When Ed Orgeron took over for the fired Lane Kiffin in September, he was supposed to be a placeholder. The guy who held together the recruiting class while the Trojans went after another high-profile hire.
Suffice it to say after Saturday night, Orgeron might be around a lot longer than one season.
Cody Kessler drove the Trojans down the field using an effective two-minute offense and Andre Heidari capped it off with a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining, as USC pulled off a 20-17 upset of No. 4 Stanford at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
The key play of the nine-play, 27-yard drive came on a 4th-and-2 from the Stanford 48-yard line. Looking at the possibility of punting the ball back to the Cardinal with all three of their timeouts, Orgeron put all of his faith into the right arm of Cody Kessler, who fired a 13-yard strike to Marqise Lee to extend the drive.
Lee, hobbled by an injury throughout the fourth quarter, couldn't even hop his way back to the sideline before collapsing. But that was the weight of Saturday night's contest for this Trojans team that had been through so much this season.
Kessler found Nelson Agholor on a 11-yard pass to get down to the Stanford 21-yard line before a couple of big losses on the ground set up Heidari to play the hero. Heidari, who had missed an extra point earlier in the game, sprinted down the field after his kick sailed through the uprights as a raucous Coliseum cheered on.
USC's victory sends the Pac-12 standings into a state of flux. The Trojans (8-3) now have an outside shot at winning the South Division, depending on how the rest of their season goes. Oregon, just one week removed from its loss to Stanford, now moves ahead of the Cardinal and has an inside track at the Rose Bowl.
A week after holding the Ducks scoreless for the first three quarters, Stanford can thank its slow defensive start for knocking them out of the national title conversation. Kessler threw a touchdown pass to Soma Vainuku to give the Trojans a 6-0 lead with 8:47 remaining in the first quarter, and USC sprinted out to 17 points on its first three drives.
Javorius Allen scored from one yard out late in the first, and Heidari's 23-yard field goal with just over nine minutes remaining in the second gave USC a 17-7 lead. The seeds of an upset were planted within the opening minutes of the game.
But for much of the remainder of the contest, it seemed like Stanford was in control. They were able to start setting the tempo with a healthy dose of running back Tyler Gaffney grinding down the Trojans defense.
The senior back rushed for 158 yards on 24 carries, and was responsible for Stanford's only two touchdowns. He scored from 35 yards out to give the Cardinal their only lead of the game, a 7-6 advantage with 6:46 left in the first quarter, and knotted the game up at 17-17 in the third. It was the fifth straight 100-yard game for Gaffney.
Meanwhile, the Trojans, playing with bumps and bruises throughout their running back corps, struggled all night to get anything going on the ground. Allen had only 26 yards on his 16 carries, and Tre Madden's return to the lineup proved unfruitful, as the breakout sophomore finished with 11 yards.
USC was without Silas Redd, who injured his right knee in last week's victory over Cal.
In the end, though, it was USC's pass defense that obscured all the struggles against the run. The Trojans picked off Kevin Hogan twice in the fourth quarter, the first time all season the Stanford quarterback had been picked off more than once.
A bastion of steadiness for much of the season, Hogan was careless with the ball at critical points in the contest. Dion Bailey intercepted Hogan at the Trojans' six-yard line with just more than 10 minutes remaining, and Su'a Cravens picked him off inside USC territory to set up the game-winning drive for the Trojans.
Hogan finished the game with only 127 yards on 14-of-25 passing.
Stanford also lost 70 yards on six penalties, an uncharacteristic stroke for a disciplined bunch.
The Cardinal, who had won games four straight games against the Trojans, will now try to pick up the pieces of their season. Stanford will almost certainly drop out of BCS bowl contention without some major help from Oregon's final two opponents.
USC now holds a 59-29-3 record in the all-time series and may have found a coach who can help the program extend that chasm.
Tyler Gaffney (RB, Stanford): A
As they noted in the broadcast, it's kind of amazing to think that this time a year ago, Gaffney was trying his hand at Single-A baseball. A speedy outfielder, Gaffney had a solid enough season with the State College Spikes in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization but wanted one more crack at football.
The Trojans got a good glimpse why Saturday night.
Gaffney's touchdown run in the first quarter was a microcosm of who he is as a player. Initially stuffed at the line of scrimmage, Gaffney kept his legs churning just enough to make the officials keep the play alive and then he was heady enough to realize the whistle hadn't been blown despite everyone having given up on the play.
Overall, Gaffney's decision to return has been nothing but successful. He's now rushed for 100 yards in seven of Stanford's 10 games and may now have to decide between hitting the ball or running it professionally.
Marqise Lee (WR, USC): A-
Wait a minute. You're telling me that USC is somehow better when Marqise Lee is in the lineup and prominently involved?
You don't say.
Lee, as expected, played a much bigger role in the Trojans offense on Saturday, having both a solid night as a receiver and garnering enough defensive attention to act as a decoy. He caught six balls for 83 yards on a night where Cody Kessler looked as good as he ever has.
Much of that is attributable to Lee's performance. It's been a lost season for the junior wideout, as he's dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness under center all season. But for one night, we were reminded just how fun it'll (very likely) be to watch him play football on Sundays next year.
Let's just hope he can stay healthy.
Cody Kessler (QB, USC): B+
Cody Kessler giveth, Cody Kessler taketh away. Just a sophomore, Kessler has flashed enough positives that the Trojans have to feel fine about him long term. He's completing well over 60 percent of his passes for the season, doesn't throw an abundance of interceptions and has managed games intelligently more often than not.
Saturday night was a case of both Kesslers coming out at different points. Good Kessler was all over the place in the first half, organizing lengthy scoring drives and doing a bunch of things it took Marcus Mariota three quarters to do against Stanford last week.
Bad Kessler showed up instantly in the second half when he allowed himself to lose a fumble on a sack, a turnover that proved meaningless because the Trojans blocked the ensuing field goal. But that blocked kick proved to be a stroke of good luck that would continue for the rest of the contest.
Kevin Hogan (QB, Stanford): D
Has anyone made a Kevin Hogan-Alex Smith analogy yet? If not, it's mine and no one is allowed to take it.
Much like Smith, Hogan plays in an offense designed to take a majority of the responsibility away from the QB. The only real freelancing comes from scrambles outside the pocket, which happens only when the first and second reads within the system aren't there. Neither Smith nor Hogan put up gaudy individual numbers, but their ability to avoid mistakes and make plays when it counts allows them to rack up numbers in the win column.
Only when the wins suddenly turn to losses, the Smiths and Hogans of the world suddenly look a whole lot worse. Hogan's completions were generally check-downs, the Trojans picked him off twice and nearly did a couple times previous, and with the Cardinal unable to be completely reliant on Gaffney and the running game for offensive production, the game fell on him to make plays, but he was unable to do so.
The Cardinal should get a reprieve from their onslaught of competitive games next week when they take on Cal. The Golden Bears are 1-10 on the season and haven't beaten an FBS school. USC should also get into the win column next Saturday when the Trojans travel to Boulder to face a 4-6 Colorado squad.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: