The doubts about whether Stanford could remain a national power without Andrew Luck were dispelled with the Cardinal’s 21-14 upset of No. 2 USC on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
“When you lose one of the best quarterbacks in history, people are going to doubt with good reason whether you can continue to do what you do,” said Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, who had a sack and two tackles for losses.
The solid second-half play of Luck’s successor, Josh Nunes, who was 9-of-15 with two touchdowns and no interceptions after halftime, had a lot to do with the Cardinal’s rally from a 14-7 halftime deficit.
But it was the play of the Cardinal defense that enabled Stanford to make up for what it lost with Luck’s departure.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley did not look like a Heisman Trophy candidate against the Cardinal, completing just 20-of-41 passes for 254 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns. He was just 4-of-9 for 43 yards in the fourth quarter, and the Trojans were shut out in the second half, when they totaled just 91 yards.
The Cardinal limited USC to 26 yards on 28 rushing attempts for the game, an average of 0.9 yards per carry.
“That’s a great front seven,” USC’s Lane Kiffin said of Stanford’s front. “They’re better than last year. They could be the best front seven in the country.”
Stanford’s pass defense was its weakness last season and in the first two games this season against Duke and San Jose State, but Barkley was made to look very ordinary, especially in the second half, primarily because the Cardinal applied constant pressure and recorded four sacks.
The Cardinal were able to control the ball with its running game much of the second half. Stepfan Taylor rushed for 153 yards on 27 carries, including 11 attempts in the fourth quarter.
Stanford still has some things to prove, however, because it has yet to play a road game.
Off the mark: Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson started the season making his first five field goals. But he missed his final field goal attempt against Duke, a 38-yarder, and missed all three of his field goal tries against USC — a 47-yarder that hit the upright, a 23-yarder that was wide and a 51-yarder that was blocked.
Keep an eye on: Nunes is the key to the team’s success, and although he is 3-0 as a starter and played pretty well in the second half against USC, it’s too soon to proclaim him an elite quarterback. He was just 15 for 32 against USC and has completed only 53.4 percent of his passes.
What’s ahead: Stanford has nearly two weeks off before its next game — a Thursday road game against Washington and the Huskies’ strong passing attack on Sept. 27. That will give the Cardinal some time to get over the emotional victory over USC. The Cardinal then plays Arizona at home before going on the road for another tough road game against Notre Dame.