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STANFORD, Calif. – It's official now. USC stands for Undeniably Stanford's Chumps.
There is no escaping that reality. The names of the players and coaches change, but the result remains the same. It's not a fluke and it's not a blip. Luck, literally and figuratively, had nothing to do with it.
Stanford's four-year ownership of all things Troy is not just a Jim Harbaugh thing – we learned that last year. And it is not just an Andrew Luck thing – we learned that Saturday night, when the post-Andrew Cardinal wore down USC in a 21-14 field stormer at Stanford Stadium.
It is a program thing. Stanford is simply better than USC. Don't act so shocked.
OK, you can act a little shocked. Even the Cardinal players are surprised at the big picture.
"If you'd told us this four years ago (when the core of this team arrived as freshmen in Palo Alto), I don't think anybody would have believed it," said senior linebacker Shayne Skov, part of a unit that punished Matt Barkley for 60 relentless minutes.
Believe it now. The Cardinal was better than the Trojans when its star was Toby Gerhart in 2009. It was better than the Trojans when its star was Luck in 2010 and '11. And now it is better than the Trojans when its star is Stepfan Taylor, the hard-edged running back who gouged USC for 213 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
Doesn't matter whether it's Jim Harbaugh bedeviling Pete Carroll or David Shaw owning Lane Kiffin. Doesn't matter whether it's an offensive shootout or a defensive slugfest. Doesn't matter whether USC is ranked 11th in the AP poll (2009) or unranked (2010) or 20th (2011) or second (this year).
Just about the only constant during this run has been golden boy Barkley, who might have seen his Heisman Trophy hopes buried in the Stanford Stadium grass. Barkley was battered all night – sacked four times, knocked down many more times. That game-long discomfort, combined with excellent coverage and tackling in the secondary against USC's big-play wide receivers, left Barkley with a sketchy stat line: 20 of 41 for 254 yards, with two interceptions and no touchdown throws.
It was Barkley's first game without a TD pass since his sophomore year. And unless he gets another shot at the Cardinal in the Pac-12 championship game, he will depart college 0-for-Stanford.
"We were prepared," Barkley said. "They played better."
They are better. Demonstrably better Saturday night.
Stanford outgained USC by 137 yards. On the ground it was a total mismatch, 202 yards to 26. If the Cardinal had a reliable kicker – Jordan Williamson missed two field goals and had a third blocked – this wouldn't have been as close as it was.
"We have talked about not being a flash in the pan," Shaw said. "We don't want to be a team that is known for one victory; we want to be known for victory after victory. We want to be consistent, stacking wins on top of wins.
"To me, the storyline is that we are able to maintain a high level of play even after losing a lot of good football players. … We have maintained."
More than anything, Stanford has maintained the physical identity Harbaugh hard-wired into the program during his brilliant four-year tenure at The Farm. He turned a pastel program black and blue, developing a pipeline of thick linemen, tight ends and fullbacks who embraced the dirty work that went with a brawny running game.
Even with Luck playing at an exalted level, tough-man football remained the Stanford DNA. And now that Luck is gone that's more true than ever.
That meant 27 carries from Taylor, who also had a team-high five catches as part of an effective Stanford screen game. As the thin Trojans wore down late, Taylor revved up.
"We were going to keep giving him the ball," Shaw said. "He never gets tired, he drags people, he breaks tackles. … We typically like to rest him, but when we need him – I told him this two years ago – we are going to put a saddle on him and ride him."
But Taylor wasn't the only Stanford runner to break tackles. Quarterback Josh Nunes, the guy with the thankless task of replacing the best quarterback prospect of the past 15 years, had three key scrambles for 33 yards in the second half.
"Shocking is what it was," Shaw said. "Shocking. He is not a runner, but you can't measure heart. He broke tackle after tackle. … He'll watch that film and wonder who that was."
Nunes struggled for most of the first half throwing the ball, and his final passing numbers were nearly as inartistic as Barkley's: 15 of 32 for 215 yards, with two interceptions and two touchdowns. But he seemed to grow into the moment in the fourth quarter, not just with the clutch runs but also threading a gorgeous, 37-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Ertz for the winning score with 10:20 left.
The lead was seven but might as well have been 70. USC's hyped offense went nowhere in the second half, and especially in the fourth quarter. The Trojans' six second-half possessions netted a total of 64 yards and zero points, and their offensive line was routed in the final minutes.
Aside from Barkley, the big loser Saturday night was Kiffin.
He inherited Barkley, wideout Robert Woods and stellar safety T.J. McDonald from Pete Carroll. He recruited wideout Marqise Lee and lucked into Penn State transfer running back Silas Redd. He has plenty of talent, if not a lot of depth – but a guy with a 32-29 career head-coaching record in college and the pros still has to prove he can win big.
This was supposed to be the year that happened. And this was supposed to be the year the Trojans finally beat the Cardinal.
This may no longer be the year the Trojans win big, and it's definitely not the year they beat the Cardinal. For the fourth straight season, USC is Undeniably Stanford's Chumps.
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