Front to back, Stanford defense was solid

Stanford's defense pressured Matt Barkley all game and never allowed him to get in sync. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Whenever Stanford head coach David Shaw opens a news conference with: “As you know, I’m not one for making opening statements, but …” you know he wants to get something out there.

Shaw couldn’t say enough about his defense’s performance in Saturday’s 21-14 win over then No. 2 USC that propelled the Cardinal back into the top 10 and sent shockwaves through the college football landscape.

“[Defensive coordinator] Derek Mason and our defensive staff were phenomenal,” Shaw said. “We were playing a great team and those guys made some plays. We tried to make them one dimensional and throw the ball.”

Hold up ... you wanted to make them throw the ball? Matt Barkley. Robert Woods. Marqise Lee. You wanted to make those guys beat you? This all smacks of Rocky standing up to Clubber Lang shouting "You ain't so bad, you ain't so bad."All that's missing is some hackneyed movie dialogue: “It’s crazy, crazy enough that it just might work.”

Well, Shaw isn’t crazy. Mason isn’t crazy. Turns out we were the crazy ones for thinking that USC’s troika was unflappable. But Barkley, who turned in one of the worst performances of his career, was flapped. He completed 21 of 40 passes for 254 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Only twice in his career has he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, and both came in 2009.

Lee, the master of yards after the catch, never really broke free, despite eight catches for 100 yards. Woods was a non-factor with four catches for 38 yards. And though both of USC's touchdowns came on the ground, the Trojans were limited to 26 yards rushing because the Cardinal had nine tackles for a loss. USC had just two plays that went for more than 25 yards.

Stanford might have disguised some coverages and blitzes, but the Cardinal never disguised their intentions.

"That's one of the best front sevens in the country and they showed it [Saturday]," said USC coach Lane Kiffin. "You go back to last year an almost all of them coming back. I know [with Shayne Skov] returning in there, they're even better than last year."

Stanford’s front seven has a little saying. They like to throw a “party in the backfield.” Saturday night was a swinging soiree with Barkley as the unfortunate guest of honor. Stanford sacked Barkley four times and kept him under duress most of the game.

“We heard the talk all week about Barkley and Woods, and rightfully so,” said Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, who had five tackles including a sack and two tackles for a loss. “They’re a talented bunch. But we were really confident about playing them all week. We felt good about what we had and the way that guys were practicing. We knew that if we came out there with a lot of energy, played our hardest at every snap, good things would happen. "

Certainly, some of Stanford's success can be attributed to the fact that USC was without center Khaled Holmes, an All-American candidate and a favorite for the Rimington Award.

"If there was a game on the schedule you'd pick that you wouldn't want to be missing your senior center, this is it," Kiffin said. "One, because their nose [guard] is really good. Two, because of all the different fronts and all the calls that have to be made up there. I don't care who the backup was. You're going to miss it when you play this game."

But it wasn't just the pressure up front that was so devastatingly effective. It was also a banner game for Stanford safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds. Perceived as a preseason question mark for Stanford, which had to replace veterans leaders in Michael Thomas and Delano Howell, the secondary played physical and fearless. Richards had two interceptions -- on consecutive Barkley passes -- to go with four pass breakups. Two of the breakups came on third down, where the Trojans were an paltry 1-of-13.