An early Bay Area Weekender brings the Trojan Family north for the summer. With the visit, there’s also a big test – the Stanford Cardinal.
The USC Trojans (1-0), ranked 14th in the Associated Press (AP) and USA Today polls, kick off their 2014 road schedule in style by visiting the Stanford Cardinal (1-0), ranked No. 13 by AP and No. 10 by USA Today, at 12:30 p.m. PDT on Saturday, September 6 at Stanford Stadium and in front of a national ABC television audience. It’s the 93rd meeting between the schools (the teams first met in 1905, making Stanford the Trojans’ longest-tenured rival) with USC holding a 60-29-3 edge. A season ago, the Trojans ended a four-game Cardinal winning streak in the series with a memorable and emotional 20-17 victory over then-No. 5 Stanford. USC’s last victory on the Farm came in 2008 (45-23).
A week ago, USC opened the 2014 campaign with a stunning offensive performance, rolling up 701 yards and 52 points on a conference-record 105 total plays in a 52-13 thrashing of Fresno State. Cody Kessler threw for a career-high 394 yards, tied a career high with four TD passes and also ran for USC’s first score of 2014. Tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen also impressed, rushing for 133 yards on 22 carries, including a nine-yard score. Up north, the Cardinal – as expected – throttled UC Davis, 45-0. Stanford’s defense completely shut down the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent, not allowing the Aggies to cross midfield until the game’s final play. Receiver/returner Ty Montgomery was his usual electric self – returning a punt 60 yards for a TD and also scoring on a 44-yard pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan.
Trojan Coach Steve Sarkisian (1-0 at USC, 35-29 career) is in his first season at the helm after spending the past five years at Washington. Sarkisian spent seven years as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll (2001-03; 2005-08). On the other sideline, Stanford headman David Shaw (35-7, 23-4 Pac-12) is in fourth campaign after taking over for Jim Harbaugh. Shaw has overseen back-to-back Pac-12 championship seasons with steely and steady leadership. Less than a decade after being the conference’s resident cellar-dweller, today the Cardinal’s winning personality precedes them – physical, no-frills football predicated on controlling the line of scrimmage.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren added an “associate head coach” title in the offseason. But even with the departure of workhorse running back Tyler Gaffney, as well as four starters from a beastly offensive line, most don’t expect a big change in Stanford’s approach – a belief in ball control using power running and play-action passing. Team captain Hogan is the triggerman and is likely to be asked to do more in 2014 than simply manage the game. The junior has completed 65 percent of his passes during his career, with 32 TD tosses and 14 interceptions. Hogan is also a capable runner, averaging 4.3 yards per carry on 142 totes during his career.
Montgomery, who had off-season shoulder surgery, is Hogan’s top target. Not only is the senior from Dallas a breakout threat as a receiver – 10 of his 61 catches in 2013 went for TDs, and he averaged almost 16 yards per grab – but Stanford is also excited about using him as a runner out of the Wildcat formation. Junior Michael Rector is a major deep threat – he averaged more than 30 yards per catch in 2013 and snagged a 40-yard TD pass a week ago. Devon Cajuste, a 6-foot-4 senior, returns to the starting lineup from a one-game suspension. He had 5 TD catches among his 28 grabs a year ago. Sophomore Francis Owusu’s speed could also be put to use. The Cardinal tight ends, who were such weapons in recent years, took a step back in 2013 – but appear prepared to step forward again this season, led by sophomores Austin Hooper (four catches against UC Davis) and Greg Taboada.
Stanford doesn’t have a bruiser in the style of Gaffney – the running backs seem to be more speedy and agile, which is counterintuitive to the school’s recent style, but could open up the Cardinal offense if used effectively. Junior Kelsey Young is the starter, but he’s likely to split carries early with sophomore Barry Sanders (yes, the son of THAT Barry Sanders). Each had seven carries in the opener, a game in which the Cardinal averaged 4.7 yards per carry but struggled at times. Don’t sleep on the speed of freshman Christian McCaffrey, son of former Stanford and Denver Bronco receiver Ed McCaffrey, who could line up in the backfield or wide.
