3 up, 3 down: USC 20, Stanford 17

LOS ANGELES -- A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s thrilling 20-17 victory over No. 4 Stanford on Saturday.

Three up

1. Andre Heidari

Having nearly lost his kicking job earlier in the season and having a less-than-memorable outing last weekend against California, Heidari’s fortunes appeared to be spiraling downward when his PAT attempt sailed wide right in the first quarter against Stanford. To his credit, however, he responded valiantly, hitting a key 23-yard field goal in the second quarter, before ultimately nailing a dramatic 47-yard game-winner, completing his transformation from goat to hero, all in one night.

2. USC defense

The Trojans' defense certainly rose to the challenge in this one, limiting the Cardinal to a season-low 17 points. A fast and swarming bunch that was paced by linebacker Anthony Sarao and his 12 tackles. The group showed a ton of heart and determination late, turning back, time and time again, a Stanford offense noted for its physical brand of play at the line of scrimmage. The performance of the safeties was particularly stellar down the stretch, with Dion Bailey and Su’a Cravens each recording clutch interceptions in the fourth quarter.

3. USC team resolve

The Trojans had every opportunity to let the game slip away, but even when their backs were against the wall, they simply refused to give in. That's a credit to the man who has instilled new life into the program, interim coach Ed Orgeron. In addition to the two interceptions by the defense, Chad Wheeler’s momentum-turning blocked field goal and a hobbled Marqise Lee’s improbable 13-yard reception on 4th-and-2 were plays indicative of a team that possesses a fierce will to win. It’s a mindset that has reached new heights under the direction of Orgeron, and it’s a big reason why he just might be USC athletic director Pat Haden’s best choice as the Trojans' next full-time coach. The gritty, never-say-die effort of USC quarterback Cody Kessler -- who completed 25-of-37 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown -- also deserves special mention.

Three down

1. USC run game

Averaging 185.9 rushing yards per game entering Saturday's contest, the Trojans were only able to compile 23 yards on the ground as the vaunted Cardinal defense completely stymied the USC run game. Spearheaded by outside linebacker Trent Murphy and inside linebacker Shayne Skov, the Stanford front seven simply overpowered the USC offensive line for much of the game, and the Trojans tailbacks never had a chance to get going.

2. USC second-half defensive lull

While it’s hard to pinpoint anything negative about a USC defense that played such an integral part in the victory, there were certainly instances in the second half where the Trojans looked to be worn down up front. At no time was this more apparent than early in the third quarter when the Cardinal offense ripped off a ten-play, 92-yard touchdown drive with typical Stanford efficiency. Following Wheeler’s blocked field goal on the following Cardinal possession, however, the USC defense appeared to get a burst of energy back that carried it through the rest of the contest.

3. USC pass coverage

Continuing a trend that has existed throughout the season, the cornerbacks struggled at times in coverage on Saturday night. Fortunately for the Trojans, however, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and his receivers had problems of their own, and they were never able to really capitalize on any of the opportunities presented to them. The most obvious example of this occurred on Stanford’s opening drive when Ty Montgomery, who had blown by USC cornerback Josh Shaw, dropped a perfect toss from Hogan deep downfield. Hogan also missed an open Montgomery on a long pass in the third quarter.