Stanford 21, USC 14: Cardinal outplay Trojans in every phase of the game on a way to an upset win

College football fans from the North, East, Midwest and Pacific Coast, welcome to your personal version of hell: After three weeks of the season, we’re headed for another Alabama-LSU BCS Title Game.

Ok, so that’s a major exaggeration.  However, the college football landscape was shaken up in a big way Saturday night, when one of the teams that many thought would end up facing the SEC’s best in Miami next January went down in flames.  

That team was the USC Trojans. And on Saturday night they got upset 21-14 at Stanford.

Folks, we’ve got our first mega-upset of the college football season.

Reflecting back on the game, there’s honestly no way to sugar-coat it: From just after the first series of Saturday’s game, the Cardinal were simply the better team. The defensive front overwhelmed ‘SC’s thin offensive line, quarterback Josh Nunes had the game of his young career, and David Shaw outcoached Lane Kiffin in every way one man can out-coach the other. In the process, the Cardinal proved that their 23 wins in the past two seasons were about much more than Andrew Luck, and that they will again be a player in this year’s Pac-12 title race.

As for the particulars, well, the story of the game was USC’s inability to get anything going on offense. For a school which had scored 38 points or more in the six games since their last loss (ironically to Stanford last season), the Trojans couldn’t do anything right Saturday evening. They finished with just 276 yards of total offense, and incredibly went 0 of 12 on third down conversions. For an offense which was considered the best in college football, they didn’t score a single point after the 11 minute mark of the second half.

Frankly, it’s tough to say where the problems really began for the Trojans.

Most will point to an anemic offensive line which played without starting center Khaled Holmes for most of the game (he missed most of the second half with an injury suffered last week against Syracuse), and because of it, Stanford’s pass rush had a field day against Matt Barkley all night long. Still plenty of the blame has to go to Barkley himself, who struggled even when he wasn’t pressured in the pocket. At times he overthrew his receivers. At times he underthrew them. At times he threw it behind them. But rarely were his passes on point. All things considered, a case could be made that this was the worst game of Barkley’s entire career.

Still, plenty of credit needs to go to Shaw, who built a perfect game-plan to beat the Trojans and executed it to success.

And if anything, it was actually the offense which was a bigger story than the defense Saturday. With Shayne Skov returning from suspension last week, we knew Stanford’s D would be improved, but nobody could’ve predicted how well the offense would play. Not with Josh Nunes entering the game completing just 57 percent of his passes on the season, and not with Stepfan Taylor rushing for just 68 yards against Duke last week.

Only both were brilliant Saturday.

For Nunes, Shaw drew up a beautiful game-plan which emphasized short, simple passes to get rid of the ball quickly and keep his young quarterback comfortable in the pocket. It resulted in Nunes throwing for 215 yards, including four to Taylor in the flats. Speaking of Taylor, he did the rest from there, moving the chains, chewing up the clock and overwhelming the ‘SC defense. He finished the night with 156 yards rushing, for an average of 5.6 carries.

What’ll be interesting to see now is to see how this result affects things going forward. The Cardinal will likely be ranked in the Top 15 come Monday, but will remain heavy underdogs in the Pac-12 North to Oregon. After what we saw on Saturday there’s no reason to think Stanford couldn’t win, but at the same time, the Ducks have had Stanford’s number these last few years.

Speaking of Oregon, all of a sudden, that November 3rd trip to USC doesn’t look nearly as daunting for the Ducks, as it did just days ago. The Trojans are obviously capable of beating Oregon (as they did last year), but will need a better effort on both sides of the ball for things to even be close.

And as for the Trojans BCS title dreams?

Well, they better win every game from here out, win those games big, and hope for losses by others along the way. As we’ve learned in college football time and time again, if you’re going to lose, go ahead and do it early. If there is one silver-lining for ‘SC it’s that the loss came on September 15, not two months later.

Still, for those Trojans fans who’d already booked their tickets to Miami, well, you might want to look into a refund.

USC’s National Championship hopes weren’t completely eliminated in the middle of September.

But they are on life support.

For all his opinion, insight and articles on college football, please follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.