For most schools, replacing four starters on the offensive line would be a big task. But Stanford has become an OL factory of late – and I’m not talking about sense of smell. Its 2012 recruiting class is regarded as among the greatest group of linemen to sign in a single class. To this point, junior All-Pac-12 LT Andrus Peat has been the standout of that group and is the lone returning starter. He’s joined by classmates Kyle Murphy (RT) and Joshua Garnett (LG), both of whom saw extensive time in 2013 in the Cardinal’s jumbo sets. Touted sophomores Graham Shuler (C) and Johnny Caspers (RG) round out the group. Big things are expected of Shuler during his career.
When Derek Mason left to take the head-coaching job at Vanderbilt, Shaw stayed inside the program to tap Lance Anderson as defensive coordinator. Anderson, who continues to coach the outside linebackers, is faced with replacing some of the defense’s heart and soul, including defensive end Ben Gardner and linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. But he has a lot of pieces to work with in Stanford’s run-stuffing 3-4 set. The Cardinal should again be among national leaders in rush defense, sacks and tackles for loss (they had eight TFL in the opener) and may have more depth in the secondary than in recent years.
Senior DE Henry Anderson missed a big chunk of 2013 after injuring a knee at Army in September. He returned late in the season and is the undisputed leader up front. He’s on every lineman award watch list and got his first sack of the year in the opener. Fellow senior David Parry (DT) is a solid veteran run stuffer in the middle, while classmate Blake Lueders – who played linebacker and end a year ago – started the opener at the other end. Junior Aziz Shittu, who can play tackle or end, is expected to return from a toe injury that kept him out of the opener – which could be a key for Stanford’s depth against the Trojans’ fast-paced attack.
Even with the losses of Skov and Murphy, the Cardinal still have star power at linebacker, led by senior insider A.J. Tarpley, whose 93 stops were was second on the team in 2013. Senior outsider James Vaughters is the other returning starter. New starters Blake Martinez (junior ILB) and Kevin Anderson (junior OLB) will get a much tougher test this weekend than last. The Cardinal do like to rotate their linebackers, so injuries to sophomore Kevin Palma and senior Joe Hemschoot that will keep them sidelined Saturday could be a factor. Sophomores Noor Davis (ILB) and Peter Kalambayi (OLB) will see more time in reserve.
Stanford’s secondary was the team’s weakest defensive link a season ago, allowing 254 yards per game (288 in the loss to USC). However, the returning talent mixed with improved depth could help change that. Junior cornerback Alex Carter – a preseason all-conference choice – returns to the starting lineup Saturday. He was hampered by a hip injury in the spring but appears healthy. Senior Wayne Lyons is entrenched at the other corner, while junior Ronnie Harris – who started the opener – should see plenty of time. Senior strong safety Jordan Richards had 69 stops and three picks in the same spot in 2013. And while senior Kyle Olugbode started the opener at free safety, junior Zach Hoffpauir has more upside and is expected to start Saturday. He’s also Stanford’s top nickel back.
Stanford Special Teams
Senior Jordan Williamson became Stanford’s all-time leading scorer a week ago, and he made 18-of-22 field goals a season ago, with a long of 48. He’s also dependable on kickoffs. Senior Ben Rhyne averaged 42.9 yards per punt in 2013. Montgomery is a force on both kick and punt returns. His 60-yard TD on a punt a week ago was just the latest feather in his cap. A season ago, he averaged more than 30 yards on kickoff returns and scored twice – vs. Washington and at Utah.
USC Offensive Gameplan
I’ll own up – as I noted in my preview of last week’s game, I just didn’t expect the Trojans to play so well, so quickly in Sarkisian’s system. Ten Trojans caught passes, with sophomore Darreus Rogers (three big grabs on key third downs on USC’s opening drive) and junior Nelson Agholor leading the way with five each. Touted freshmen Juju Smith and Adoree’ Jackson both had big moments, as well, with Smith averaging nearly 31 yards on four grabs and Jackson scoring on one of his three catches.
It appears that – even with sanctions limiting USC to 62 available scholarship players suiting up for the opener – USC’s offensive talent, especially in the receiving corps, is as deep as ever. When you add that to a Sarkisian-designed offense that touched up Stanford for 489 yards (350 passing) a season ago when he was at Washington’s helm, you can understand Trojan fans’ skyrocketing hopes for this weekend.
