Now, fans want to know how this rousing saga ends. And while the Cardinal and the Trojans will certainly play football against each other for decades into the future, Saturday's match-up will feature Matt Barkley's last chance at a piece of Stanford. The quarterback represents the last active Trojan connection to the Harbaugh-Carroll feud that kick-started it all. He started as a true freshman when the Cardinal whipped USC 55-21 in 2009. So far, the senior is 0-3 against the Farm Boys, but he's favored to finally exact some revenge this time. The Cardinal will try to avoid that while keeping these keys in mind.
Secondary open-field tackling
So far, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods have combined to catch 37 of Barkley's 46 passes, and an absurd amount of their receiving yardage (close to 70 percent) has come after the catch. This has been a direct byproduct of Lane Kiffin's obsession with the quick bubble screen, something that Duke coach David Cutcliffe was also infatuated with last Saturday against Stanford.
The bubble screen is designed to take divert pressure away from the quarterback and set up a downfield passing attack, something which never materialized for Stanford's last opponent. The primary reason the Cardinal was so effective bottling up Duke bubble screens is that the Blue Devils did not establish an interior running game. Outside linebackers Trent Murphy, Chase Thomas, and Alex Debniak did not respect the threat of a Duke draw, so they got a head start in bolting to the sidelines to help their cornerbacks whenever the ball was thrown outside. As a result, the play was usually bottled up.
With Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal in the USC backfield, Stanford's outside ‘backers will have to shade more to the center of the field. This will likely leave the Cardinal's defensive backs on islands outside. Against Duke, their tackling was excellent; Terrence Brown recorded nine stops, many of them in one-on-one situations. But will this hold up against Lee and Woods? If Brown, Barry Browning, Wayne Lyons, and Usua Amanam play fundamentally sound football and funnel the two studs back to the middle and the helping swarm of tacklers, Stanford will have success. Otherwise, all hope of stopping the Trojans is lost.
Winning with as few men as possible up front
Barkley may well have the quickest release in the nation. On top of that, he's one of the few quarterbacks that has the luxury of tossing up deep go routes after only a three-step dropback. Lee and Woods are just that fast. They'll catch up to a pass with enough air underneath it.
As a result, Barkley will be very difficult to sack. He's been taken down only once during the Trojans' first two games, and he'll certainly make the Cardinal pay if they bring added pressure that doesn't get to him instantaneously. The same applies to stopping the Trojans run game: if the Stanford is forced to consistently use more than five or six men in the box to contain Redd and McNeal, they'll pay for it in the secondary.
Therefore, the key to allowing the secondary to continue playing on its toes instead of on its heels is the Stanford defensive front. Terrence Stephens, David Parry, Ben Gardner, Henry Anderson, and Josh Mauro must play relentlessly. This is where the Cardinal may get a break, with USC possibly down to third-string center Cyrus Hobbi. (Starter Khaled Holmes was carted off the field last week. We won't be sure of his status until game time.) Stanford's 3-4 scheme means that the nose guard, usually Stephens in the base package, will line up right on top of a potentially inexperienced Trojan center, who will be directing blocking schemes. The Cardinal's hope will be for Stephens to take advantage of USC's inexperience at center, disrupt the Trojans' communication up front, snuff out the run, and potentially allow Gardner to work against newcomer Aundrey Walker (All-American Matt Kalil's replacement) at left tackle on passing downs.
A few well-timed interior blitzes from Shayne Skov and James Vaughters may also pick on the USC center soft spot, but the Cardinal must choose their spots wisely. The bottom line is that it's imperative to create noise up front without leaving the secondary undermanned. Let Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards continue feasting on the football in the same way that a predator feasts on a wounded animal.
Find a way to exploit USC's second cornerback spot
Nickell Robey is one of the finest defensive backs in the Pac-12, but the Trojans aren't quite as set on the other side of the field after Isiah Wiley was ruled academically ineligible. In fact, USC has five players listed at that position, just because Lane Kiffin has been so underwhelmed with the play there.
It's imperative that Stanford exploits USC's struggles on that side of the secondary. Though they are extremely athletic, the Trojans are smaller relative to Stanford in their front seven, so it's likely they'll shift extra defenders into the box to limit the Cardinal rushing attack. This should create opportunities downfield for Josh Nunes. Robey will cover Ty Montgomery, but it's up to Stanford's second man Drew Terrell to do solid work on the other side and make the Trojans pay.
Don't forget the tight ends
USC may be lightning fast defensively, but they're certainly not big behind their defensive line. Trojan linebackers are light behind that defensive front, and the only truly physically imposing player in the secondary is T.J. McDonald. There's a spot for Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo, and maybe even Luke Kaumatule in this game. Stanford must find it.
Force Trojan field goal attempts (or decisions)
Regular Trojan kicker Andre Heidari just had knee surgery, so he's out for this game. Walk-on Alex Wood booted extra points last week, but USC didn't have enough confidence in him to send him out there for longer field goal tries, so they went for it on fourth down three times instead (Troy went 1-for-3 on those conversions). It would behoove Stanford to force Kiffin into as many fourth-down decisions as possible. If this game turns into the 24-23 slugfest the Cardinal want (as opposed to a shootout), this kicking situation could well be the deciding factor.
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 www.davidlombardisports.com.
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