The consensus preseason No. 1 team is not close to top form and is only slowly recovering from injuries and off-the-field trauma.
The Trojans struggled early against BYU in Provo last week, and uncharacteristically trailed 3-0 in the second quarter before turning things around in a 42-10 win. That both the Cardinal and Trojans have dismantled the Cougars doesn't tell us much about this game.
There could be some added drama to Saturday's game as well.
Recall that after last year's debacle in Los Angeles, USC linebacker Matt Grootegoed and lineman Shaun Cody accused Cardinal players of dirty play. According to reports, Grootegoed hasn't thought about it much since, but there's no downplaying this drama if things get ugly again on the field.
USC (3-0) has not played up to its potential on a consistent basis yet this season, but sparks of brilliance have been enough to carry it through the early part of the schedule.
Both teams open Pac-10 play with this
game, and USC would like nothing more than to assert themselves loudly as the
team to beat in the conference.
Quarterback: Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart was the poster boy for the 2004 college football season, gracing the cover of nearly every preseason magazine after throwing for a Pac-10-record 38 touchdowns last season.
Billed as the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, Leinart has looked solid in his first three games, completing 65 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns and 739 yards. He did throw his first interception in 111 attempts in the first quarter of last week's game with BYU.
Leinart has dealt with tendonitis in his throwing arm since training camp started, but has shown no signs of fatigue in the arm so far.
Running Back: USC boasts what might be the most versatile group of running backs in the country. Sophomore Reggie Bush is the stud of the three. The flashy back rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, including an impressive 66-yard score a week ago. Bush also caught three touchdown passes in USC's season-opening win at Virginia Tech.
But fellow sophomore LenDale White has been even better, rushing for 314 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games. White is stronger and a more punishing back than Bush, who consistently reverses field and employs a series of juke moves.
The third member of the trio, Herschel Dennis, played for the first time last week since being suspended indefinitely because of breaking curfew during fall practice. Though that's the technical reason for his suspension, Dennis was at the center of a police investigation into a sexual assault case on campus, but the case was recently shut down due to a lack of evidence.
Dennis rushed for 18 yards on three carries last week. He started every game for the Trojans last year.
Wide Receiver: Depth has been a serious issue at this position. USC lost Keary Colbert to graduation, Whitney Lewis to academic problems, and, of course, Mike Williams to an NCAA ruling denying his reinstatement as an amateur.
The result has been an inexperienced receiver corps. Starters Chris McFoy and Steve Smith have been inconsistent, and so too has Dwayne Jarrett, who was hyped by Trojans coaches during the fall as Williams' successor. Jarrett dropped two passes last week but also reeled in a nice 15-yard touchdown catch.
Tight Ends: The Trojans are paper thin at this position as well. Dominique Byrd was penciled in as the starter during spring practice, but broke his kneecap in late July and only began practicing with the team this week. He won't be ready for the Stanford game but could play against Cal on Oct. 9.
Senior Alex Holmes has started, but has battled a strained calf. The pickings behind Holmes are not inspiring: a former walk-on (Nick Vanderboom) and three true freshmen (Jimmy Miller, Dale Thompson and Fred Davis).
In the off-season, USC also lost Gregg Gunther, a potential impact player at the position, when he decided to concentrate only on basketball.
Offensive Line: The offensive line was the team's biggest question mark heading into the season, especially after USC lost right tackle Winston Justice, who is suspended for the season after flashing a pellet gun at another student.
The Trojans have four new starters on
the line, but coach Pete Carroll said this week that he's been pleased with the
group's progress, which has allowed Leinart more time to throw in every game.
Defensive Line: Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson are two of the best linemen in the country, and already have 7.5 sacks between them in three games.
Freshman Jeff Schweiger, from nearby San Jose, has made an early impact with two sacks and three tackles for loss when rotated into the lineup.
It's a safe bet that Stanford's offensive line won't be able to contain them all game. The bigger question is if they can minimize the amount of hits Trent Edwards has to take from bruisers like Cody.
Linebackers: The Trojans also have one of the best linebackers in all of college football in Matt Grootegoed, who struggled with injuries last season but already has three interceptions in two games.
Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, the team's leading tackler a year ago, has picked up right where he left off. He leads the Trojans in tackles with 21 and has four tackles for loss, an interception and a forced fumble.
Secondary: The secondary has been a bit of a mess for the Trojans. Freshman corner Eric Wright played every series but one in the second half last week after Carroll pulled starter Ronald Nunn for giving up a 69-yard touchdown.
Darnell Bing was also heralded as one of the best safeties in the conference, but he didn't start last week because Trojan coaches noticed his intensity had been lacking in recent weeks, according to the Los Angeles Daily News. Junior Scott Ware has emerged at the position, started last week, and has split time fairly equally with Bing so far this season.
The results of the mix and match have
been positive, though. USC, who was #110 out of 117 Division I-A teams a year ago in passing
yards allowed per game, has surrendered only 193 yards per contest so far in
The Trojans always seem to win the battle of field position because of their punter Tom Malone, who would have led the country in punting average a year ago if he had qualified with enough kicks. Malone, perhaps the most talked about punter in the country, has been average, by his standards, so far this year, netting 43.3 yards per punt.
Ryan Killeen is also considered by many to be one of the top kickers in the nation. But he's only 1-for-4 this season, including missing two meaningless field goals last week in Provo.
Bottom Line: Stanford's offensive line must have the game of its collective young life if the Cardinal are going to be able to put up points. Stanford struggled on the ground against BYU, and USC has allowed an average of only 67 yards rushing to opponents thus far.
Meanwhile, Stanford must key on Bush and White and dare the inexperienced Trojan wide receivers to beat them.
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