USC's Matt Barkley is a strong Heisman Trophy candidate that has beaten every Pac-12 program but Stanford. Armed with one of the quickest releases in the country, he has completed 119 straight passes while facing a rush of five men or more. In fact, since the start of his sophomore year, Barkley has thrown 37 touchdowns and been intercepted only three times while facing the blitz. Then again, Stanford can't afford to sit back and give him time to throw, either. Catch 22.
Stanford's Josh Nunes is making just his third career start, but he hit his stride in the second half of his last game against Duke, going 7-for-9 and mixing in three touchdown passes. Nunes has taken advantage of his targets' size advantages downfield but has struggled to consistently make reads through zone defenses. Establishing this consistency right off the bat will be key Saturday.
Advantage: USC (significant)
The Trojans' Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal have not been asked to carry much of the load through the week's first two weeks, but USC will have to establish some semblance of a running game to succeed against a big, physical Stanford defense. Both backs are talented, but both will have to deal with the graduation of All-American Matt Kalil, the possible loss of star center Khaled Holmes (status uncertain), and a Cardinal front that is surrendering only about two yards per carry.
Talent-wise, Stanford's Stepfan Taylor rivals Redd and McNeal, but much of his effectiveness will be determined by whether or not Nunes is able to loosen up the box for him to have room to run. Against Duke, the Cardinal failed to rack up 100 yards on the ground for the first time since playing TCU early in 2008 because the Blue Devils stacked nine men at the line of scrimmage. A few successful play-action shots means the Stanford stable of running backs may be able to showcase its superior depth.
Advantage: Stanford (slight, due to greater depth)
Offensive Line (including tight ends)
USC lost only one of last season's starters up front, but it happened to be their best guy, All-American left tackle Matt Kalil. Sophomore Aundrey Walker has decently replaced him, but he still makes the mental mistakes expected from a young player. The big question here is the center position. Khaled Holmes, Barkley's childhood friend and possibly the best in nation at the position, was carted off the field last week. His backup Abe Markowitz left the locker room in a sling. The exact status of both is uncertain, but third stringer Cyrus Hobbi - a redshirt freshman - has been taking snaps this week in practice. Markowitz has also been practicing and there have been rumblings that Holmes will try to give it a go, but the Trojans could just be bluffing on the starter's front. Even if Holmes does play, he certainly won't be 100 percent, and that can expose an interior soft spot at the position that controls the line of scrimmage.
The Trojans have a pair of tight ends, Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, who are elite physically, but the two have combined for only four catches for four yards.
Stanford is healthy but still developing on the line. David Shaw's confidence in Andrus Peat is "growing quickly," and the freshman figures to see more than last week's 10 snaps at left tackle. This would, of course, would allow David Yankey to shift to tackle and pave the way against a thinned USC defensive line. Kyle Murphy's emergence has also bolstered the right side along Cam Fleming, but the Cardinal are still hoping for more production at right guard. If that comes, it'll be from either starter Kevin Danser or true freshman Josh Garnett.
The Cardinal's tight ends remain the heart of the offense. Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz are two of the best in the country, and they may be accompanied by freshman defensive convert Luke Kaumatule, as well. Shaw says the Hawaiian will be progressively worked in the mix.
Advantage: Stanford (moderate, due to health and depth)
USC's super-combination of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods is possibly the greatest wide receiver duo in college football history. They've caught 37 of Barkley's 46 completions so far this season. Shaw marveled about the explosive ability of both throughout all three breaks in a typical long play (off the ball, into the cut, and after the catch). Normally, explosiveness diminishes with each successive break, but supposedly these two guys don't see that drop-off throughout the course of a play. They're the best, and they've certainly masked any deficiencies that Barkley and the rest of this offense might have.
Stanford is not devoid of talent outside, but their one reliable go-to man, Ty Montgomery, will be matched up with USC's lock-down cornerback Nickell Robey. The Cardinal will look from continued production from Drew Terrell against USC's weakened second cornerback spot, and they'll possibly also pull a trick from last week out of the bag: split Toilolo and Ertz out wide to force a match-up against much smaller defensive backs.
