The Rose Bowl is located 14 miles north of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on I-110 and the only way Stanford will play there this season is by winning the Pac-12 Conference football conference championship.
The road to the conference title is fraught with danger and hidden traps. On Saturday, the Cardinal looked its first dangerous situation squarely in the eye and conquered it, making the road to the Rose Bowl slightly less dangerous.
Stanford's 41-31 victory over host No. 6 USC proved it is indeed a Rose Bowl contender.
Remound Wright scored three touchdowns and Kevin Hogan passed for 279 yards on a near-flawless 18-of-23 passing performance, with two touchdown passes and no interceptions, in the Pac-12 opener at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The lead changed hands three times and the teams combined for 901 yards, but Stanford overcame an 11-point second-quarter deficit and outscored the Trojans 31-10 for the final 2 1/2 quarters. Though Hogan was left hobbled for much of the second half after getting his lower leg twisted, the Stanford line was at its best, protecting him and enabling the Cardinal to eat up the clock.
"Everyone else just helped me out," Hogan said. "They put me on their shoulders. The O-line opened holes even I could run through."
Asked about his injury, Hogan simply said, "I feel great after this one. That was awesome."
Unranked Stanford is 2-1 overall and 1-0 in the Pac-12 while the Trojans (2-1, 0-1) suffered their first loss. It was Stanford's first victory in the series since 2012, but its fifth in their past seven meetings.
The victory was in contrast to the 16-6 season-opening loss at Northwestern that dropped then-No. 21 Stanford out of the AP Top 25. After struggling for much of the first half last week against Central Florida, the Cardinal offense came to life in a 31-7 victory and kept the momentum going against USC.
"I've said from the beginning, we can be efficient running and efficient throwing," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "There's no such thing as an upset in college football."
On Hogan's performance, Shaw said "He's what we expected this year. He's not doing anything he hasn't done before." He's just doing it better.
Stanford played in the style it's been known for the past several years, complementing power football with an efficient passing attack. Christian McCaffrey rushed for 115 yards on 26 carries and the Cardinal rushed for a season-high 195 yards.
Stanford was 8-for-12 on third-down conversions, dominated the time of possession, 39:29 to 20:31, and was 6-for-6 from the red zone, with five of those drives ending in touchdowns. In all, Stanford scored on seven of its 10 possessions, with the last ending on a kneel by Hogan to end the game.
"Stanford came ready to play like we knew they would," USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. "They are an extremely well-coached football team and came out and executed their game plan on a high level."
For a while, the Cardinal looked like it was losing ground by not matching USC touchdown for touchdown. But Stanford overcame a 21-10 deficit by scoring two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the first half, including the go-ahead score with three seconds left.
Wright capped a 9-play, 84-yard drive with a one-yard plunge with 3:53 left in the second quarter to bring Stanford within 21-17. The drive took 5:36 off the clock and Stanford never found itself in a third-down situation. A big play was a leaping grab by tight end Austin Hooper between two defenders, to the USC 1.
The Stanford defense responded by recording its second stop of the game, with Joey Alfieri sacking Cody Kessler on third-and-long to force the punt. Shaw called a timeout on fourth down and kept another in his pocket even as the Cardinal rolled down the field against the Trojans and against the clock.
Taking over at its own 22 with 1:26 left and one timeout remaining, Hogan was 4-for-4 passing on the drive. Stanford faced only one third down a third-and-8 from the USC 49, but Hogan connected with Dalton Schultz for 21 yards.
After spiking the ball to stop the clock, Hogan found Devon Cajuste for a 17-yard score. Cajuste lined up on the right and beat USC's super sophomore Adoree Jackson, who slipped as Cajuste made his cut. Cajuste caught the ball while falling to his left before the safety could reach him.
In the first half, Hogan completed 13 of 17 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. He completed passes to nine different receivers. Kessler was 10 of 12 for 164 and two touchdowns. Stanford and USC combined for 601 first-half yards.
USC retook the lead on its first drive of the second half. Moments before, Hogan endured consecutive sacks, the second sending him hobbling to the sidelines. A poor punt only 22 yards set USC up in excellent field position at the Stanford 40. The Trojans converted a fourth-and-3 on a short pass to Darreus Rogers for 13 yards, and Tre Maddon took a backward pass five yards for the score when the Stanford defense was slow to line up.
Stanford re-took the lead the third lead change of the game when Wright again scored on short-yardage, from one yard out with 4:55 left in the third quarter for a 31-28 lead. Hogan was not as mobile, but the Cardinal protected him. He completed a three-yard pass to Cajuste on third-and-3 early in the drive and Wright converted again on third down with a 27-yard run off left tackle.
USC hurt itself by taking itself out of a third-and-short with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the play. That set up an opportunity for Stanford to extend its lead, which it did. The Cardinal chewed 8:24 off the clock during an 11-play, 46-yard drive that ended with Wright's third touchdown, from 1 yard.
Two big plays extended the drive. The first when Hogan called his own number, faking a pass to the right and tucking and running on a draw for 10 yards. On another third-and-long, Hooper, who had scored Stanford's first touchdown, made a 15-yard catch to the 1. Hooper had four catches for 79 yards.
"We knew Austin would be one of best tight ends in the nation," Shaw said. "We had to make sure we got him opportunities to make plays because he's a tough match up. He made some big catches."
USC closed to 38-31 with help from a 40-yard kickoff return by Jackson. Alex Wood kicked a 36-yard field goal with 9:19 left in the fourth quarter.
Stanford needed to use the clock and indeed dropped 6:47. Snapping deep in the play clock and keeping the ball on the ground with one exception, Stanford did all it needed to keep USC at bay. A 15-yard screen to McCaffrey on third-and-8 was the lone exception to the ground attack. The drive ended with Hogan trying to run for a first down.
Conrad Ukropina kicked a 46-yard field goal to make it a two-score game and essentially clinch the victory, assuming USC did not score quickly. Ukropina was two-for-two on field-goal tries in the first game on scholarship. Ukropina, a senior, learned he had earned a scholarship during a team meeting Monday.
Before the game, Shaw had told everyone who had played in a Pac-12 title game to stand up. It was nearly half the team. The point: Stanford was used to playing in big games.
"We need to act like it and play like it," Shaw said.
They did indeed. But Stanford does have Oregon State in Corvallis on Friday night, the first North Division matchup this season.
"The guys were celebrating after the game, but I reminded them we don't get a trophy for this one," Shaw said. "It's a regular season game against a conference opponent that we won on the road. That's great. But we get back to work. We get one night to celebrate and we need to get ready to play next week."
But it sure feels good to beat USC.