The Cardinal did not have a good enough answer for USC receiver Nelson Agholor (15) on Saturday. / Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports
PALO ALTO, Calif. - The quiet has returned to Stanford's campus after a 12-hour interruption.
The student body has yet to return from the summer, leaving the school's palm-lined streets and avenues free and empty of its normal foot traffic, outside of the odd security guard, summer student or university employee.
In the two days leading up to Saturday's loss to USC, only a pair of items seemed to indicate football was around the corner: one, banners posted on lamp posts plugging Stanford as the "home of champions," and two, a traffic marquee advising local residents to "prepare for delays."
Now USC has gone, taking with it a vocal crew of visiting fans and an ugly, hard-fought 13-10 victory, while leaving Stanford behind to face the quiet and the inevitable question: What's wrong with the Cardinal?
The loss was noteworthy for, well, the loss: Stanford has dropped just six Pac-12 games since the start of the 2010 season, and has lost just once in the past 18 games on its home field. On a more specific scale, however, the defeat raised eyebrows about Stanford's unpredictable sloppiness, an out-of-character trait that stands in direct contrast to the program's even-keeled standard.
The Cardinal committed two turnovers, with the second occurring deep inside USC territory with less than one minute left in the fourth quarter. Another drive sputtered on a failed fourth-down try at the USC 3-yard line. Kicker Jordan Williamson missed a pair of field goals, one from only 26 yards.
Stanford's offense took nine drives inside the USC 28-yard line and came away with a total of 10 points. Five of the drives moved inside the 20, and only two ended with points - a troubling lack of red-zone production that hearkens to last season's woes when on the opposition's doorstep.
"I think uncharacteristic of who we are and who we want to be," Stanford coach David Shaw told USA TODAY Sports. "Down in the red zone we were awful, and that's play-calling and that's play-making. We need to do better in both.
"We didn't play up to our capabilities. That's the bottom line. That's unbelievably disappointing. It is. Because on top of pushing people around, we just want to be efficient. We want to be good."
The red-zone woes are beginning to look like Stanford's Achilles heel. Last season's offense - with largely the same cast of skill players, albeit with a far more experienced offensive line - tied for 83rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision in touchdown percentage when inside the opposition's 20-yard line. The 2013 Cardinal finished in the end zone on 57.69% of its 52 trips.
In a 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, for instance, the Cardinal scored just one touchdown on its three trips inside the red zone. On Saturday, just one successful trip - especially in the second and third quarters, when the Trojans seemed on their heels - could have shifted the momentum in Stanford's favor.
Then there's this: Each of Stanford's last seven losses have come by a touchdown or less. Every possession counts, in other words, and success inside opposing territory could mean the difference between contention and perfection - as illustrated in Saturday's defeat.
"Offensively for us, we just go to put it all together," tight end Austin Hooper said. "We had a lot of great drives, five or six plays 50 yards down the field, but we didn't finish. That happened four or five times."
In the era of the College Football Playoff, with teams jockeying and jostling for a spot as one of the four semifinalists, it's the little details - how a team fares in the red zone, for example - that could mean the difference. Like the previous postseason format, however, the playoff is built on a simple idea: Every loss counts, and Stanford now stands a step behind the curve with road dates with Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA still to come.
"I told them, there's no sense of urgency," Shaw said. "They've got to play better. I told them, because we're in a playoff era now, people are going to jump off our bandwagon - we're done, we're on the scrap heap. And that's fine. They did that after Utah last year. They did that after USC last year. That's fine. It's not about that. It's about us coming back to play. If we play better, we'll have an opportunity to get back."
To the Cardinal, so versed in a specific style of play, better doesn't necessarily mean different. Stanford will return to the drawing board - with red-zone effectiveness one of "a million things that we will address," Shaw said - yet not alter its mindset, sticking to the same script behind back-to-back conference championships.
"We're going to clean up mistakes," linebacker A.J. Tarpley said. "If we're a great team, we think we can be a great team, then our mentality shouldn't change."
The Cardinal will just do so quietly, under the radar, and look toward a familiar approach to charge back into playoff contention amid one of the nation's toughest schedules.
"I'm not going to scrap what we've worked on," Shaw said. "We have to do it better. We just have to do it better."
Read the original story: Unbending Stanford knows the one thing that must change