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Sarkisian's Trojans pass first big test

STANFORD, Calif. — USC coach Steve Sarkisian has a firm set of expectations when he coaches against Stanford.

“They don’t give you much,” he said. “You have to earn everything you get in all three phases.”

He certainly wasn’t expecting a smooth trip to Stanford Stadium, where the No. 14 Cardinal carried a nation-best 17-game home winning streak into Saturday's Pac-12 opener. Sarkisian has coached against the Cardinal enough in the past several years to understand a trip here is never easy.

The fact that the Trojans needed to overcome sloppy play, 10 penalties and the ejection of All-Pac-12 linebacker Hayes Pullard to win 13-10 actually fit what Sarkisian thought was a more plausible script.

“We had a feeling as a team that this game was going to be this type of game,” he said. “We just kept talking about continuing to fight through it and continuing to fight on and keep playing and keep playing through the adversity, which we were anticipating.”

Ultimately, two plays made the difference.

The first was a career-long, 53-yard field goal from Andre Heidari to put USC ahead by three with 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining. The second was a blind-side sack and forced fumble from linebacker J.R. Tavai in the final minute that returned the ball to USC and sealed the victory.

There will be a lot to get cleaned up, but in his first big test as coach at USC, Sarkisian couldn’t have been happier with a passing grade.

Stanford, on the other hand, is left wondering what went wrong. For long stretches, the Cardinal looked like the vastly superior team. It moved the ball effectively -- both through the air and on the ground -- and was physical on defense but simply failed to capitalize on the opportunities it created.

On each of its nine drives in the game, the Cardinal advanced to at least the USC 32-yard line but lost effectiveness the deeper it drove.

Kicker Jordan Williamson, who became the school’s all-time leading scorer last week, missed field goals of 49 and 26 yards. On what could have been two other field-goal attempts -- from 46 and 49 yards into a stiff wind on the other side of the field -- Stanford elected to punt.

“Against a team that is not really moving the ball a whole bunch on us, why take the chance [and kick]?” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “You want your defense to stand up and keep the field position. I'm going to keep making those calls. I feel great about our defense.”

That mentality factored into his decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the USC 3-yard line late in the third quarter -- only to see freshman fullback Daniel Marx come up short.

“The problem in the red zone right now is me,” Shaw said. “I've got to get back to work and make sure we're doing things that our guys can do [and] put them in positions to be successful.

“It's not about being a genius, it's not about orchestrating all kinds of other things; it's about going down there and executing our plays," Shaw added. "We had opportunities. We didn't take advantage of them. When we had a guy open, we had a protection issue. When we had the protection, we didn't get the guy open.”

The bottom line is USC made the plays when it mattered. Stanford did not.

What that means moving forward is irrelevant, but the Trojans have to like where they sit. With a favorable schedule coming up -- the Trojans have Arizona State at home and miss Oregon -- USC is currently projected by the ESPN Football Power Index to have a 10-0 record headed into its game with UCLA on Nov. 22.

“What Coach Sark has done for this team -- got these guys believing not only in him, but each other, everybody involved in the Trojan family -- is unbelievable,” USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. “I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

Stanford faces an uphill battle to claim its third consecutive Pac-12 title but needs to look only to last year to realize it’s possible. The Cardinal emerged from the Pac-12 North a two-loss team a year ago -- with one of those losses to USC -- before they won the conference title game and advanced to the Rose Bowl.