Victories against USC are prized. Never mind the pre-game chatter and records, you are usually assured of seeing a physical, exciting and intense battle that often comes down to heart and will.
That was the case again Saturday night, when Stanford overcame an 11-point deficit to stun the sixth-ranked Trojans in front of 78,306 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum, 41-31.
USC came into the Pac-12 Conference opener for both teams with a 2-0 record and had outscored opponents, 114-15. Those home wins came against Arkansas State and Idaho.
Stanford dropped its season-opener at Northwestern, 16-6, then regrouped for a 31-7 victory against UCF, which had won 30 games the last three years.
The point is, the Trojans had not been tested until Saturday night and the Cardinal had. Northwestern is now 3-0 and ranked 17th in the AP poll.
The Cardinal played sluggishly in the loss to Northwestern and had a poor first half against UCF. But in the second half, the offense found its rhythm and started to click. That momentum carried over Saturday night, as Stanford executed beautifully and thoroughly dominated the time of possession, keeping the explosive USC offense off the field.
It was the type of performance Stanford coach David Shaw has been waiting for from his players. And he knew it was only a matter of time.
"The difference between coaches and the rest of the sane world is we understand sometimes you just don't play well," said Shaw, whose team moved back into AP Top 25 rankings on Sunday at No. 21. "Outside of the coaching world, people look for somebody to blame. Our guys are a good team and we still have to grow together."
Fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who produced one of the best games of his distinguished Cardinal career, executed the game plan perfectly.
He called the practices leading into the game "incredible" and said that many players spent extra time watching film to be better prepared.
It paid off. Hogan hurt the Trojan defense with his mind, arm and legs. The majority of his passes were spot-on, two going for touchdowns, and his mobility in and out of the pocket kept plays and drives alive.
"We wanted to get them into the second half and take them into the deep water," he said. "It looked like Stanford football."
Jumping through Hooper: Junior tight end Austin Hooper caught a career-high four passes for 79 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown. Sophomore tight end Dalton Schultz added three receptions for 40 yards.
"It's huge for the program," Hooper said of the win. "The past couple of years we got really close. This year we put four quarters together and finished the job."
Looking ahead: Even before he left the noisy locker room, Shaw was already thinking about Friday night's game against Oregon State in Corvallis, Oregon. Not only is it a quick turnaround, players start classes on Monday.
"It's going to be hard to go up to Corvallis and win a football game," said Shaw. " We need to be ready for a quick week."
Oregon State is 2-1 and beat San Jose State on Saturday, 35-21.
All-purpose yardage: Sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey continues to do it all for the Cardinal. He powered for 115 yards against a big USC defensive front on a career-high 26 carries, caught three passes for 37 yards, and had 97 yards in returns to finish with 249 all-purpose yards.
He leads the Pac-12 with 195.33 yards per game and is fourth in the country.
Clear sailing: Senior place kicker Conrad Ukropina, from Pasadena, booted field goals of 42 and 46 yards, the latter with 2:27 remaining to put the game out of reach.
Ukropina, who found out Monday he received a scholarship, is now 5-of-5 on the season, and is one of only nine players in the FBS without a miss.
Trench success Shaw praised the play of his undermanned defensive line, which was without top reserve Nate Lohn. Aziz Shittu, Brennan Scarlet and Solomon Thomas all made big contributions.
Shittu made five tackles, including one for a loss, while Scarlett and Thomas had three each.
"Those guys are going to sleep well," said Shaw. "We needed them to survive."
Extra Points: Senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez matched his career-high with 14 tackles … Freshman wide receiver Trenton Irwin made two catches for 21 yards. All three of his receptions this season have given Stanford first downs … Former men's basketball star and assistant coach Mark Madsen, who helped lead Stanford to the Final Four in the 1998 NCAA Tournament, served as Stanford's honorary captain … Former Cardinal wide receiver and return specialist Damon Dunn delivered the pre-game chapel service … Former Stanford players Konrad Reuland and Will Svitek were on the sideline.