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USC turns on memory drive

No. 6 Trojans flirt with another Stanford shocker, then running game ignites second-half surge to 45-23 victory

November 16, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer

PALO ALTO — The stadium was different, but the feeling was hauntingly familiar.

At least for a while.

Much of Saturday's game between sixth-ranked USC and Stanford stirred memories of last season when the Cardinal pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history at the Coliseum.

"It felt that way at first," USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said of a game that was tied late in the third quarter on Saturday.

USC avoided a similar finish, and elimination from Bowl Championship Series title-game consideration, by asserting itself defensively in the second half.

Perhaps more important, the Trojans turned to their running backs and offensive line en route to a 45-23 victory before 50,425 at Stanford Stadium.

After looking spotty and playing to a 17-17 tie in the first half, USC regrouped and scored 28 unanswered points before the Cardinal managed a touchdown on the final play.

"Everybody always wants everything to look exactly like it's supposed to, but it doesn't," Coach Pete Carroll said. "You have to return, hopefully, to who you are and we did tonight."

USC's seventh consecutive victory improved its record to 9-1 overall and 7-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference. It also kept the Trojans in the mix for the Rose Bowl and sustained their longshot bid to reach the BCS title game.

C.J. Gable returned a kickoff 93 yards for a game-tying touchdown in the second quarter and also rushed for a touchdown in the fourth, combining with Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight to pace a running game that amassed 282 yards.

But it was far from a masterpiece for the Trojans, who stumbled on offense and defense throughout the first 30 minutes and gave away a fumble midway through the third quarter before taking control and sending the Cardinal to its first home defeat this season.

Consider:

Stanford drove 80 yards on its first possession, outgained the Trojans, 210-90, in the first half, and amassed 367 yards in the game, the most surrendered by USC this season.

Running back Toby Gerhart and quarterback Tavita Pritchard broke off long runs to set up touchdowns that helped the Cardinal build a 17-10 lead.

USC's defense had given up only 13 points in its last five games combined.

As was the case in their loss at Oregon State on Sept. 25, the Trojans missed multiple tackles.

"I don't want to say it was an ugly win because I thought the offense played real well but the defense didn't play our best game," said linebacker Brian Cushing, who all but sealed the victory with a fourth-quarter interception. "We're going to have nights like that.

"Luckily, we got that out of our system. I hope so."

On an unseasonably warm day, the Trojans got hot after a regrouping at halftime, a scenario that played out here in 2004 as well.

USC rushed for only 39 yards in 13 attempts in the first half on Saturday, but offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called running plays 30 times in the second half and the Trojans amassed 243 yards rushing.

That sat well with the running backs.

"Once we start rolling, everything starts to open up," said Gable, who rushed for 85 yards.

Johnson said that when one member of the backfield makes a big play, the others "get amped" and try to top it.

"It's a domino theory that that we work with and that's the pleasure of having so many great backs in one backfield," said Johnson, who finished with 115 yards and two touchdowns in 14 carries.

Gable's electrifying kickoff return along the left sideline helped the Trojans go into the locker room at halftime tied, 17-17.

The Trojans gave Stanford an opportunity to get back into the game when fullback Stanley Havili lost a fumble in the third quarter at the Cardinal 15-yard line. But Stanford couldn't capitalize, and Johnson's seven-yard touchdown run off right tackle gave USC a 24-17 lead with 2 minutes 36 seconds left in the quarter.

The Trojans got the ball back early in the fourth quarter and Gable keyed a 70-yard scoring drive with gains of 24 and 19 yards before ending it with a three-yard run for a 31-17 lead.

Johnson deflated the Cardinal on USC's next possession, taking a handoff on third and 14 from the Trojans' six-yard line and bolting 44 yards to midfield. On the next play, quarterback Mark Sanchez connected with Havili for a 50-yard touchdown pass play and a 38-17 lead.

"We had them backed up . . . and could have gotten a stop there and got the ball back at midfield," Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Give them credit for moving the ball the length of the field."

Sanchez, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, credited the offensive line and the running backs.

He also said: "We need to start out games like that like we did in the third and fourth quarter and then finish like we did tonight."

Gerhart, the former Norco High star, finished with 101 yards and a touchdown in 23 carries. Pritchard, who engineered last year's 24-23 upset against the Trojans in his first start, completed nine of 22 passes for 111 yards.

USC has an open date this week before playing host to Notre Dame on Nov. 29 and then finishing the season at the Rose Bowl against UCLA.

--

gary.klein@latimes.com.

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