In a nutshell, the fundamental problem that the Cardinal offense faces in this game is the strength of USC's front four. Last year they tore the Stanford offensive line apart and provided unrelenting pressure on Stanford's quarterbacks. Some observers believe the SC defensive line is not quite as strong as the 2003 version, they are probably the best Stanford will face all year. Unlike the San Jose State and BYU games, where the pressure on Trent Edwards came from numerical overloads, a simple four-man pass rush will provide the threat most of this game. That ostensibly makes the schematics of Stanford's blocking simpler, but it will not be easier. Here is the key to USC's defensive lethality, though: a potent four-man rush allows to keep your other seven defenders back to suffocate all receivers. Stanford broke big plays against the pressures brought by the Spartans and Cougars because there were holes in the defense when they took gambles, but the Trojans will have seven bodies able to cover wideouts, tailbacks and Alex Smith.
For this reason, I think the most likely path to success for the Stanford offense in this contest has to come from a strong ground game. If the Card can move the ball with any consistency on the ground, with a target of 125 net yards rushing, then that will force the USC back-end defenders to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Then and likely only then will Trent Edwards get opportunities to throw for big plays.
Unfortunately, the strength of Stanford's offense has not come in this young 2004 season from running the ball. The Card have averaged just 2.8 yards per carry through two games, and neither of those defenses are as stifling as USC's. Stanford is indeed throwing for more than three times the yards in the air as they are netting on the ground. So if you put little faith in the ability of Kenneth Tolon or J.R. Lemon to dissect the Trojan front seven, then how to you go about loosening SC's defense with a passing attack?
It is a tall task, but the passing plan is predicated upon two assumptions. The first is that Stanford has a fair amount of its offense that has not yet been displayed after its first two romps. No matter the talent and ability of a defense, their preparation is built upon a scouting report of tendencies. When you recognize the likelihood of certain plays called out of formations or personnel groups, you lessen the element of surprise and increase your chances of stopping that play. Stanford believes they can run some offense this game that may not be all trickery or radical playcalling, but can still keep SC off guard with their scouting preparation.
The second tenet to which you must cling if you hope for Cardinal success today is the ability of Trent Edwards to read the USC defense. With two weeks to prepare, he has put in countless hours of watching SC film of their defense to pick up on their keys.
"I'm as prepared as I've been for any game in my life," the redshirt sophomore quarterback claims. "I've watched so much film that I feel as confident as I possibly can be. Their defensive line is just so strong that they don't have to send their linebackers. Their cover two shell lets them stay in deep coverage; we have three or four guys out in routes against their seven. But we have routes that can beat that coverage. My job is to read the safeties and the 'backers - their depth and their alignment. But right when you get to one thing, they move to another. Their defensive coaches do a great job disguising their coverages. They might walk a safety or 'backer up but blitz on the other side."
There are compelling matchups for Stanford's receivers, the strength of the Cardinal offense, against USC's defensive backs. Who can cover Evan Moore, for example? But the quiet key to watch is fifth-year senior tight end Alex Smith. He leads all Stanford players with 10 receptions on the season, and he will be going up against some of the best linebackers in college football.
Stanford Defense vs. USC Offense
Surprisingly, the cadre of SC receivers looks relatively underwhelming thus far this year. No Keary Colbert and no Mike Williams, and the replacements have yet to step up to the level of their predecessors. It would be unsurprising for this game to be a "coming out" party for Dwayne Jarrett or Steve Smith, but based on what we have seen through three games, it looks like the most dangerous receiving threat comes from the backfield. Fitting for "Tailback U", the Trojans have used running back Reggie Bush as their best big play threat in the air, accounting for 17.1 yards per reception and four touchdowns already this year. Bush will occasionally be split out wide, but more often you will see him in the backfield with another running back, plus a tight end and two wideouts. Look for Bush to go in motion and give the Trojans a three-wide set before the ball is snapped. When you put a linebacker on Bush, or even a safety, you are asking to get hurt by his world class track speed.
"He's the most versatile player in the country - best player in college football for my money," says Stanford inside linebackers coach Tom Williams. "He's an all-purpose back who an make you miss in the open field, but he can also split out and can be an effective pass protector. You really get the impression you're seeing two backs when he's in the backfield, but they're really going three wide."
"If you can get a handle on what Norm [Chow] does with him in the passing game," the coach continues. "That's half the battle. That's where Norm gets him the big plays - really big."
Look for Stanford to employ nickel coverage in the secondary when Bush is on the field with certain personnel groups, which would ostensibly put a Stanford cornerback on him. The Card's trio of veteran corners are as strong a group as we've seen on The Farm in a decade, but they will be put to the test in limiting Bush. Oshiomogho Atogwe is also a key in the secondary to not necessarily line up on Bush in coverage, but often to provide the help to make a play on the ball.
Reggie Bush is a bigtime playmaker and concern. I don't think you can overstate that case. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the Trojans running game is the most dangerous threat. Just when you think you know what Norm Chow will do with his personnel, he will mix things up and attack you from another angle. We have perhaps forgotten about the severity of their running attack because Hershel Dennis has been out of action with his suspension. But the 200-pound junior, who was the leading weapon in SC's National Champion backfield a year ago, whetted his beak with his first game last week. None of us know what the Trojan offense will look like once Dennis is fully integrated, and that might come today. We said months ago when Stanford went to a 3-4 defense that they would be most tested by dominant running games, and there is no bigger ground demon than the USC triumvirate. Beware the ground game. And you will see shortly when the game kicks off that Stanford's best run defender in the linebacking corps, fifth-year senior David Bergeron is out of this game with a team suspension. When Chow and the Trojans wake up to that fact in the first quarter, you can only expect them to run right at Stanford's defense. The Cardinal linebackers in this game have to close to the ball quickly and make a minimum of mistakes in pursuit. The speed of USC's backs can turn an innocent run into a game-changing touchdown in a heartbeat. Gap integrity is key from the 'backers, and the front three have to clog up the running lanes.
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