The formula to win football games is rather simple: Play defense, run the ball, don’t turn it over, get solid play on both lines and have some success on third downs. It's the worst kept, and most effective, secret.
There are exceptions to this, and strengths in certain areas can hide glaring weaknesses in others. Break too far away from this formula, however, and eventually things will come crashing down.
For USC, that’s exactly what happened in the Trojans' visit to Stanford. It didn’t seem like a tall task—not without Andrew Luck, key members of the offensive line and a defense that was solid, but certainly not capable of slowing down this offense and the Heisman Trophy favorite.
It didn’t just slow them down. It shut them down altogether.
This was not Matt Barkley’s best night. When he had time, his throws were off, and he was unable to connect with his two favorite targets, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, with any consistency. He was picked off on consecutive throws in the first half (you will never see that again), finished the evening without a touchdown pass and completed less than 50 percent of his throws.
And while he will take the brunt of the criticism, he didn’t have much of a chance. USC’s offensive line had no answers for the Stanford defense, and Barkley had little-to-no time to step into any of his throws on the majority of the snaps.
He was hit hard throughout the night, and USC’s running game didn’t help. In fact, the running game was nowhere to be found.
Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd were both banged up in this one, and the team finished with 26 rushing yards on 28 carries.
As for the all-important third-down conversions, USC was beyond inefficient, going 1-13 on these key plays. There’s a glaring connection between these two, although with those wideouts on the outside, that’s a hard stat to comprehend.
Stanford, however, went to the formula we anticipated. It ran the ball 37 times for more than 200 yards and averaged over five yards a carry on the evening. Josh Nunes made a handful of mistakes at quarterback, but he also kept plays alive with his legs and made a handful of big throws.
The offense was good, although give credit to the USC defense for hanging in there. The Trojans' defensive line was run over and around at times, but the secondary played a solid game, and the unit as a whole was not where this one crumbled.
Stanford dominated USC in the trenches. The Cardinal converted more than one-third of their third downs. They ran the ball incredibly well and made the USC offense uncomfortable the entire evening. Their blueprint wasn’t dazzling, and there wasn’t anything spectacular about it.
They stayed with the formula, and USC had no answers.
With the loss, many larger goals will likely come crashing down with it. The national-championship discussion will be put on hold, perhaps for good, and Matt Barkley will be bumped from all Heisman chatter until further notice.
With very little room for error under the current system, both of these may never surface again in 2012. It’s that easy to lose, and their fate now rests in the hands of others. The Trojans will have chances to resurrect these hopes—it is only Week 3—and a date with Oregon looms in early November.
Forget about the Ducks, however. Forget about the national championship, the Heisman and, perhaps, the unrealistic expectations we bestowed upon a team with glaring holes and serious depth issues. It makes for wonderful commentary, although that’s about it.
Our questions and concerns were answered.
They need to get back to the formula—if they can.