Gameday Preview: USC at Stanford

Stanford's 2007 upset was the biggest in college football history. USC's defense might just be the best in college football history. A sixth Stanford win wouldn't be the biggest news in college footall history, but it would sure feel that way to the bowl-starved Cardinal faithful. Can the Card steal that sixth win against the toughest opponent they'll face this year?

Gameday Breakdown:
USC (8-1, 6-1 Pac-10) at Stanford (5-4, 4-2 Pac-10)
Sat. Nov. 15, 4 p.m. PT

Last year:  Stanford 24, USC 23. "Biggest upset ever." The Stanford bookstore was selling those tee shirts for months, and deservedly so, as the 41-point underdog Card were indeed the biggest ever point-spread underdogs to win a football game. The Cardinal were outgained nearly 2-to-1 by the then-No. 2 Trojans, 459 yards to 235, but benefitted from a plus-four turnover ratio and some timely plays. In the first half, Stanford blocked an extra point and turned away USC on fourth and goal as the half expired to go into the locker room down just 9-0. Austin Yancy's pick-six put Stanford on the scoreboard to start the third quarter, and an Anthony Kimble touchdown run and Derek Belch field goal set the stage for, argubably, the most famous pass in Stanford football history: Tavita Pritchard finding a well-covered Mark Bradford in the back left corner of USC's end zone for a fourth-and-goal touchdown with 49 seconds to go. The Coliseum went quiet, and when the Cardinal returned home after Bo McNally's interception sealed the deal, Maples Pavillion went crazy, with Jim Harbaugh speaking to an impromptu 500-person rally.

My guess is both teams keep it innocuous and say the right things this week, especially after Chris Marinelli's "I hate that school" comments about Notre Dame blew up a month earlier, but that the historic nature of last year's contest makes this one that much bigger -- especially for USC.

Stanford this year: The Card are 5-5 overall and 4-3 in the Pac-10, with wins over Oregon State (36-28), San Jose State (23-10), Washington (35-28), Arizona (24-23) and Washington State (58-0). Stanford's losses have all come on the road, at Arizona State (41-17), TCU (31-14), Notre Dame  (28-21), UCLA (23-20) and, last week, Oregon (35-28). The Card visit Cal to close the season, and needs to pull the upset against either the Trojans or Bears to gain win number six and become bowl eligible.

Where would they go?
Disclaimers: If Stanford does reach six wins, they'd finish 5-4 in the conference, a better mark than most other six-win teams, which should give them priority. Stanford's head-to-head wins and losses would also matter in case of a tie. Finally, bowls flip-flop teams all the time to create matchups that fill stadiums.

Nonetheless, if Stanford gets to six, the Pac-10 final standings look exactly like this week's, and the bowls all played by the rules, here's our best guess of how it would look.

1. Rose (vs. Big 10 #1 or BCS at-large, Jan. 1, 2 p.m., Pasadena, ABC): USC vs. Penn State 
2. Holiday (vs. Big 12 #3, Dec. 30, 5 p.m., San Diego, ESPN): Oregon State vs. Missouri
3. Sun (vs. Big 12 #4/Big East #2/Notre Dame, Dec. 31, 11 a.m., El Paso, Tex.): Oregon vs. Pittsburgh
4/5. Las Vegas (vs. MWC #1, Dec. 20, 5 p.m., ESPN): Arizona vs. TCU (Utah to BCS)
4/5. Emerald (vs. ACC #5/#6/#7, San Francisco, Dec. 27, 5 p.m., ESPN): Cal vs. Miami/Georgia Tech/Maryland
6. Hawaii (vs. WAC #2/Hawaii, Dec. 24, 5 p.m., ESPN): Stanford vs. Hawaii
7. Poinsietta (vs. MWC #2, San Diego, Dec. 23, 5 p.m., ESPN): BYU vs. at-large (no remaining Pac-10 teams)

Hawaii is 5-5, with Idaho (likely win), Washington State (likely win) and Cincinnati (likely loss) remaining. The Warriors need at least two of the three to finish with a bowl-eligible winning record. If they do, it's likely they'll be selected for the Hawaii Bowl. Stanford, meanwhile, is increasingly likely to finish sixth in the Pac-10 if it does steal one of its next two, and so a trip to face the Warriors seems the most likely outcome.

