The USC Trojans (6-2, 4-1) swagger into Stanford Stadium this weekend carrying a 3-game winning streak, a number 9 ranking, and a 2nd place berth in the Pac-10 race. While the Card (2-6, 1-4) have taken the last 3 games in a row from a series of blessedly inept Trojan teams, we should probably be grateful that past performance isn't a guarantor of future success – USC's record against Stanford is a ridiculous 34-9-1 over the last half century. This Saturday's game may seem like a return to the doormat days of yore for many Stanford fans, when the best part of the annual matchup was the Stanford Band's irreverent halftime show, and the pressing question of the day was whether or not Stanford could keep it within 20. The 2002 Trojans are developing into one of the better offensive teams in the conference, and field one of the best defensive squads as well, allowing under 20 points a game. On to the numbers:
The Toe-Jam offense hopefully used the bye-week to cool off a little; two weeks ago, the SC offense blitzed through the Oregon D to set several different school offensive records. Trailing 19-14 at halftime, SC scored 30 unanswered points in the second half en route to a 44-33 victory. Starting QB Carson Palmer (6-5, 225), who is finally coming into his own in his senior season, set a new school record for passing yardage and total offense (484 and 434, respectively) and completed 74% (31 of 42) of his passes for 5 touchdowns. Palmer currently ranks second in the Pac in throwing yards per game (303), much of which is due to a significant upgrade in his decision-making abilities this year – he's always had the physical hardware, but sorely lacked the software. What a difference a year makes; Trojan fans are now convinced that that the Duck soup Palmer made up in Eugene has made him a frontrunner for the Heisman. Uhh… No. It's tough to argue that he's even the best QB in the conference, much less the best player in the country.
Another key element to the offense's success (and Palmer's makeover) is the offensive line. It's hard to imagine a more hapless line than the Trojans fielded last year, and while it hasn't been spectacular this year, the Trojans have plenty of experience available to them, with 4 of the line's 5 starters returning. One of the most surprising players has been true freshman Winston Justice, who played his way into a starting role early in the season and hasn't relinquished it.
Another terrific true freshman is WR Mike Williams (6-5, 210), who caught 13 passes for 226 yards against Oregon, his fourth game in a row with over 100 receiving yards. He is already the best wide receiver on the team, with 50 catches for 814 yards and 16 yards per completion on the season. In comparison, swift senior Kareem Kelly, a 4-year starter, has 32 catches for 340 yards and just 10 yards per completion. Which just goes to show that 4.3 speed does not a wide receiver make… though it certainly helps.
Williams' emergence over the season has added a whole new dimension to the Trojan offense, and the running game is hitting as well. Highly touted Michigan transfer Justin Fargas (6-1, 210) was the hot pick to take the starting position from senior Sultan McCullough (6-1, 190) after a terrific spring, but Sultan has remained the team's feature back so far. McCullough is averaging 4.1 yards a carry to Fargas' 3.8, and has twice as many carries on the season. Fargas' future at SC is assured, however – he'll be terrorizing Stanford backfields for at least two more seasons.
Last year's Freshman All-American end Shaun Cody was lost for the season with an injury against California, but fellow sophomore end Kenechi Udeze (6-3, 280) is picking up the slack with a team-leading 5.5 sacks. These two ends are going to give Stanford fits for years to come, provided they don't hightail it for the NFL. Mike Patterson, another terrific sophomore, provides 285 lbs. of muscle at RT, while stalwart Bernard Riley is the only senior on the line at left tackle. This defensive line was dominant against Oregon State, racking up 8 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 2 deflections, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries.
The best DL in the conference is backed up by a solid linebacking corps, led by hard-nosed sophomore Matt Grootegoed (5-11, 205) at strongside linebacker (who leads the team in tackles with 51), while steady senior Mike Pollard plays at middle linebacker. Fleet-footed WSU transfer Melvin Simmons has earned the starting job at outside linebacker and has 43 tackles on the season.
The graduation of starting safety Antuan Simmons and cornerbacks Kris Richard and and Chris Cash, both of whom were NFL draft picks, was supposed to the hit the Trojan backfield hard. With added losses to injury early in the season, the Trojans' second ranked pass defense is a minor miracle. That miracle is more understandable when taking into account the presence of all-world safety Troy Polamalu (5-10, 215). This terrific athlete is on track for numerous post-season honors, and is currently 3rd on the team in tackles (41) to go along with a sack and 5 tackles for loss.
The Trojan defense has certainly forfeited some of its punch with the loss of Shaun Cody, but they remain one of the elite squads in the country. While proving susceptible to the run in recent weeks, they still stifle opponents' passing attacks with ferocious efficiency (2nd in the Pac). Stanford needs to show an offensive and defensive intensity far beyond what they've shown so far this year if they even want to keep it close – after all, the Trojans are ranked tenth in the country for a reason.
Prediction: A classic mismatch. Stanford falls hard at home, tripped up by its own marshmallow passing attack. SC 45-10