Winning Again Up Front
Stanford's 21-14 victory over USC last year featured the debut of the "Party in the Backfield," the raging sack fiesta that would ultimately carry the Cardinal to their first Rose Bowl championship in 40 years. Four violent takedowns and 60 minutes of relentless pressure made Trojan quarterback Matt Barkley look like a rag doll. The Farm Boys made a mockery of USC's offensive line on the game's final possession, when they dropped No. 7 twice on their way to forcing Lane Kiffin's squad into a last-gasp fourth down and 40 attempt.
Similar domination up front is certainly again part of Stanford's formula for Saturday's showdown at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Trojans should be better suited to defend themselves this time around, though: They'll no longer be starting reserve center Cyrus Hobbi, who was traumatized by last year's experience.
"I was excited," Hobbi told the Los Angeles Times. "But I was like, 'Oh wow. My first college start: I didn't think it would be... Stanford."
The outcome was gruesome -- at least from the Trojan perspective.
Now, Marcus Martin is new man in the middle of USC's retooled offensive line. Last year's left tackle Aundrey Walker, who struggled at his original position, is now at right guard. Max Tuerk and Kevin Graf return to their stating roles at left guard and right tackle, while Chad Wheeler is seeing his first career college action at Walker's former left tackle spot. The new-look Trojan line has already given up 23 sacks this season (they surrendered 17 throughout all of last year), but rushing production has remained solid for them (4.8 yards per carry).
Despite the uptick in sacks allowed, Stanford coach David Shaw thinks the unit has improved.
"Their offensive line is doing a good job of being steady, being strong, being physical, and moving people," he said.
Whether or not that continues to be the case Saturday remains to be seen. After holding USC to just 26 rushing yards last season, the Farm Boys' pass rush surged through a turnstile at the center position. It likely won't be as easy this year, but given the position shifts and aforementioned statistics, it looks as if the Cardinal will again have an edge up front, and that's the one critical key they need to succeed in this game.
Jerry Rice's Focus on Perfection
All three of Stanford's losses the past two seasons have come after hard-fought battles the previous week. This year's setback against Utah followed the gut-wrenching 30-28 victory over Washington, while last season's disappointments at Washington and Notre Dame came after thrilling victories over USC and Arizona.
The Farm Boys would like to avoid any semblance of a letdown performance after their monumental triumph over Oregon. The pedigree of their opponent and the sold out (for the first time this season) Coliseum should be enough to take care of that worry, but players and coaches have both indicated that last Thursday's sloppy finish has also fueled the team's fire during this week of preparation. Though they've come close lately, Stanford has yet to piece together 60 minutes of perfect football this season.
Center Conor McFadden told me that Shaw has used his conversations with NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice to help Stanford's players zero in on the task hand. Rice, at age 40, once told Shaw about his burning desire to put together the elusive "perfect game," something that he had always striven for but never completely attained.
"I think that's what we're trying to do here at Stanford," McFadden said. "Everyday we're striving for perfection. And perfection is basically impossible, but that doesn't mean that it shouldn't be the goal."
Imposing a beatdown for a full 60 minutes is the Cardinal's next objective, and it's one that's certainly popular with right guard Kevin Danser. He glowed as he said that his unit "loves to beat the crap out of" opposing teams with its smashmouth run blocking approach. Continued commitment to the power run may give Danser yet another chance to do what he loves this Saturday.
A Krispy Kreme Gift
Tyler Gaffney carried the ball a school-record 45 times against Oregon, so it's unclear just how much Stanford will be able to rely on him Saturday. The offensive line that's been blocking for the Cardinal's running backs, though, should have ample fuel thanks to a gift from Gaffney himself. No. 25 treated all the big boys up front to a healthy portion of Krispy Kreme donuts this offseason, and players have joked that the gift has served to generate intense motivation for the line's run-blocking efforts. Gaffney, of course, has seen significant return on his offseason investment: He's become only the seventh runner in Stanford history to crack the 1,000 yard mark in a season.
Gaffney, by the way, has the chance to become the first Stanford player to ever score against USC in three separate visits to the Coliseum. His current position coach Tavita Pritchard handed off to him on a touchdown run in 2009 before Andrew Luck threw an opening drive scoring pass to him in 2011.
Devon Cajuste and Henry Anderson, both of whom are re-acclimating after knee injuries, had excellent weeks of practice. Stanford may not be far away from welcoming other players back to action. Shaw said safety Zach Hoffpauir has "turned a corner" in his recovery from leg injury and could be ready to return next weekend against Cal. Nose tackle Ikenna Nwafor, who hurt his leg during the Cardinal's win at Washington State, is beginning to go through return-to-play progressions. There's a chance he may be ready for the November 30 regular season finale against Notre Dame, but Shaw noted that a return for Stanford's bowl game may be more realistic.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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