Utilize the Receiver Advantage -- On the Ground
Both USC and Stanford have undergone offensive shifts since their last meeting. The Trojans' transformation, which has featured an implementation of Steve Sarkisian's uptempo offense, has certainly been more drastic. But the Cardinal's shift is no joke either: With no more 220-pound bell cow at the running back position, Stanford must use to Saturday to prove that it can still control the ball and keep an opposing high-octane offense on the sideline.
Power hasn't left the Cardinal's arsenal, but repeatedly running in between the tackles all day will no longer be enough for this team to win its biggest games. While smaller, Stanford's backs are quicker and shiftier than their past counterparts. The offensive line they're running behind is also still jelling. Meanwhile, a different pronounced physical strength has emerged: The team's receiving corps is bigger, stronger, and deeper than ever.
Therein lies a golden Stanford potential rushing advantage against USC, and Mike Bloomgren must tailor the Cardinal's game plan to capitalize on his roster's new strengths. He must orchestrate a well-balanced attack that effectively mixes tried-and-true power with creative perimeter running that utilizes Stanford's wide receivers, their biggest match-up edge.
"We want to be physical [with our wide receivers' blocking]," David Shaw told me Wednesday. "We don't want to give cornerbacks a free pass. We want to be talked about as one of the best blocking units in America."
Devon Cajuste weighs 228 pounds. A beefed-up Ty Montgomery checks in at 225. The importance of both in Stanford's passing game is obvious, but their muscle in space without the ball can also prove truly devastating. Since USC is missing Josh Shaw, its only 200-pound cornerback, Cajuste and Montgomery will have the opportunity to lock helmets with the likes of Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185), Kevin Seymour (6-0, 185), and true freshman Adoree' Jackson (5-11, 185). Those are relatively young players who are 40 pounds lighter than Shaw's aforementioned receivers.
If Stanford can dominate this match-up, USC may be forced to commit studly strong safety Su'a Cravens (6-1, 225) closer to the line of scrimmage, and that has the potential to open things up downfield for Kevin Hogan's re-tooled passing attack.
Remember 2013 Midseason Adjustments: Set the Edges on the Perimeter
In many ways, this next objective is the defensive inverse of the first one. Sarkisian has implemented the same offense that he tormented Stanford with while coaching Washington last year. Remember that the Huskies torched the Cardinal to the tune of 489 yards in 2013. Much of that success was based on a perimeter swing passing emphasis that USC also featured plentifully in their 52-13 week one romp over Fresno State. Quarterback Cody Kessler quickly delivered the ball to a sprinting athlete in the flat. Meanwhile, a Trojan receiver would eat a defensive back (or two) alive, and the ballcarrier would enjoy daylight.
Stanford recovered from its Washington and Utah struggles last season by re-emphasizing physicality on the perimeter and overpowering wide receiver blocks on the edges. By the time UCLA rolled into town last year, Cardinal defensive backs Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons -- possibly the most physical in the Pac-12 -- were suffocating the outside. It's absolutely critical that Stanford continues to win this battle on the perimeter, because USC's stable of athletic weapons will light the stadium on fire if their blockers create space.
There's a reason why Zach Hoffpauir's stock is rising: He's extremely physical. Stanford will play him at free safety in its base defense and at nickel back on passing downs. Lance Anderson wants Hoffpauir's rugged play on the field in this one because he believes the Cardinal's nastiness in the secondary can bruise USC's sleek speed.
Prevent Buck Allen from Looking Like Bishop Sankey
USC running back Javorius Allen ('Buck') says that he wants to emulate former Washington stud Bishop Sankey in Sarkisian's new-look offense, and that would be bad news for Stanford for one simple reason: Allen averaged only 1.6 yards per carry against the Cardinal last year, while Sankey racked up 125 yards in his visit to The Farm.
Washington saw rushing success against Stanford for a multitude of reasons. For one, the Cardinal were beaten up on the defensive line (Henry Anderson was out, David Parry was laboring through a lower abdominal issue, and Ben Gardner hurt his arm). Reason two: Since Stanford's defensive backs struggled to set hard edges (discussed in the key above), the Cardinal's bruised defense was stretched thin against the interior, and the Huskies marched up and down the field behind Sankey and play-action in the second half.
By the time the Cardinal held Allen to 26 yards on 16 carries at USC later that season, they had solved their perimeter edge-setting issues and become healthier along the defensive line. Given that success, and because Henry Anderson and David Parry are again at 100 percent, Stanford feels that it's in position to stonewall a Sarkisian-led rushing attack this time around.
Pounce on a Trojan Weakness: Unleash a Disciplined Pass Rush
This objective is reliant on the previous one. The only effective way for USC to mitigate Stanford's ferocious pass rush is to successfully run the ball. If the Trojans are unable to do that (or unable to establish an effective perimeter swing passing game, which can serve as an alternative to the standard run when it comes to neutralizing pass rushes), then the Cardinal can focus their attention on storming into the backfield to corral Kessler.
That's where USC's offense would become particularly vulnerable. This potential weakness was discussed at length in Wednesday's State of Stanford piece, but it must be reiterated here: The Trojans are starting three new offensive linemen this year, and the two guys on the right side weigh over 350 pounds (right guard Damien Mama is 370).
"They play a little bit high and I think we can find holes in their game the more we watch film," Stanford defensive end Henry Anderson said. "If you're 370, I don't know if you'll be able to move laterally as well as some smaller guys. If we work edges on the big guys, I think we'll be able to do damage there."
If Anderson's unit gets the point where it can focus solely on a pass rush, the USC uptempo attack that put up gaudy numbers against Fresno State will come crashing down to Earth. Never forget what happened to Matt Barkley the last time the Trojans came into Stanford Stadium and were unable to establish a running game: No. 7 became a rag doll for 60 minutes.
Red Zone, Red Zone, Red Zone
Stanford out-rushed USC 210-23 last year... and lost. A simple reason: The Cardinal scored only 10 points on four trips to the red zone. The Trojans ranked No. 1 nationally in red zone defense last year, and they saw early success again versus Fresno State. Stanford must fare better in this match-up this time around. Success depends on playcalling quality, Hogan's maturation, and the reintroduction of the tight end position.
The Great Equalizer
Special teams were ultimately the deciding factor in both of our primary 2013 data points. Despite the fact that Sarkisian's Washington team outplayed Stanford offensively and defensively, a pair of sensational Montgomery kick returns pushed the Cardinal to victory. And despite the fact that the Cardinal out-gained and severely out-rushed USC in November, the Trojans' block of Conrad Ukropina's 30-yard field goal attempt and Andre Heidari's subsequent game-winning boot provided the final 20-17 difference.
Efficiency numbers -- and Christian McCaffrey's emergence -- say that Stanford has the better special teams unit, but remember that USC blocked six kicks in 2013, good for fourth in the country. Last year's results against the Trojans and Washington suggest that the special teams phase of the game will be imperative for Stanford on Saturday.
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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