U$C Game Preview

The gurus in Vegas have decided this Saturday's showdown in South Central should be a three touchdown affair, if not better for the Trojans. But the matchups of the various units for Stanford and USC indicate this should not be a repeat of the 2002 affair in Palo Alto. Read on for a full preview of offenses and defenses we will see when Stanford and USC battle...


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Bouncing back

The measure of a mature football team is how well it recovers after a difficult loss. Stanford's last outing, a 28-17 defeat at the hands of the Washington Huskies, most definitely qualifies as a tough game. While the Cardinal played well and hung with the Huskies for most of the game, in the end the Huskies' experience and perhaps a little of that home-venue advantage helped UW preserve the W and drop Stanford to 2-1 overall, 0-1 in the Pac-10. This week, as Stanford travels to play its southerly Trojan rivals at the University of Southern California, all the cylinders will have to click. USC possesses a powerful offense which has yet to score less than 30 points in any single game, and its run defense is second only to Stanford's in the Pac-10.

These two teams have been playing one another since 1905, with SC holding a decisive series advantage. However, the matchup has been fairly even recently, with the two squads splitting the last 12 games they have played. Here's how they stack up for this Saturday's contest:

USC Rushing Offense Stanford Rush Defense
Washington and White. The surnames for USC's two power tailbacks don't exactly have the same ring as Aykroyd and Belushi, but the "Bruise Brothers" from Southern California can still get SC fans moving in their seats when they get into the endzone. And that's quite a feat, when you consider how monotonous and maddening the Trojan fight song is. Combine the two bruisers with Hershel Dennis and Reggie Bush, who are cut from a quicker and more elusive mold, and the runners of Troy have put together quite a nice corps of tailbacks to replace the departed Justin Fargas. LenDale White is probably the most solid of SC's ground attack, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and racking up 210 yards so far in 2003. He heads back to Los Angeles with a lot of momentum after his huge outing against Arizona State, where the true freshman ran for more yards (140) than any other frosh in USC history, and added a couple of touchdowns to boot. The guy who gets the ball most is still Hershel Dennis, however. His 64 rushes so far this year have netted him 249 yards, leaving him averaging nearly 4 yards per carry. The Stanford defense is bold and confident, and the run defense especially so as it continues to turn heads. Despite allowing Rich Alexis of Washington to be the first back to record a 100-yard rushing game against the Cardinal, Stanford's run-stoppers remain third-best in the nation. The stingy D only gives up 56 yards per game on the ground, good enough to rank the Cardinal rush prevention at the top of the Pac-10.

Keys for the rushing defense:

1) Avoid giving up the big play. Against Washington, Stanford allowed Alexis to streak 53 yards to the Land of Quick Six late in the first quarter. Alexis's scamper was the longest run conceded by the Stanford defense so far this season, and damaged the Cardinal's confidence while erasing Stanford's early 7-0 lead. Against a team as talented as USC, a game-turning big play is always a possibility and is something that Stanford must avoid if it hopes to keep momentum long enough to knock off Troy.

2) Build the wall early. Rejecting SC's early attempts to move the ball on the ground will put more pressure on sophomore quarterback Matt Leinart. Coupled with a solid pass rush, Stanford's defense can create scoring opportunities on Saturday, but the impetus has to come from the rushing D.

 