Kessler was able to hurt Stanford a season ago with just Agholor (eight catches, 104 yards) and Marqise Lee (six for 83) as reliable receiving options. While it must be tantalizing for Sarkisian and Clay Helton to see just what Kessler can do with his bevy of options, it will be just as important that the Trojans stick with the run – even at the fast pace that they want to play. Much like I noted in previewing Stanford in 2013, other teams that tended to give the Cardinal issues kept at it on the ground, no matter how tough the sledding, in order to keep the Stanford defense honest. Expect USC to feature Allen, not only as a rusher, but also in the pass game – his effectiveness as a pass catcher is often overlooked, but it’s hard to recall a Trojan running back more proficient on screen plays in recent years.
USC Defensive Gameplan
While the Trojan defense was solid against Fresno State, there are concerns heading into Saturday with a run defense that was gashed at times by the Bulldogs. Though both Fresno State touchdown drives came during times where Leonard Williams and Antwaun Woods were rotating out for reserves, allowing 4.8 yards per rushing attempt is never positive. And, of course, Williams’ ankle injury, suffered in practice on Tuesday, is a concern. Still, forcing four turnovers is fantastic, and the defense never allowed Fresno State a real look at the game after the Trojans jumped out early.
For a group with a strong and balanced front seven and a secondary with some inexperience, facing Stanford’s traditional huddle and pro-style offense would seem to be a nice fit early in the 2014 season. Add to that the fact that Stanford is breaking in – essentially – a new offensive line and you’d think the Trojan defensive line and linebackers would be licking their chops. But the interview snippets coming out of USC practice this week tell the real tale. The Trojans know they are in for a street fight up front with a powerful Cardinal line whose one job is to hit defenders in the mouth, over and over, until they quit.
The keys for USC remain similar to 2013. First, contain the Cardinal running attack on early downs to keep Stanford out of too many third-and-short opportunities – USC had success with this a season ago and held the Cardinal to an un-Stanford-like four-of-12 on third-down conversions. With depth still an issue in the post-sanctions era, USC’s defense must get off the field when it can. Next, keep an eye on Stanford’s talented pass catchers – expect the Cardinal to open up their offense a bit against the Trojans’ young secondary. USC must avoid giving up the big play by keying too heavily on the inside run – the Cardinal’s speed at running back and receiver should lead to some new and different looks from Shaw and Co. Finally, don’t lose track of Hogan as a runner – he can hurt USC with his feet.
Two weeks ago, in my annual Pac-12 preview, I picked Stanford in yet another nail biter between these two schools. Since 2010, Stanford has defeated USC by two, eight (in triple OT) and seven (on a tiebreaking fourth-quarter score) before the Trojans’ three-point win on an Andre Heidari field goal with 19 seconds remaining a season ago. Right now, this series – dominated historically by USC – is just about as close as it’s ever been. My preseason pick was based on Stanford’s physicality, its motivation after last year’s defeat, its home-field advantage (the Cardinal are 21-1 under Shaw at home) and USC’s offense still adjusting to Sarkisian’s system.
While those first three factors remain (extremely) worthy of consideration, the Trojans looked right at home in Sarkisian’s offense a week ago – more at home than they looked in the three-plus years of the Kiffin Era. Obviously, Stanford is a different beast. Key facets of the Trojan offensive line are still untested – injuries remain an issue, with both Jordan Simmons and Khaliel Rodgers still working their way back, and freshman guard Damien Mama tweaked a knee in practice Tuesday and is a “game-time decision” according to Sarkisian. Can that front five hold up under the withering pressure of the Stanford front seven and give Kessler and Co. the time and space needed to maximize USC’s advantages at the skill positions?
On the other side of the ball, can USC’s front seven keep its defensive backfield from being exposed by what I expect will be a more freewheeling Stanford attack than USC has seen in recent seasons? Will Hogan cough up a bad turnover or two? Is Stanford improved in the red zone, where its offense struggled in 2013? Will Montgomery burn USC in the passing attack – or perhaps more crucially in the kicking game? There are so many storylines, so many possibilities. This game truly looks like the definition of a toss-up. And while no one would be surprised to see Stanford come out on top, I’m intrigued enough by USC’s opening performance and the array of new offensive toys that I’m going to go with my heart on this one. USC’s weapons outduel Stanford’s.
USC 28, Stanford 24
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 14 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants).