Game Preview: Stanford at USC

I'm normally not given to hyperbole or grand statements, but I'll make an exception for this week, because Stanford's game against Southern California on Saturday in the Coliseum will be huge. The Cardinal will have its chance to make a statement on the road and on national television against the No. 20 Trojans, still one of the Pac-12's premier programs despite recent struggles.

USC, meanwhile, has embraced the spoiler role brought on by its NCAA bowl ban, and is eager to get even with a Stanford program that has taken three out of the last four games in the series. Those games have brought their share of memorable moments—from 2007's Greatest Upset Ever to 2009's blowout and the now-infamous "What's your deal?!" exchange between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh—and this Saturday figures to add to them.

The Bootleg has you covered from every angle for this weekend's matchup, which kicks off at 5 p.m. PST and will be televised on ABC. See below for the biggest storylines heading into this weekend, and check back on the forums on Saturday, where I'll be bringing you live updates at the end of each quarter from the press box at the Coliseum.

Last time out: No. 6 Stanford is 7-0 (5-0 in the Pac-12) and has won its last 10 games by 25 points or more, the first team to do so in over 70 years. The Card made No. 25 Washington look like an FCS team last Saturday, with a 65-21 victory that sent the Huskies back to Seattle with their tails between their legs. Meanwhile, USC had mostly flown under the radar until last weekend, when it went to Notre Dame Stadium and defeated the Irish, 31-17. Now, the Trojans are 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the conference. They are ranked No. 20 in the AP poll, but ineligible for the BCS standings due to NCAA sanctions.

Sunday-afternoon quarterbacking: Saturday's game will feature two of the best passers in the country, Stanford's Andrew Luck and USC's Matt Barkley – both of whom figure to be playing in due time in the NFL, and for a long, long time. Though he gave way to Stanford's running backs in the win over Washington, Luck is the consensus best quarterback in college football and leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency. However, Barkley is putting together a strong season as well—he is fourth in the Pac-12 in efficiency and is second in per-game passing yardage. Barkley also has something that Luck doesn't: a truly elite wide receiver, in Robert Woods. Especially since it appears that Delano Howell will remain on the sidelines with a hand injury, Stanford's secondary may have a tough time containing Woods, who leads the Pac-12 in receptions per game and is second in receiving yards.

Receivers quiet for Cardinal: The lone black mark against the Cardinal's offensive performances thus far has been the abysmal play of its receiving corps. Though Luck does have three great tight ends to fall back on, Stanford's wideouts will need to step up their game to win the Pac-12 North, and this weekend would be a great time for that process to start. Though his play has been respectable, top receiver Chris Owusu appears to continue to struggle with injuries, suffering a minor shoulder injury and a mild concussion already this season. Stanford doesn't have a receiver in the Pac-12's top 10 statistically, and isn't likely to get one into that table any time soon.

Defensive play key: Lost in the hubbub about the offenses is the fact that both squads sport pretty decent defenses, too. Stanford sits atop the conference by most defensive measuring sticks, while USC is fourth in points against and total defense. Both defenses feature impressive fronts, with Stanford ranked first and the Trojans ranked second against the run. Linebacker Dion Bailey, a redshirt freshman fourth in the Pac-12 with 54 tackles, leads the Trojans' D. While he has two sacks on the season, Stanford's offensive line has yielded just two sacks all season, so something will have to give. Of course, the Card doesn't lack for playmakers on the defensive side either. Michael Thomas and Jarek Lancaster lead the team with 33 tackles each, while Chase Thomas has been tearing up offensive lines. Ten of Thomas' 31 tackles have been for loss, and his 5.5 sacks are second-best in the Pac-12.

Prediction: Stanford's streak of 25-plus point victories will end on Saturday; the Trojans are just too good on both sides of the ball to get pushed around like the Cardinal's other opponents. Nevertheless, Stanford's combination of Andrew Luck and a power running game will eventually wear down USC. I see this game staying close, but the Cardinal will leave Los Angeles with a victory, and a decent margin to boot.

Final score: Stanford 48, USC 35.

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