1) Do Stanford fans think they have become dominant in the series or do they, like a number of USC fans, realize that had it not been for the infamous and forever anonymous clock operator four years ago, the officials who both failed to call the interference when Robert Woods was tackled in the end zone as he was about to catch a TD pass or the helmet hit called on T.J. McDonald that saved Stanford on third down in the final drive three years ago or Lane Kiffin for his fearful coaching two years ago in a game USC led at halftime, that they could have a four-game losing streak to USC?
MARK:It’s remarkable when four straight games get decided in the last possession of regulation or overtime. No Cardinal fan with a speck of perspective would call that dominant. USC’s dominance of the overall series is embedded in hardcore Stanford fans’ collective minds. The 1969, 1973, 1988 and 1995 games were all-time, program-changing heart breakers. But to say some questionable officiating calls and coaching moves decided the games you mention, if you really want to go there…
Are we even talking about that clock operator if Chris Galippo doesn’t slam head-first into Doug Baldwin on the first play of the ensuing drive, after the whistle? How many more yards stood between Stanford and the tying touchdown after McDonald’s penalty? Did Kiffin make Barkley throw those two second-quarter interceptions? But it’s so easy to get carried away. Folks up here will forever howl Dwight Garner of Cal's knee was down in 1982. But because Elway called timeout a full eight seconds left before the go-ahead field goal, the Bears had a chance. Like the Grateful Dead say, one man gathers what another man spills.
2) Do Stanford fans realize that they and UCLA have both been the major beneficiaries from USC's NCAA sanctions and now that those are ending, do they worry that the balance of power may be shifting back?
MARK:You can’t ignore Stanford’s four straight BCS bowls or the Bruins’ highest ranking in 16 years occurring while ’SC recovers from probation. But unlike Reggie Bush’s Heisman, they’re not giving anything back. The Cardinal’s and Bruins’ respective turnarounds began way before NCAA sanctions hit. And while the Carroll Dynasty was unprecedented, so too is the Pac-12’s current incredible depth.
The facilities, coaching resumes and high expectations throughout the league have never been more impressive. A record eight teams spent at least one week ranked in the Top 25 last year. USC’s tradition is unparalleled, and you now have a football headquarters worthy of John McKay’s name to lure all those five-star recruits. Nobody else can recruit with 11 Pro Football Hall of Famers and six (or seven, depending who’s counting) Heisman winners. But a probation-free USC must adjust to the new Pac-12 landscape more than the other way around.
3) How does last year's game impact this year's? If a USC team using just 13 players on defense can hold Stanford to 17 points, how does this week's game play out with most of that USC team returning? What will Stanford do to generate more offense?
MARK:The Trojans’ effort cast more doubt on Stanford's offense. The concerns exist to this day. Curious play-calling and David Shaw are not mutually exclusive, but then Stanford totally abandoned the run it a game Tyler Gaffney dominated at times. It was easy to notice Hogan's limitations as 2013 went on, but that was before he threw those killer interceptions in the final quarter.
This remains a team with explosive capabilities, in addition to a renewed emphasis on the tight ends. Austin Hooper caught four passes for 63 yards and a touchdown in his debut, a welcome sight considering how little the team’s tight ends contributed last year (10 catches 69 yards, zero touchdowns). Hogan will do whatever possible to put the ball in the hands of both Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste (642 yards, 22.9 yards per catch in 2013), who sat out the opener for a violation of team rules.
4) Is playing this game so early a disadvantage for a Stanford team with more new players in place than usual? How does Stanford get up to speed in Week 2?
MARK:You bring up a very interesting dilemma facing Stanford: Would you rather face an opponent with a new coach early in the season, as they adjust to a new system? Or, given USC’s scholarship limits and depth issues, prefer to face them later when guys are more banged up? The Cardinal’s chances depend on tying up its own loose ends.
A refurbished offensive line features four new starters alongside star left tackle Andrus Peat. They struggled a bit against UC Davis. The back end of the secondary is inexperienced outside of senior Jordan Richards: Ed Reynolds left school early for the NFL. Kodi Whitfield converted from wide receiver to help fill that void. Without Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, new leaders must emerge. The “speed” you mention must literally make a difference in the form of the new-look ground game. Barry J. Sanders and Kelsey Young.
5) What kinds of problems do this USC team's many offensive weapons, especially a nine-deep wide receiving corps and a new uptempo, no-huddle attack present for the Stanford defense? What adjustments does Stanford make in this matchup?
MARK:Recent history shows Stanford’s vulnerability to the no-huddle/spread. Washington outgained the Cardinal by over 200 yards last year, when Keith Price threw for more yards (350) than any other Stanford opponent in 2013. A year earlier, RichRod and Arizona figured out a way to lose despite hoarding 617 yards of offense and leading by 14 with nine minutes left.
Avoiding those results involves not so much adjusting, but using the template that worked so well against Oregon two years running: Forcing turnovers, pressuring the quarterback, getting stingy in the red zone. It would be behoove USC to avoid being one-dimensional. Only when the opponent enjoys success on the ground (Bishop Sankey, Kadeem Carey, LaMichael James) does the no-huddle become Stanford kryptonite.
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