USC Passing Offense Stanford Pass Defense
Matt Leinart has had a tough assignment, stepping into the ample-sized shoes left by Heisman-winner Carson Palmer. But so far the sophomore lefty has shown considerable poise, throwing for over 1,000 yards and registering 10 touchdowns in 2003. To be fair, Leinart has been blessed with one of the most talented targets in the land in the person of Mike Williams, who has absolutely exploded in 2003. Not only is Williams already half-way to a grand with 502 yards receiving, but he is averaging 15.7 yards per catch and has 4 TDs to boot. Williams has only played 18 games so far for the Trojans, and he already has 18 touchdowns on his resume, having scored more than once in 5 games. Williams seems to have an instinctive knack for the endzone, averaging a touchdown every 6 or 7 times he touches the football. Comparisons to a former Trojan receiver who just wants the damn ball are not entirely out of the question, especially considering that the flashy 2002 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year is already 9th on the USC all-time receiving list. However, the SC receiving corps is not a one-man show by any stretch of the imagination – Keary Colbert is seeing to that. The steady and reliable senior, who brings considerable experience to the wideout position as a fourth-year starter, has 23 catches for 348 yards, giving him a Williams-esque 15.1 yards per catch and placing him 5th on the all-time Trojan receptions list. In addition, Colbert also has touched down for 6 points 4 times so far this year, and if he catches a ball against Stanford will have a reception in 29 straight outings. Colbert has all the motivation to continue his solid play as well – if he repeats his numbers from 2002 then he will stand alone as the top SC pass-catcher in history.

 

With USC's healthy passing attack waiting for the Cardinal to drive down I-5 to Los Angeles, it is quite possible that Saturday's contest could be decided in the air. Stanford absolutely must generate significant pressure to rattle Leinart, otherwise the Cardinal secondary is going to have nightmares chasing Williams and Colbert around the field. While the 8 sacks and 2 quarterback hurries the Stanford defensive line has notched so far this year is respectable, it is patently true that the Card is going to have to ratchet their pass-rushing intensity up another notch this weekend. Look for Jon Alston and Babatunde Oshinowo, with 3 and 2 sacks respectively, to lead the defensive charge to bring down Leinart. Similarly, in the secondary the bulk of the responsibility falls to two men – Leigh Torrence and Oshiomogho Atogwe – to harass SC's pass-catchers and break up receptions. Torrence and Atogwe, with 9 pass break-ups between them, have more than the rest of the secondary combined. However, 17 pass breakups as a unit is a pretty healthy stat through only 3 games (especially when you consider that the defense only broke up 28 passes through all of last season), and the Stanford passing D has also succeeded in holding its opponents to a 48.3 completion percentage. All the pieces will have to fit together on Saturday in order for these positive defensive trends to continue, though. The SoCal southpaw slinging it to two such well-established receivers as Colbert and Williams means that the USC passing attack is always a threat, no matter the situation and no matter how much they might have struggled previously.
USC Rush Defense Stanford Rushing Offense
One of the most pivotal and intriguing matchups that this Saturday's game promises will pit two units that don't even face off directly on the field. USC's defensive line is considered by many to be the best in the land – Stanford might be a bit surprised this week to be facing an opponent whose reputation at stopping the rush exceeds that of its own. Indeed, SC's D-line, which has nicknamed itself the "Wild Bunch II" in homage to 1969's front six, has put together quite a list of accomplishments so far this season. The litany goes like this: 28 tackles for loss, 15.5 sacks (with 1 of those going for a safety), 2 forced fumbles (both recovered by the Trojans), and 2 interceptions. The Wild Bunch II was especially active in SC's first contest against Auburn, led by Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week Mike Patterson. The junior nose tackle recorded 7 takedowns against the Tigers, and he equaled that total the following game against the unfortunate BYU Cougars. He is supplemented by his classmate and 2001 Freshman All-American Shaun Cody, who since missing the second half of last season with knee issues has come roaring back in 2003 to record 10 tackles and a team-leading 4 sacks to add to his 1 blocked field goal. While reserving a modicum of objective judgment on a nicknamed squad which doesn't go by the moniker of "Thunderchickens," it is safe to say that this version of the Wild Bunch anchors the Southern California defense. How things play out in the trenches on Saturday will have major implications for the outcome of the greater game.

