State of Stanford: USC week

Lane Kiffin drew chuckles Tuesday when he said the current Stanford-USC rivalry is "more friendly" now than with the "last couple coaches." Quick interpretation: Pete Carroll did not particularly like Jim Harbaugh.

"Thanks, Lane," was David Shaw's laughing response when I told him about Lane Kiffin's remarks.

But if he can lead his team to another win over Troy, Shaw has the opportunity to become a villain in USC territory, too. Four straight victories over Troy won't earn him many friends at the Coliseum.

The three straight wins that Stanford already boasts over the perennially powerful Trojans have made the Stanford-USC rivalry something to smile about on the Farm. But sending Matt Barkley to the NFL devoid of success (0-4) against the Cardinal will be a daunting task. The Farm Boys are still breaking in Josh Nunes, and they're up against what may possibly be the greatest quarterback-wide receiver combination in college football history.

Shaw lauded Barkley Tuesday, but he praised Trojan wide receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods even more lavishly, calling them "by far" the best two-receiver set he'd ever seen in NCAA football.

Stopping the USC offensive juggernaut
If past performance is any indicator, the Cardinal will struggle. In the 2010 tilt, Woods hauled in 224 of Barkley's 390 yards. In 2011, the Trojan receiver tandem exhausted the Stanford secondary as a triple overtime marathon wore on. The Farm Boys managed to win both games on the very final play, but their vulnerabilities were exposed, particularly in space downfield. With Andrew Luck no longer around to bail out a porous defense, limiting Barkley will be imperative in 2012.

But there are signs that, defensively, Stanford has improved. Shayne Skov, absent from last year's Coliseum match-up, has returned. The defensive front seven was stellar against Duke, and albeit against far inferior competition, Cardinal linebackers all displayed impressive sideline-to-sidelines speed to suffocate the Blue Devils' bubble screen game. At one point late in the second quarter, in fact, Duke quarterback Sean Renfree was struggling to average four yards per completion.

"Chase Thomas, Shayne, and Trent Murphy all flew to the ball on Duke sideline passes," cornerback Terrence Brown said. "That was a big help to us."

USC is sure to run its share of similar screens (more than a dozen of them came in last week's 42-29 win over Syracuse), so Stanford will find out if its perimeter defense can be effective against the big boys, too. Brown (nine tackles) and Barry Browning were both fantastic at making one-on-one island stops against Duke receivers. They'll have to maintain that fundamental soundness against Lee and Woods so that safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards can stay back and prevent Barkley from burning the secondary over the top.

"We pride ourselves on making tackles in the open field," Reynolds said. "We pride ourselves on not having any breakdowns."

It's those breakdowns that cost the Cardinal dearly in track meets - er, games - against Oregon and Oklahoma State last season. But, thus far this year, Reynolds has been a game-changer. His three interceptions have helped Stanford tally four picks through two games, after they generated only seven all last season. Shaw offered that his improved secondary's mentality was different this year, saying that they were playing like a baseball player "trying to steal second" base instead of sitting back on their heels.

The Khaled Holmes question
Both Shaw and Reynolds were quick to point out that the secondary's interceptions would not have happened without intense quarterback pressure from the front seven, which leads us to a potential USC weakness and the game's biggest question. Trojans' center Khaled Holmes was carted off the field last week and left the locker room on crutches, while his backup Abe Markowitz left the stadium in a sling. USC could well be down to their third-string center, redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, against Stanford.

These injuries are significant, considering the center usually orchestrates the offensive line's protection schemes. A third-stringer at the position would likely have a tough time dealing with nose guard Terrence Stephens, Skov, or a hard-charging James Vaughters up the middle, who was unleashed on some aggressive blitzes last week.

"[If it happened to] us, personally, it would be a pretty big challenge to overcome," Stanford lineman David Yankey said of the Trojans' center issue.

That being said, Holmes is, curiously, still listed atop the USC depth chart despite the apparent severity of his injury. The Trojans have a secretive, Cold War-era injury disclosure policy. (Writers aren't even allowed to report injuries; a lead beat writer just had his credentials suspended), so it'll be impossible to know the status of the USC line until game day.

