How do you remain 30 games under .500 in a rivalry despite being in the midst of arguably the best run in the history of your program? Well, first you lose pretty regularly when the opponent is in its heyday, but then it's the years where you have the upper hand and you yak up the game that keep you forever buried and forced to eat three decades of crow. Keep in mind, Stanford would have to beat USC for 30 straight years just to catch them in the head-to-head. So it's games like the past two years that really, really, stick in the craw of the diehards and it's why I don't care what anybody says, beating USC is better than beating anybody else on Stanford's schedule. And don't kid yourselves, even from atop the precipice of college football's most storied mountaintop of achievement, USC really, really hates losing to Stanford.
And that brings us to game 3 on the Stanford schedule, a trip to the L.A. Coliseum onto Trojan soil for the game that, like last year, will let every Cardinal fan know how to calibrate expectations for the rest of 2015. Stanford and USC start Pac-12 play a week earlier than every other team, but such is the price of maintaining The Weekender for all eternity. So let's look at some important storylines facing the Trojans for 2015:
Certainly, their coach has not been a distraction.
For an insider's viewpoint, we went to uscfootball.com's Ryan Abraham with some questions about USC's issues on and off the field.
1. Has your opinion
of the Sark Meltdown changed since it happened?
My opinion of what happened night really has not changed. It was a closed to the media event, so everything I know about it came second hand or through the videos that were posted. Stories were coming in fast and furious that night and my phone was blowing up as you could imagine.
2. How do you feel about the way Pat Haden and Sark have handled it?
USC is no stranger to off the field distractions and many times I feel the administration hasn't always handled them in the most efficient and effective manner. There was a lot up in the air following Sarkisian's night incident, but I felt his apology morning was sincere and contrite and gives this team the best chance of moving forward.
3. It seems like the team has closed ranks pretty well around Sark, based on Cody Kessler's reaction...Do you see it having any real impact on the team's on-field performance?
I think the potential to have this incident impact the team's performance is real, but this is a team that is well equipped to deal with non football distractions. Over Cody Kessler's career he has seen it all, from NCAA sanctions and sharing starting quarterback duties to Lane Kiffin being fired in the middle of the night and fellow captain Josh Shaw being suspended.
4. Before Salute to Troy, Sark expressed some displeasure with his offense after scrimmage, particularly with the offensive line. How have they looked this week?
Up until scrimmage I feel the offensive line was playing well, even with starting left tackle Chad Wheeler not fully back. The three practices prior to the scrimmage Adoree Jackson was tearing it up on offense, and that was pretty much all the defense was hearing about. it looked like they had heard enough and really took it to the offense and specifically the offensive line. They have only had one practice since that scrimmage and most of the media missed it while we were writing about Sarkisian's apology.
5. To what extent has Adoree Jackson been practicing with the offense? How much do you expect to see of him on O say, on or before ?
Adoree Jackson spent four practices on the offensive side of the ball, where he averaged about 4 touchdowns per practice playing running back, slot receiver and wide receiver. We talked to him about how much offense he would play and at first he wouldn't give a number, but later revealed he felt 40 plays would be a good amount. My guess is it will be closer to 30, but certainly a lot more than he was playing last season.
6. How's the running back situation shaping up? Can you handicap the top three contenders for carries and is SC trying to find one guy or are they content to run by committee?
At this point the two returning veterans, Tre Madden and Justin Davis, have not been fully healthy. If those two are healthy, I would expect that to be the main rotation. But at this point, it has been the three true freshmen who have been getting a lot of reps while Madden and Davis come in and out of practice. Ronald Jones is a speedster who has looked great, Aca'cedric Ware is a tough running between the tackles and Dominic Davis looks more like a slot receiver, but when he gets in the open field he always makes someone miss.
7. Who is the most likely player to surprise as an offensive contributor?
At this point I would say either one of the freshmen running backs or one of the tight ends. Both veteran scholarship tight ends are no longer on the roster, so it could be walk-on and Columbia transfer Connor Spears or true freshman Tyler Petite or Oklahoma graduate transfer Taylor McNamara stepping up and taking over that position.
8. Biggest reason for optimism on defense?
The biggest reason for USC fans to be optimistic about the defense (outside of guys like Su'a Cravens and Adoree Jackson) is the depth. The Trojans brought in a 13-man defensive class with four defensive backs, four linebackers and five defensive linemen. Those guys alone could be a good starting defense in the Pac-12 with a little experience, so the two-deep on defense was improved on all fronts.
9. Biggest reason for concern on defense?
Trying to replace the leadership of linebacker Hayes Pullard or the production of Leonard Williams isn't going to be easy. Having more depth is one thing, but being able to find playmakers is another. USC will need some of the young guys to step up and pick up their production levels for this defense to live up to its potential.
10. How is the kicker battle going?
Maybe the most interesting development in the kicking game came last week. Steve Sarkisian wasn't happy with both kickers missing their field goals, so he told Adoree Jackson to go in and kick. Sarkisian later told us he had never seen Jackson kick before, but he wanted someone to go in who he felt could make it. Of course Adoree Jackson did, but I don't expect him to be in the mix at yet another position for USC.
So there you have it. Just as it was last year, this game is going to be the true litmus test for Stanford Football. I talked with Scott Reiss about the possibility of this game coming down to the new kickers, and based on what Ryan told us it seems like USC's decision is going to come down to the wire. Word out of camp from Stanford is that Conrad Ukropina has seized the place-kicking job recently, but he had a shaky day in the Coliseum two years ago that cost Stanford dearly. I expect the game vs. Stanford to be Adoree Jackson's coming out party in terms of usage. You have a dynamic player going up against what's going to be an unproven Stanford secondary, and I think the temptation to showcase Jackson is going to be too great to keep him shackled against the Cardinal.
The discontent with the Trojan offensive line also mirrors what Stanford's been experiencing this year. What was to be a presumed strength for both teams has not played out that way in practice as of yet. Both teams played a number of first-year starters last year (with USC playing true freshmen) with the expectation that there would be dividends in years to come. With Stanford failing to identify who's going to comprise the right side of the line and with the USC coaches apparently underwhelmed with the Trojans' effort so far, the situation is to be monitored for sure as both teams will be facing talented defensive fronts on September 19.
This game represents Stanford's first chance to seriously alter the presumed narrative of the 2015 season. Once more USC starts the season with a Heisman hopeful at quarterback (an at corner potentially) and even with the recent events at Troy, this will once more be the most talented team Stanford faces this year. USC is ready to ascend to the top of the conference, whereas Stanford and Kevin Hogan are smarting from two consecutive losses to the Trojans. No way to overestimate the importance of this one for both teams.
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