Takeaways from Stanford's 20-17 loss to USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum…
Red Zone Woes: Stanford made four trips to the red zone in its 20-17 loss to USC. They scored only 10 points on those visits. The Cardinal scored a touchdown and kicked a field goal on its first two red zone trips, but got a field goal blocked and threw an interception on its final two.
Ultimately, that proved to be the difference in the game.
"Against a good team like this playing at home with all the energy and the crowd and everything, you have to get points," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We go down there twice and got the field goal blocked and threw an interception. That's not going to win on the road in this conference."
Stanford is currently ranked No. 41 nationally in red zone offense.
Interceptions doom Hogan: Despite finishing with his lowest quarterback rating of the season, Kevin Hogan was not altogether ineffective. He put two beautiful balls on Ty Montgomery's hands (deep pass in the game's first series, throw to Montgomery in the endzone on a third down in the first half) that Montgomery failed to haul in, and made several on-point intermediate throws. Hogan did miss a pair of deep balls, one to Montgomery and one to Rector, but a pair of fourth quarter interceptions were the difference between a solid performance and one that was criticized.
The first interception, which came on a 3rd and Goal situation, wasn't entirely Hogan's fault. Stanford called the same passing play that it had near the end of the first half (which resulted in an incompletion), only on the other side of the field. As a result, USC defensive back Dion Bailey knew what was coming and positioned himself to make the interception.
"I take complete credit for the first one. It was a bad call," David Shaw said. "Bad call by me. Never should have been called. We called it earlier and it was there. We missed it. So we tried to flip sides and throw it on the other side. Dion Bailey is too good of a football player. He saw it the first time came back and made a play on the second one, the second time we ran that call."
Hogan's second pick came late in the game when USC generated heavy pressure.
"He's trying to get rid of the ball, he's trying to throw it away," Shaw said. "He was trying to save some time because we're in the two-minute drill. And he threw the ball in bounds. He should have just taken a sack and played it smart in a tie game."
Gaffney continues impressive senior campaign: Tyler Gaffney's first touchdown run is shown at the 26-minute mark of the video embedded below. It was one of the best runs of his career.
"That first touchdown, unbelievable," Shaw said. "To have a guy that looked like he was about to go down spin out of it (and run for a touchdown), it was a heck of a play."
Gaffney finished the game with 158 yards - his fifth straight time surpassing the 100-yard mark - and two scores.
"He ran hard like he always does," Shaw said. "He's an outstanding running back. Sometimes there weren't holes there and he made them."
A third receiver emerging?: For the second straight game, Stanford's leading receiver wasn't Devon Cajuste or Ty Montgomery. Instead, redshirt freshman Michael Rector led the Cardinal with 44 receiving yards on two catches. Rector was also Stanford's leading receiver in the Cardinal's win over Oregon after hauling in a 47-yard throw.
Perhaps as noteworthy, both of Rector's catches came on intermediate routes. All of his previous receptions were on deep routes. Rector is one of the fastest and most physically gifted receivers on the team. An expanded role for the Washington native could add additional explosiveness to Stanford's offense.
Though eight Stanford players recorded a reception, not a single Cardinal tight end got his name in the box score. In fact, Stanford doesn't have a tight end catch in the month of November. The last time a Stanford tight end made a catch was in the Cardinal's win over Oregon State. The tight end group has accounted for only six catches all season, and the player responsible for three of those receptions - Luke Kaumatule - is now playing defense.
The fallout: Even if it defeats Cal and Notre Dame to close the season, Stanford is no longer in control of its own Rose Bowl destiny. In that event, the Cardinal would need Oregon to lose to either Arizona or Oregon State to earn a berth in the Pac-12 title game. Moreover, a fourth straight BCS bowl appearance is up in the air. Stanford still has a shot to earn an at-large invitation to a BCS game, but they'll need help. If they don't get it, the Alamo Bowl will likely take the Cardinal.
If Stanford falls to the Bears or Irish, they'd likely be out of the BCS picture entirely. The Alamo Bowl or the Holiday Bowl would then be the team's most likely postseason destination.
Looking beyond the postseason, the loss, and Stanford's recent struggles on offense - the Cardinal hasn't scored more than 30 points since their victory over Washington on Oct. 5 (and the kickoff return game scored one touchdown and set up another in that game), and has scored more than 24 points only once in that stretch - raises questions.
Given the personnel losses that Stanford will face on defense next year, it's reasonable to expect the team to regress unless the offense improves. Kevin Hogan has played well at times this season, but hasn't taken the huge step forward that some were expecting. Will Stanford coach David Shaw consider opening up the quarterback competition this spring or next fall? Hogan would be the heavy favorite, but Ryan Burns has impressed this year and 2014 recruit Keller Chryst is one of the nation's prep prospects. And will Shaw consider tinkering with the offense in any other way? Stanford will return all of its top receivers in 2014, and they'll expect to get more contributions in the passing game from the tight end spot, but the Cardinal offense's performance over the last six weeks has left something to be desired.
Other notes from Los Angeles…
Conrad Ukropina replaced Jordan Williamson on field goals and PAT's after Williamson didn't feel 100 percent in warmups.
"He kicked well this week," Shaw said. "He started to warm up and it didn't feel right, he didn't have the strength, he didn't have the pop. So we sat him."
Henry Anderson struggled through a contusion, David Shaw said, but did not reinjure his knee. Cornerback Alex Carter "got banged up at the end," but Shaw was uncertain whether Carter would miss any time.
Stanford's last three Pac-12 losses have come to unranked teams on the road - Washington, Utah and USC.
Stanford fell from No. 4 to No. 9 in the latest BCS rankings. The Cardinal is the highest-ranked two-loss team.