USC this year: It's becoming a trend for Pete Carroll's Trojans: lose an early one you shouldn't (Oregon State two years ago and Stanford last year) and then take out your aggression, steamrolling the upper half of the Pac-10, a highly-hyped but ultimately overmatched bowl opponent and whoever else stands in the way.

This year's iteration of that tried formula saw Oregon State pull the Thursday night shocker, 27-21 in Corvallis, Ore., just a game removed from USC's pantsing of then-No. 5 Ohio State, 35-3.

Since then, USC has clobbered most challengers, 44-10 over Oregon, 28-0 over Arizona State, and a combined 125-0 over Washington and Washington State. Arizona did keep it close in Tuscon, with USC winning 17-10 on Oct. 25, and Cal kept it close-ish (hey, at least they covered) last week, with the Trojans winning only 17-3 despite a yardage discrepancy in the neighborhood of 4-to-1.

Key stats:

In USC's corner:

- USC wins its average game 38-7, better than Stanford's 28-25 mark.
- The Trojans outgain their average opponent 454-206 yards, better than Stanford's 341-375 mark.

USC's defense is so phenomenal it merits its own five paragraphs. Their 6.7 points allowed per game is No. 1 in the country, by four points, and USC's best in 56 years. Their 206 yards allowed per game is No. 1 in the country, by 20 yards, and USC's best in 41 years. The 78 rush yards allowed per game is No. 2 nationally and the 129 pass yards allowed per game (USC's best in 34 years) is No. 1 nationally, by 20 yards. Their +31 scoring margin in No. 1 in the country, despite a scoring offense checking in at No. 11. Needless to say, Stanford's statistics lag significantly in all these categories.

- The scariest news is that as good as USC's defense has been all season long, the unit is clearly playing at a higher level right now than in the season's first two months. Over their last three games, USC is:

- Allowing 113 passing yards per game, No. 1 nationally
- Allowing 66 passing yards per game, No. 4 nationally
- Allowing 179 total yards per game, No. 1 nationally by over 40 yards

USC has allowed 13 points over their last five games, far and away No. 1 nationally. In fact, other than the Oregon State miscue, no one has scored over 10 on the Trojans all year. Only 13 of the 60 points USC has allowed this season have come in the second half.

For my money, USC is the best team in the country right now because of their D. Not only that, but considering the numbers it is putting up and, relative to prior years, the mediocre offense it is saddled with, this defense is on pace to finish as the best defense at USC, if not the best defense in college football history.

In Stanford's corner:

- Finally, a team that commits more penalties than Stanford. USC is flagged 8.6 times per game, to Stanford's 7.3.

Even:

- The Trojans have only a slight edge in time of possession (51% to 49%) or turnovers per game, 1.7 to 2.0, with neither team particularly adept at avoiding the cough-up.

Overall:

USC has the clear advantage here. What stands out most to me is that when you think of Pete Carroll's USC, you think of its ten running backs, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Matt Leinhart, 50 points per game. But as the numbers make plain, this year's Trojan squad is winning with a defense that transcends an adjective's ability to describe.


When Stanford has the ball:

On the ground:

Stanford runs for 207 yards per game, second in the Pac-10 to Oregon. USC allows a nation-best 78 rush yards per game. Something has to give. I don't think it's going to be the Trojan D...

...USC's defense is stacked everywhere, but the Trojans enter their 100th game in the Pete Carroll era with a few clear defensive leaders. Linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing (a one-time Stanford recruit), who lead the team in tackles, are Butkus Award candidates, as is safety Taylor Mays (another one-time Stanford recruit). Up front, Everson Griffin grabs more headlines and leads with 4.5 sacks, but senior tackle Fili Moala is one of the team's most consistent performers. USC's national title teams under Carroll were built from the defensive line outward, and the USC hypes Moala as one of its best DTs in years.

Interestingly, the Trojans aren't a big-play defense, with a pedestrian 23 sacks and a good-but-not-great 21 turnovers forced.

One way in which USC has made big plays is with its run blitzes, largely responsible for the Trojans' 74 tackles for loss this season. While the Trojans are heavy favorites to win the ballgame, one of the most interesting battles will be Stanford's offensive line, unquestionably the strength of this team, against USC's defensive front.

I know which website I write for, I know which school's name is printed on my diploma and I know which team holds a special place in my heart. I know what happened last year and I know that Stanford's offensive line has been the surprise of the season, and the Card would be sitting at two or three wins without it.