 

It is not an overstatement to say that Saturday's game may well be won or lost by Stanford's offensive line. Squaring off against one of the most imposing and successful defensive lines in the country, the greenhorn Stanford squad will have to play beyond its years this weekend both to allow Stanford to develop a running game and to give Trent Edwards the time and protection he needs to pick apart the SC secondary. Besides Kirk Chambers, who is playing in his fourth solid year for the Card, Stanford's offensive line can boast of no other soldier with anything more than very limited experience. Three quarters of Stanford's offensive linemen had never played a down entering the 2003 season. In its 3 games so far this year, the hole-openers from Palo Alto have started 3 redshirt freshmen in each game. Despite its youth, Stanford's running attack has still managed to average roughly 150 yards on the ground in each contest. Led by Kenneth Tolon, who has carried the ball 67 times so far and averaged just a hair under 4 yards per carry, Stanford's rushing attack will have to rely on the creativity and agility of Tolon and his exciting counterpart, speedy J.R. Lemon, to conjure up gains on Saturday. Against a wall like USC's D-line, Stanford can only hope that the rushing game establishes itself as a foil to Edwards's arm early, but don't expect SC's 9th-ranked rushing defense to give up too much on the terra firma.
USC Pass Defense Stanford Passing Offense
It doesn't say too much for Southern California's secondary that even with the Wild Bunch II up front, the Trojans still rank dead last in the Pac-10 in passing defense. Indeed, one of the few vulnerabilities of this team lies in the air – the Trojans give up nearly 300 yards of passing each game, despite the fact that its tackles and ends are ostensibly so good at finding their way to the quarterback. The void left by the departed Troy Polamalu is large and has yet to be filled, but there are a few in crimson and gold who are making their case to succeed the wild-haired former strong safety as leader of the secondary. Right now senior Marcell Allmond is the man to follow Polamalu – he already has 18 tackles, 3 deflections, an interception and a forced fumble to his name this season. Allmond possesses that rare intangible knack for victory which Stanford will have to overcome Saturday: Southern California is 10-1 when he is in the starting lineup. He is supplemented by junior Ronald Nunn, who has 10 tackles, a sack, and 2 forced fumbles (1 of which he returned for a touchdown) during the current campaign. This is a unit still finding itself in 2003 after losing its emotional and statistical leaders in Polamalu, DeShaun Hill and Darrell Rideaux, and it may be by attacking this still-gelling bunch on Saturday that Stanford can generate some good offensive numbers. Saturday is a big day for starting quarterback Trent Edwards, and not least because it will demonstrate a lot about his leadership skills and poise if the redshirt freshman can bounce back from the tough loss at Washington that Stanford sustained two weeks ago. Will Edwards be able to forget the frustration of watching Washington's Derrick Johnson sprint the 36 yards to the endzone after his interception as time wound down in Seattle? Will tight end Alex Smith, who emerged as one of Edwards's preferred destinations last week with 2 touchdown grabs, be able to forego his blocking responsibilities often enough to be a credible threat to the SC secondary? Even if Smith and Luke Powell and the rest of Stanford's receiving corps are able to get open, will the young O-line be able to give Edwards the time he needs to drop back in the pocket, survey the field, and deliver the ball? All these questions had better be answered in the affirmative in Los Angeles on Saturday, or else it will be a tough day for Stanford's offense. Having Powell as a target certainly can't hurt Edwards – Stanford's small senior has been statistically huge all through 2003, leading the Pac-10 with 19 receptions for 216 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Powell will have to perform in a similar fashion this weekend – expect him to catch some shorter passes as Edwards dumps the ball off more quickly to avoid getting sacked. Think of it as an opportunity to watch the diminutive Tennessean showcase his open-field shakes.

Outlook

Their triple-overtime thriller loss to the California Bears a couple weeks ago did more than just throw a serious kink into USC's national-title hopes – it also exposed some legitimate weaknesses in SC's team that can be exploited by Stanford this weekend. Pass protection is a must if the Card want to generate any offense against a devastating Trojan front line – give Trent Edwards time and he has the skills to slice and dice the Southern California secondary all day long. On defense, Stanford has to stay away from surrendering the back-breaking big play. Ensuring that the secondary smothers Mike Williams and Keary Colbert after they catch the ball will limit the Trojans' ability to break out and register huge gains. Stanford doesn't want to have to rely on its conference-leading red zone defense, which has only allowed opponents to score twice from the red zone all season long, but if the Trojans do penetrate the 20-yard line then the Card will have to conjure some more epic stands in order to come away with a hard-fought win.


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