LOS ANGELES — Here lies the USC-Stanford rivalry, buried under 56 layers of Trojan avalanche.
Here lies the 118-year-old historical clash of California titans, the first death blow coming since news first broke a year ago that USC was ditching the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in summer 2022, setting in motion a slow Pac-12 collapse that forced Stanford to flee across the country to the ACC.
Bleeding out with USC’s ascension under Lincoln Riley and Stanford’s rebuild under Troy Taylor, a world of space between them.
And put in the dirt, officially, on September 9, 2023, with a first-half USC massacre so brutal that parents should’ve shielded children’s eyes, a 56-10 drubbing where Riley-and-company came out of the bell delivering unrelenting uppercuts to a Cardinals team down by the end of the first quarter. Caleb Williams threw for 300 yards in the first half, and USC rung up 49 points in the first half, and the touchdowns came so early and so often that poor loyal horsey Traveler was evidently run too ragged to come out by the waning minutes of the second quarter.
This was a lopsided matchup on paper, sure, sixth-ranked USC squaring off against a Stanford team far from the days of Jim Harbaugh and what’s-your-deal? And time had washed through the sands of history here, former Stanford transfer and USC running back Austin Jones verbally shrugging in pre-week availability, calling Saturday’s matchup “just another game.”
But after USC’s Week 1 game against Nevada, Riley delivered his commandment – this would be the last time these two teams could meet for a while, and so let the Coliseum rock. History, Riley reiterated a few days later, wasn’t lost on his Trojans. This was a chance to write the final chapter of a century-old novel.
“The significance is certainly there, and we’ve talked about that with our guys,” Riley said Thursday. “We’re not shy about it.”
There was no meekness, no hesitancy, from USC’s offense from the kickoff, Riley attacking Stanford’s defense with a West Coast-style offense. The Trojans went eight plays in 3:01 on their first drive, capped off by a 21-yard touchdown run by Williams where he slowed to a jog before bull-rushing a defender into the end zone.
The ensuing onslaught was relentless, USC’s offense embroiled in a game of Madden where Williams simply spammed fake-handoff dumps to skill position players in the flat. MarShawn Lloyd and Austin Jones capped off runs with touchdowns, and Zachariah Branch turned on the burners for a 75-yard punt-return score, and USC piled up dink-and-dunk drives that each took less than five minutes before Williams finally blew the top off with a 75-yard bomb to Brenden Rice midway through the second quarter.
The true statement, though, came from a defense that was inconsistent in USC’s first game against San Jose State, notably better against Nevada, and consistently smothered Stanford on Saturday. On the Cardinal’s first drive after Williams’ keeper, Georgia transfer Bear Alexander dug through the defensive line so quickly it spooked Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels into a floater picked off by safety Max Williams.
After Alexander came to USC in part to be an every-down lineman, according to ESPN, he’s been a mainstay and a revelation on the interior for the Trojans, creating consistent pressure on Saturday in both pass and run situations.
“You can tell when he cuts it loose,” Riley said in fall camp, “and you can see his gifts.”
Solomon Byrd and Jamil Muhammad added highlights with strip-sacks, both building on stellar years thus far. USC’s defense held Stanford to 146 first-half yards, and the crowning moment came in the third quarter amid half-empty seats, when a pass breakup from a consistently tenacious Calen Bullock clinched a goal-line turnover on downs.
It was as perfect a stretch of football as USC’s played in recent memory. It was a no-foot-off-the-gas statement, as Riley blustered and bellowed in his headset while up by 46 points. And it will stand, for now, as the burial of USC-Stanford.
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