I also know that the numbers say this USC defense might literally be the best in college football history. They held Cal to 27 rushing yards on 26 carries. I'll call for Stanford to nearly triple that, but that's still only 80 Stanford rush yards.

In the air:

Pray.

(What, you want more? Okay, okay...)

Stanford passes for 127 yards per game, USC allows 78 per game. Tavita Pritchard did have one of his better games of the season at Oregon, which is to say he performed competently, if not spectacularly (15-of-22 passing, 138 yards and a touchdown). As we've touched upon throughout this season, the Cardinal, 4-0 at home and 1-5 on the road, do have one of the biggest performance splits home versus away, but, strangely, the passing game is the one area where Stanford is not significantly statistically better at home.

Oregon represented a good passing day for Pritchard because he threw more touchdowns than interceptions, and he did enough with his arm to make the defense play Toby Gerhart honestly. This Stanford offense isn't built for Pritchard to throw for 300 yards, and he certainly won't against USC in the Card's home finale, but he must again have more touchdowns than picks, and enough passing yardage (say, 150 yards) to prevent USC's defense from totally collapsing the box. Unfortunately, I think Pritchard gets his share of sacks, throws a pick or two, and he and Stanford finish with only 110 passing yards. 

When USC has the ball:

In the air:

"The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated" - Mark Twain

I'm admittedly partial to Mark Twain. (Another conversation for another forum, but I never understood why the high school canon emphasized some pretty marginal or inaccessible books to the exclusion of writers like Twain. I was a voracious reader up through junior high, and then I had the great pleasure of discovering Homer's Odyssey and other assorted Greek myths.) Nonetheless, I think Twain's words, which he purportedly uttered upon reading a newspaper report of his death, applies perfectly to USC's offense. Yeah, it's not Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, but is that the standard to which we'll always hold USC's offense? Is that a fair standard for any offense? We called that unit once-in-a-generation for a reason.

Let's look at the numbers. Stanford allows 248 passing yards per game, and we all know how much that unit has struggled and how dearly those passing yards have cost the Card this season. USC's passing offense, the supposed weakness of the entire team, gains 253 yards per game. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has 24 touchdowns to seven interceptions, on 65 percent accuracy. Three receivers (Damian Williams, Patrick Turner and Ronald Johnson) have at least 400 receiving yards and at least five receiving touchdowns. It is true that the Trojan passing attack hasn't performed as well against strong pass defenses, like Cal's, but it's also undeniably the fact that Stanford's pass defense is not a strong unit this year. USC throws for 290 yards, and, come 7 p.m. Saturday, we won't be questioning USC's pass attack anymore.

On the ground:

Three's a crowd.

Like the Trojans feature three legitimate receiving threats in Williams, Turner and Johnson, they too have three tailbacks over 400 yards, CJ Gable, Stafon Johnson and Joe McKnight. McKnight's 7.2 average leads the squad, but Gable and Johnson have 11 of USC's 18 rushing touchdowns, while McKnight strangely has none. Gable, who averages 6.6 yards per carry for a team-high 489 yards, has received the majority of the carries in the past two games.

We'll call it 200 USC rushing yards, and we'll project McKnight, long overdue, gets his first rushing touchdown of the season.

Vegas Prediction:

USC by 23.

My Prediction:

USC 38, Stanford 10.

Since week three, Stanford's scored at least 20 points in every game. The Card have also managed at least 23 points in every home game this season. Stanford, however, has not seen a defense the likes of USC's. USC wins this one with its defense, holding Stanford to 190 total yards, and giving the offense plenty of food for thought this upcoming offseason of how much rebuilding work still is left. USC should gain 490 yards, more than enough to avenge its 2007 upset.

This season:

Predicted: Notre Dame 30, Stanford 20. Actual: Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21.
Predicted: Stanford 28, Washington 27. Actual: Stanford 35, Washington 28.
Predicted: Stanford 34, San Jose State 24. Actual: Stanford 23, San Jose State 10.
Predicted: TCU 23, Stanford 10. Actual: TCU 31, Stanford 14.
Predicted: Arizona 34, Stanford 20. Actual: Stanford 24, Arizona 23.
Predicted: Stanford 28, UCLA 24. Actual: UCLA 23, Stanford 20.
Predicted: Stanford 34, Washington State 13. Actual: Stanford 58, WSU 0.
Predicted:  Oregon 27, Stanford 17. Actual: Oregon 35, Stanford 28.
Predicted:  USC 38, Stanford 10. 


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