Stanford has yet to be truly tested this season. Sure, against Duke, Arizona and Washington State, it found itself in tight games at the half, but how will it respond in the most crucial moments?
USC must make Stanford find out, drag them kicking and screaming into the fourth quarter.
Lane Kiffin's team has athleticism equal to the fourth-ranked team in the nation, an equally prolific quarterback, and a defense playing with great confidence.
The Trojans know they could have – should have? – knocked off the Cardinal up in Palo Alto last season, if not for a poorly timed and ill-advised Chris Galippo personal foul and some shenanigans with the clock.
USC has proven its mettle in close games against Minnesota, Utah, and Arizona. Make Stanford do the same.
Make Luck Win It
Contrarian's logic I know, but part of what makes Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck so effective is the help he gets from the players around him. He has a remarkable ground game that creates play-action opportunities, a bevy of tight ends, a speedster receiver in Chris Owusu, and a fantastic defense.
Maybe, just maybe, the way to beat Stanford is by challenging Luck to do it all himself. It seemed to work for Oregon last season at Autzen. Take away running back Stephan Taylor, put him in some third and long situations and see what happens.
As perfect as Luck is (71.8 completion percentage, 1,888 yards, 20 touchdowns against three interceptions) – the glowing praise coming from the Kiffins this week is more than justified – everyone has an off day now and again. Perhaps USC can force Luck into one.
That duo will need to be effective again this week, if only to frustrate the phenomenal Stanford pass rush, which leads the Pac-12 and ranks fourth nationally in sacks with 25.
Obviously, controlling time of possession to keep Luck off the field and converting short-yardage opportunities will be important, but really USC just needs to keep an aggressive defense honest.
If USC can slow down linebacker Chase Thomas and the Stanford front seven and draw in the suspect secondary with play action, Robert Woods will again be able to post huge gains.
Avoid Special Team Blunders
Usually USC goes into a game looking for a decisive edge in special teams, but last week at Notre Dame, it was thoroughly dominated in that area. Running back George Atkinson took a kick return 96 yards for a touchdown to give the Irish life, punter Kyle Negrete was shaky and kicker Andre Heidari missed a field goal after injuring his ankle.
Heidari is a game-time decision, and even if he does play, range will be an issue. Don't be surprised if Lane Kiffin treats everything outside of the red zone as four-down territory.
Compounding matter, Stanford has two fine return men in Drew Terrell (12.3 yards per punt return) and Ty Montgomery (32.5 yards per kick return, one touchdown).
This is a game where even a draw on special teams might be enough, avoiding a catastrophic breakdown a victory.