STANFORD, Calif. (AP)—USC went to halftime trailing and flailing, down by 11 points and stung by an 82-yard run through the heart of its defense on Stanford’s final play.
Reggie Bush was worried the locker room would resemble a funeral. Instead, the top-ranked Trojans seemed thrilled to be in a close game—and they rode a wave of halftime emotion to a 31-28 victory Saturday night.
“I don’t think it was anger. It was excitement,” said Bush, whose spinning 33-yard punt return set up LenDale White’s go-ahead score with 6:15 left. “These are the type of games that we miss, that we love. It’s easy to blow a team out. When you win a game like this, you feel so much better. You feel great.”
Matt Leinart passed for 308 yards and White scored on a 2-yard run to cap the Trojans’ comeback. Steve Smith caught eight passes for 153 yards and a touchdown, and Bush contributed 95 yards rushing and the pivotal punt return to Southern California’s 13th straight victory.
But the final result didn’t seem nearly as important to the Trojans (4-0) as the thrill of making an impressive comeback. Sure, USC has a roster stuffed with high school all-Americans and NFL prospects, but even the best individual talents need chemistry and camaraderie.
Freshmen exhorted their upperclassmen counterparts for better efforts. Team leaders spoke up. Coach Pete Carroll made big adjustments to the Trojans’ passive zone defense—and everyone got behind a common goal.
“At halftime, this was the first time this team really had a chance to bond,” defensive end Shaun Cody said. “It was a real special moment. It was the first time you felt everybody together as one. We’re not always going to blow teams out. You need these kinds of nights to get a real team together.”
The defense blamed itself for the 28-17 deficit after yielding 291 yards in the first half, so USC changed its timid scheme and gave up just 36 after halftime in both schools’ Pac-10 opener. Leinart’s offense did the rest, scoring two touchdowns and holding the ball for 18 minutes.
But until Trent Edwards’ final pass fell incomplete, the nation’s second-longest winning streak was in danger across the San Francisco Bay from the site of the defending national champions’ most recent defeat, at California last season.
“I think you have to build on a loss, but right now it’s going to take a few days to realize what kind of opportunity we had to make a statement nationally and beat a team like this,” said Edwards, 23-of-35 for 183 yards and two touchdowns. “This whole team expected to win that game.”
In the first half, lightly-regarded Stanford (2-1) shocked the thousands of USC fans at Stanford Stadium with a series of attention-grabbing plays, scoring on a fake field goal and adding J.R. Lemon’s stunning TD run as time ran out.
It was all too reminiscent of the Trojans’ 34-31, triple-overtime loss in Berkeley last fall. That game featured similarly tentative defensive play, another big first-half deficit and a poor performance by Leinart.
But Leinart was nearly flawless against Stanford, going 24-of-30 and finally getting his offense going late in the third quarter on Smith’s 51-yard reception to the Stanford 12. Leinart scored on a 1-yard keeper, cutting the lead to four points.
Ryan Killeen missed a 23-yard field goal on the Trojans’ next drive with 11:10 to play, but Bush’s 33-yard punt return set up a short drive culminating in White’s TD dive.
Stanford couldn’t reach midfield on its final drive, with Frostee Rucker flattening Edwards on a fourth-down incompletion. USC then ran out the final 3 1/2 minutes, kneeling inside the Stanford 15.
Though Stanford’s offense floundered in the second half, it was an encouraging night for the Cardinal, who were beaten by a combined 93-38 in the schools’ last two meetings.
“Of course we can take a lot of positives out of this, but I told the team there’s no point in coming close,” coach Buddy Teevens said. “It’s a loss. We had the opportunity, and we let it go.”
When Stanford took the lead midway through the second quarter on Patrick Danahy’s 2-yard TD catch, the Cardinal cheered, danced and squirted water on each other on the sideline.
Stanford set up for a field goal on its next possession—but holder Kyle Matter, the backup quarterback, picked up the snap and ran untouched around the right end for a score 3 minutes before halftime.
The final play epitomized USC’s defensive ineptitude. Lemon simply was trying to run out the clock—but he split the line and roared through the secondary, outrunning every defender for a touchdown that sent Stanford Stadium into a frenzy.
“That was my fault,” Carroll said. “I called the wrong thing. But I told the guys at halftime that this would only make us tougher. This will benefit us every day for the rest of the season.”