What a performance!
It wasn't the prettiest of games between ranked opponents in college football history, but the result proved that the USC Trojans have already taken massive steps early in the season.
From losing the second game of last season against Washington State in horrendous fashion, the Trojans finally put together the drive to reward its defense for an impressive bend-but-don't-break display against the Stanford Cardinal.
Following the 13-10 victory up in Palo Alto, USC sits alone in first place in the Pac-12 Conference.
Here are some performers that certainly deserve praise for uplifting the Trojans efforts on Saturday afternoon.
After struggling for most of the game to set the edge as the Trojans' edge rusher, J.R. Tavai made the biggest play of the game right when his defense needed to make a crucial stop. The senior charged unblocked from the left side storming towards quarterback Kevin Hogan searching for a "game changing" play for his fatigued squad.
"He was elusive. He did a great job of running away from us. He couldn’t run away on that last play," Tavai said of facing Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Unseen from the backside, Tavai hit Hogan knocked the football free with a perfectly-timed tackle ultimately propelling the Trojans to victory thanks to another red zone stand.
In a game USC desperately needed their defense to shine, Anthony Sarao tied with Leonard Williams for the game high of 11 tackles on defense. As the Cardinal continued to march the ball right down the field, Sarao was rolling sideline-to-sideline battling against emergent tight end Austin Hooper while also stuffing the Stanford running game to just 3.4 yards per carry.
After Hayes Pullard was ejected from the game with a targeting penalty on Stanford special teams ace Ty Montgomery, the other starting inside linebacker was asked to carry the load defensively. Sarao was asked to bear the load defensively in that third quarter. He responded and the former Stanford recruit did it in masterful stride.
While Nelson Agholor was fantastic on third down, take a look back to the drive USC started on the 3-yard line after stopping Stanford on fourth down. Who did Cody Kessler continue to target for big receptions down the field, looking to break a daunting 0-for-6 pace on third down conversions in the second half, none other than redshirt junior target George Farmer.
Finishing the game with four catches for 34 yards, Farmer played a huge role in sparking the Trojans' first scoring drive of the second half. After essentially going silent for a two-quarter stretch, USC's offense finally came to life once Kessler gave the football to George Farmer in space and let his talented wideout break tackle after tackle.
The Offensive Line
Tasked with the responsibility of protecting Cody Kessler against a strong Stanford pass rush, the combination of Zach Banner, Toa Lobendahn, Max Tuerk, Chad Wheeler, Damien Mama, Nathan Guertler and Viane Talamaivao stood strong.
Only surrendering two sacks, this talented but "somewhat" inexperienced unit paved the way for Buck Allen to sprint 154 yards on the ground averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
When asked after the game about their performance, especially in the teams' final game-winning drive, Allen was quite impressed with how his unit held up against a stiff test.
"I don't consider them young anymore."
If USC can continue to get solid pass protection, in a offense that only requires quick sets in three-to-five yard drops that get the ball out quickly, Cody Kessler can continue to make great plays on third down to move the chains.
We realize that his name will go on many of the front page headlines but given what has happened to Andre Heidari over the course of a 12-month span, this is a guy who deserved to chop down the Stanford Trees. If nailing his second game-winning kick against Stanford wasn't big enough, the coaching staff actually put trust in their senior kicker.
Following a somewhat tumultuous offseason filled with a kicking competition, major questions about his form and troubling results even in the first week of the season, USC needed a big kick and Andre Heidari delivered. He set a personal career-high nailing that 53-yard field goal, which arguably could have gone 56 or 57-- the Trojan record.
"I trusted myself, I trust the ball, the holder, the snapper. I'm glad I had the opportunity to do what I did last year," Andre Heidari said following the win.
Bonus: Pat Haden
Still not exactly sure what drew Pat Haden to the sidelines, but USC's Athletic Director was vibrant, adamant and well noticed during the second half. Interviewed by Heather Cox, jumping up and down for joy with defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and even fist pumping his players after the game, Haden was the man of the hour in Palo Alto.