One thing is certain, though: Stanford's hopes in this game rest on their ability to wreak havoc up front, stop running backs Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, and force Barkley into at least one (and preferably two) mistake(s) downfield. Whether by terrorizing Matt Kalil's replacement Aundrey Walker at left tackle or by taking advantage of the Trojans' potential center decimation, the Cardinal must wreak havoc up front to have a legitimate chance.

Yankey, for one, is confident about his team's defensive front, a unit which he practiced against all offseason.

"I think they can put incredible pressure on Barkley," he said.

USC's defense: a soft spot?
Of course, Stanford must score, too. Even an exemplary defensive effort will surrender points to the Barkley offensive juggernaut. If there is a serious soft spot on this Trojans team, it is a defense that has been hampered by scholarship restrictions and a pair of tough injuries on the line. Still, even though Syracuse racked up 455 yards of total offense against Troy, Shaw maintained that it'll still be tough to wear down the Trojans because of their quickness and athleticism.

"They fly to the ball from all positions," he said. "[Defensive coordinator] Monte Kiffin has everything."

He does have everything, including an excellent cornerback in Nickell Robey and physical safety T.J. McDonald, who almost beheaded Chris Owusu last year. Those valuable pieces in the secondary may give the Trojans the gall to at least occasionally stack the box with nine-man fronts and force Nunes to beat them deep. That was Duke's strategy, although it didn't work for the less talented Blue Devils: Nunes connected over the top enough times to make it a blowout. This time, it'll probably take another good effort from No. 2 Stanford receiver Drew Terrell, as the USC secondary is most suspect at the second cornerback position vacated by the academically ineligible Isiah Wiley. Both Hawaii and Syracuse picked on the side opposite Robey, who is expected to cover Ty Montgomery.

Notably, the Cardinal were held to under 100 yards rushing for the first time since early 2008 because of Duke's box-stacking, though, so the Trojans will definitely consider offering their own variation to slow down the vaunted Stanford ground attack. It'll be a challenge for USC linebackers who are smaller than their Stanford counterparts (Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard weight only 235; flex player Dion Bailey is just 210), so if the Trojans cheat, it's just a matter of the Cardinal making them pay by exploiting a weakness in the secondary.

As expected then, the focal point will be Nunes and his ability to keep Monte Kiffin's defense honest. Much will hinge on how often Yankey can shift back to guard and clear space for Cardinal backs. In turn, Yankey's position will depend on how many times Shaw is comfortable placing freshman Andrus Peat at left tackle to block surprising USC sack leader Morgan Breslin. Against Duke, Peat came in to allow Yankey to shift to the interior on about 10 snaps, and Stepfan Taylor ripped off a 13-yard touchdown run on one of those tries. Shaw's confidence in Peat is "growing," and with it, Stanford's running game should improve - even against stacked boxes.

Special teams: an added advantage?
Stanford's special teams play was stellar versus Duke, and they may have an advantage over USC in this phase of the game - provided they contain Lee on kick returns. Trojans kicker Andre Heidari underwent knee surgery this past week, so walk-on Alex Wood will replace him. The Cardinal would do well to force USC into field goal tries.

Other notes
- Peat, who has had a cast on his hand since training camp, will likely have it removed next week.
- Shaw said Stanford can "pick and choose" its spots for fullback Ryan Hewitt so they don't wear him out his first game back. Solid backup play from Lee Ward and Pat Skov has allowed this luxury.
- Freshman tight end Luke Kaumatule's play count at tight end will increase just like Andrus Peat's as the season progresses, according to Shaw.
- Wayne Lyons continues to earn more playing time in the secondary, as does freshman cornerback Alex Carter.
- Jarek Lancaster has been Stanford's leader on special teams.
- Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Kevin Anderson is also coming along, but he is still able to play on only one side of the formation.
- Nunes admitted that Stanford's two delay of game penalties against Duke were his fault.

David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at

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