Stanford offense had been saving the pass route to Ertz for exactly the right time. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton noticed USC playing a single safety and called the play.
"Zach ran a great route and the o-line gave me great protection," said Nunes. "It was something we had been setting up all game."
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In Stanford's triple-overtime victory last year, the defense failed to sack USC quarterback Matt Barkley. That was a priority this year and the unit responded with four sacks and more than dozen big hits on the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. It also collected nine tackles for losses.
"We heard all the talk all week about Barkley and (Robert) Woods," said defensive end Ben Gardner. "And rightfully so. We were confident if we played our hardest on every snap, good things would happen."
Inside linebacker Shayne Skov, making his second start of the season, fired up his teammates before the game.
"Shayne gave a great speech," Gardner said. "He said they're going to hit us in the mouth; we're going to have to hit them right back.
"Shayne is an inspirational leader for us, no doubt. It can't help but rub off onyou."
Skov missed most of last season with a knee injury and implored his fellow players to seize the moment.
"We knew we were going to trade blows," he said. "We had to stay confident. Everybody made plays. When we play together like that, it's something special. We hit Matt Barkley on every other play."
Case in point: four different players secured sacks; nine players were involved in tackles-for-losses; and strong safety Jordan Richards intercepted two passes. The Cardinal limited USC's high-potent offense to 1-of-13 on third down.
Nobody was more appreciative than Nunes.
"That was the difference in the game," he said. "The defense did it all night. It definitely gave us a huge confidence boost."
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Fullback Ryan Hewitt started after missing the first two games with an ankle injury. ... Cardinal punter Daniel Zychlinksi launched a career-long 67-yard boot in the second quarter ... Stanford WR Ty Montgomery nearly broke the opening kickoff for a touchdown, returning it 64 yards ... It was a tough night for placekicker Jordan Williamson. He missed a 47-yard-field goal that hit the left upright; had a 51-yard attempt blocked, although the snap was high; and missed a 23-yard attempt. However, he did make a potential touchdown-saving tackle on Marqise Lee on a fourth quarter kickoff return ... Stanford has won 11-straight games in month of Sept. (14 of last 15), and has started 3-0 for the third-consecutive season ... Saturday's game marked the 11th time both schools have been ranked in AP poll ... Sign in the Stanford student section: "It wasn't just LUCK." ... Former Stanford Associate Athletic Director Charles Davis served as a color analyst for Fox Sports for the nationally-televised contest ... Bill Campbell, Chairman of the Board and former CEO of Intuit Inc., served as Stanford's Honorary Captain ... Former Stanford basketball standout Robin Lopez visited the press box. He was in town for a basketball reunion.