STANFORD, Calif. - It doesn't take Andrew Luck to beat USC. That was the truth that Stanford revealed in its 21-14 comeback victory over the No. 2 Trojans in a Pac-12 football opener on Saturday night at Stanford Stadium.
How did this happen? A relentless defense, stunning running by Stepfan Taylor, and timely plays by quarterback Josh Nunes, including a 37-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Zach Ertz with 10:20 left in the game.
Safe to say, Stanford (3-0, 1-0) is back on the map as one of college football's elite, its AP No. 21 ranking is undoubtedly about to drop. The evidence comes from a performance that showcased talent far beyond Luck, its graduated superstar quarterback and the player that defined Stanford's back-to-back BCS bowl seasons and Top 10 finishes.
All of it inspired many of the sellout crowd of 50,360 to storm the field, content not to ponder questions of `How?' but simply to enjoy the results.
"We didn't go into this game thinking we had something to prove," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "That would be a distraction. We just played our game."
Think of it? Stanford has beaten the Trojans four consecutive years. For longtime Stanford fans, that streak seems unfathomable. In fact, it's never happened before.
But during the action, a more appropriate question seemed to be: `Is this possible?' The Cardinal trailed 14-7 in the third quarter and seemed to be out of ideas. Nunes had thrown two interceptions and was largely ineffective downfield.
Other than a spectacular 59-yard first-quarter rushing touchdown by Taylor, the ground game had bogged down too.
But the defense kept the Cardinal in the game. Again and again, when it appeared as if the Trojans were one score from breaking the game open, the defense made the plays that counted. Following Stanford's go-ahead score, USC had the ball twice but failed to score and combined for only two first downs.
USC receiver Robert Woods, for example, in the past two years had torched the Cardinal for a combined 21 catches for 313 yards and four touchdowns. On Saturday, he had four catches for 38 yards.
And USC's rushing yards? Remember, this is Tailback U. Twenty-six yards. Total.
It was the sixth consecutive time Stanford has held opponents under 100 yards rushing.
Stanford sacked Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley four times by four different players - the Trojans were sacked only eight times all last season. The Cardinal also had five other tackles for loss.
Barkley was pressured constantly, and his receivers were covered effectively. The result was a decent 20-for-41 night for Barkley for 254 yards, but he did not have a touchdown pass and threw two interceptions - one by Jordan Richards and another by Terrence Brown during a crazy swing of three interceptions on consecutive plays by both teams. It was the first time in 16 games that Barkley had no touchdown passes.
Barkley will finish his stellar collegiate career without a victory over Stanford, the only Pac-12 team that can claim such mastery over the player regarded as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Barkley is 17-6 against all other Pac-12 teams.
Indeed, the Cardinal defense was masterly in the second half, limiting the Trojans to 91 yards in total offense and five first downs. One on crucial third-quarter play with the Trojans holding a seven-point lead, USC (2-1, 0-1) went for it on a fourth-and-2 from the Stanford 13. But Barkley's pass to the hands of Soma Vainuku in the end zone was broken up by Ronnie Harris.
Barkley was sacked twice on the final drive and threw out of bounds on a final, desperate heave on fourth-and-39 from USC's 25-yard line.
"We've got a talented bunch," linebacker Shayne Skov said. "When we play together like that, it's so special."
Stanford scored on its next series to tie the game, on the second of Taylor's see-it-to-believe-it touchdowns - a 23-yard pass from Nunes during which Taylor evaded a series of four tacklers and dragged another into the end zone.
His first score may have been even more impressive: a weaving 59-yarder that immediately answered an early USC score. Taylor picked his hole, followed fullback Ryan Hewitt's block, then cut right behind a seal by tight end Levine Toilolo that took out two defenders. After making one more Trojan miss, Taylor was sprung by a downfield block by receiver Drew Terrell, and outran the defense the rest of the way.
He carried 27 times for 153 yards - tied the second-highest total of his career. Taylor also caught five passes for 60 yards, and his 213 yards of total offense were 51 percent of Stanford's 417.
"He's really the rock of the team," Nunes said. "He's very special runner and leader. He leads by example every day."
Nunes struggled through a first half in which he completed only 6 of 17 passes for 78 yards, with two interceptions. But in the second, he turned it around, completing 9 of 15 passes 137 yards and two scores, with no interceptions. His totals: 15 of 32 for 215 yards.
"The difference in the game was the defense," Nunes said. "They did it all night."
But the missing link was Nunes. As well as the defense played, it grew increasingly evident that it would take big plays from the redshirt junior Nunes, in his third career start, to make the difference between victory and defeat.
Nunes made them indeed - one with a fourth-quarter scramble on third-and-10 that gained 12. He looked to be pinned by three defenders short of the first down, but found a way to sidestep them for first-down yardage. Two plays later, Nunes hit Ertz -- who was split wide left against man coverage -- down the seam in stride. Ertz cut right to bypass two defenders and got a block from tight end Luke Kaumatule before diving into the end zone.
"It's a great win," Taylor said. "One we were prepared for."
Clearly. But for Stanford to complete its national re-emergence, more will need to come.
"We can't think this win is more special," Shaw said. "This was just a win against a good football team. But if we can give our best effort, we can beat anybody."