Advantage: USC (massive, but Stanford can close the gap considerably with proper scheming that takes advantage of their large tight ends)
Scholarship limitations, the loss of Nick Perry to the NFL, two devastating injuries, and questions about defensive end Wes Horton's health have called USC's depth up front into question. For the first (and likely only) time in 2012, Troy will have to square off against a team known for using a "Hulk" package of seven-plus offensive linemen. There is size (Antwaun Woods, 305 pounds) and athleticism here, but the Trojan front is not immovable.
The Stanford rotation, meanwhile is growing. Henry Anderson forced an interception with excellent, long pressure on a batted ball last week. His back-up Josh Mauro finally saw some action coming off a hamstring injury, as did former walk-on David Parry at the second string nose tackle position. Along with Terrence Stephens, Parry will be charged with staring down a potentially inexperienced USC center out of the 3-4 alignment. That clash will be key, along with Ben Gardner's chance to work on the left tackle Walker, Kalil's replacement.
Advantage: Stanford (moderate, due to health and depth)
The Trojans are fast and athletic - and relatively small - at this position. Granted, USC runs the 4-3, so their linebackers aren't expected to be as big as Stanford's. But strong sider Dion Bailey (two interceptions last week) is more of a flex man/nickel back, checking in at only 210 pounds. Like his counterparts Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard, he's an excellent athlete. The big question, though: will athleticism alone be able to slow down Stanford's superior brawn? The challenge may become even more daunting for USC because of their depth issues up front.
Chase Thomas, James Vaughters, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy - four abreast. Alex Debniak, Jarek Lancaster, A.J. Tarpley, all ready to come in and provide immediate relief. The Cardinal's massive, physical linebacker corp is one of the finest in the nation and the main reason that Stanford can hope to pull the Saturday upset. Stopping the USC run will be crucial, but tackling well to contain Trojans' bubble screens may be even more imperative for this unit. Remember that an injured Stanford defense (missing Skov, Delano Howell, Ed Reynolds, and Wayne Lyons) held USC to only 27 offensive points in regulation last year. This year, the Cardinal is fully healthy defensively while the Trojan offense, in turn, is not. A strong defensive performance is not out of the question.
Advantage: Stanford (significant)
USC has a lockdown man, Nickell Robey, on one side . They also boast T.J. McDonald, one of the country's most physical safeties. Both are excellent, but neither can cover the entire field. The second cornerback spot opened up after Isiah Wiley was ruled academically ineligible and the performance of his replacements has been underwhelming. There are talented pieces here, but there's also a gaping hole.
The Stanford secondary has been aggressive. They've picked off four passes already after only intercepting seven all of last season. But can safety Ed Reynolds, owner of three of those takeaways, maintain this success without getting burned by Barkley? Needless to say, this will be a whole new ballgame for Stanford. If Terrence Brown and his counterparts can maintain clean open field tackling (nine stops for Brown versus Duke), the Cardinal will be off to a good start. But this is the litmus test of all litmus tests, and I have an inkling that versatile nickel back Usua Amanam's play will be a huge determinant in the outcome.
Advantage: Even (this can quickly turn into Advantage: USC with Barkley starting down the Stanford unit)
USC kicker Andre Heidari is out after undergoing knee surgery. Walk-on Alex Wood takes his place, but Lane Kiffin went for it on fourth down instead of making him kick last week (the Trojans went 1-for-3 on those conversions). If this game turns into the slugfest Stanford wants, field goal tries will be important. Craig McMahon will handle kickoffs, which also can become a problem if poorly executed. Return-wise, Lee has already taken one back to the house. Stay tuned as Stanford tries to prevent that from happening again.
Stanford is kicking well behind a rejuvenated Jordan Williamson. Drew Terrell is the Pac-12's best punt returner. Kick and punt coverage has been excellent for the Cardinal so far, thanks in part to gritty play from Lancaster and Zach Hoffpauir. But this game introduces an unusually difficult test. New special teams coach Pete Alamar faces his first referendum against USC's elite athletes.
Advantage: Stanford (significant, USC doesn't have a trusted kicker!)
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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