That word has come to be the cornerstone of Stanford’s rise to football success, and an albatross around the neck of a USC team who once epitomized a team who ran plays everybody knew were coming and didn’t give a damn about it. For the third time in three years, Stanford and USC meet at the crossroads where Pac-12 play begins and the first glimpse of both teams’ true identities hits prime time Saturday night.
One of the biggest factors in winning Saturday night will be in establishing an identity both teams desperately seek: That of a team that leads with the run, controls the game with the run, and breaks the spirit of the other team with the run. Both teams are not used to seeing themselves in the triple digits of national yards per carry rankings, but their they both sit. Stanford’s 3.5 YPC is 103rd and USC’s 109 is 3.27, and that’s after rushing for 208 yards against Utah State.
Stanford as a team is still searching for its run identity, as evidenced by the wide variety of plays they ran in their opener and the way they limited the use of their signature play. Christian McCaffrey proved better late than never in punctuating the Cardinal’s 26-13 victory, but it’s going to take much more than two big runs for Stanford to re-establish it’s running identity.
USC, on the other hand, did find marked improvement against Utah State, but still comes into the game with a number of crucial issues to solve if it’s going to have the kind of running success it’ll need to beat Stanford.
First of all, USC’s offensive line is headed for its third starting combination in three games. Center Toa Lobendahn was lost for the year in the Alabama game, and Left Tackle Chuma Edoga, ejected from the game in the first quarter against the Aggies, has been demoted. That sets USC’s starting five against the Cardinal left to right as Senior Chad Wheeler, Junior Damien Mama, Nico Falah, Viane Talamaivao, and Zach Banner.
As usual, what this group lacks in cohesion they make up for in tonnage, and of course recruiting pedigree. All but Falah at Center are over 300 pounds, and that brings us to how USC goes about its business in the run game.
Against Utah State, USC ran only ten plays with Quarterbacks Max Browne and Sam Darnold under center. Eight of those were runs. The Trojans’ other 33 run attempts came in the shotgun, with 20 of those coming on no huddle. The tempo that Steve Sarkisian brought with him from Seattle remains in Troy, despite the fact that the Trojans seem very equipped to run the huddle/Power scheme that works for Stanford.
That tempo may actually be a wise choice this week, with the availability of Harrison Phillips in question. Originally ruled out, Phillips is now a “40% chance” according to Head Coach David Shaw. A Stanford team just getting reacquainted with the spoils of defensive line depth will be pushed on Saturday night, and if they’re not pushed around, the Cardinal stands a very good chance at limiting the Trojan offense.
On its first running play, USC came out in a stacked Twins Left Strong Left Single Right Single Back formation against a 4-3 Front from Utah State. The Trojans run simple straight ahead drive blocking, but Falah misses his block on the defensive tackle but Running Back Justin Davis sidesteps him and finishes the run for a 12 yard gain.
USC came back in tempo on the very next play in the very same formation. This time, Tight End Taylor McNamara misses his downblock and the Aggies’ Derek Larsen blew the play up behind the line of scrimmage.
Facing a 2nd and Goal from the Utah State six, USC came out in a Strong Right Pistol, with Single Receivers Left and Right, a Fullback four yards back and offset right and the Tailback eight yards back. They motion their receiver left to right and at the snap, Center Falah and Left Tackle Wheeler downblock along with Right Guard Talamaivao. Mama, the Left Guard, pulls but misses his block, in this case Defensive End Siua Taufa makes the play as a result.
It’d be foolish to make too many assumptions about SC’s line, based on three plays, but these three plays do give a nice snapshot of some of the inconsistency plaguing the Trojans at the start of the season.
And that brings us to the Trojan backfield. Justin Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware are the two primary ballcarriers for USC. Davis, Ware, and Ronald Jones II are essentially the same back physically (6’1”, 200 LB.). They’ve come under some scrutiny of late, but nevertheless are still a very talented group, much like the Trojans as a whole.
USC did Stanford and the Pac-12 no favors by going all Washington Generals vs. Alabama, but they still pose a formidable threat to a Stanford team still looking to find its higher gears. The Cardinal is now favored by over a touchdown, but if they are going to turn Brent Musberger’s “Friends in the Desert” once more into prophets, priority one is stopping a Trojan run game seeking an identity that’s been eluding the Men of Troy for years.