USC vs. Stanford game preview

Who, really, are these Trojans? And, who, actually, are those Cardinal? The latest meeting in this 110-year series should provide the initial answers.

Game 3: ‘You Can Go Sleep at Home Tonight, if You Can Get Up and Walk Away’

The USC Trojans (2-0), ranked sixth by the Associated Press (AP) and seventh in the USA Today coaches’ poll, open their Pac-12 conference slate this Saturday, Sept. 19, against the Stanford Cardinal (1-1) at 5 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC television audience. It’s the 94th meeting between the schools – USC and Stanford first met in 1905, making the Cardinal the Trojans’ longest-tenured rival – with USC holding a 61-29-3 margin. A season ago, Andre Heidari’s late 53-yard field goal proved decisive in a 13-10 victory on the Farm. Heidari was also the late hero in the previous Coliseum meeting, a 20-17 USC win over then-No. 5 Stanford in 2013.

Last weekend, the Trojans walloped outmanned Idaho, 59-9, rolling up 737 total yards (453 passing) – its most in 10 years. Juju Smith-Schuster had 10 catches for 192 yards, including touchdown receptions of 50 and 41 yards, while Cody Kessler completed 26-of-31 passes for 410 yards. Meanwhile, the Cardinal bounced back from a disappointing season-opening loss at Northwestern with a 31-7 home victory over Central Florida. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan threw for 341 yards, but the Cardinal offense was still running in stops and starts until a late third-quarter drive pushed their edge to 17-0.

USC Coach Steve Sarkisian (11-4 at USC; 45-33 career collegiate head coaching record) is in his second season at the helm of the Trojans after leading Washington from 2009-13. In his fifth season, Stanford headman David Shaw (43-13, 28-8 Pac-12) is hearing some questions about his conservative nature after seeing Stanford fall to 8-5 in 2014 after back-to-back Pac-12 championships in 2012 and 2013. The Cardinal’s frustrating opening performance didn’t do much to help answer those criticisms. Still, Stanford remains a solid defensive force and, with the veteran Hogan running an offense that has some weapons, there’s no reason to overlook the Cardinal this Saturday.

Stanford Offense

Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren’s unit has struggled since the start of 2014 to live up to the physical, smash-mouth image created during the Jim Harbaugh Era and early in Shaw’s tenure. Even with eight returning starters – including four on a touted offensive line – Stanford has struggled to run the ball early in 2015, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry and 107.5 yards per game (No. 111 nationally). This puts more pressure on Hogan – who closed 2014 with a flourish. After a troubled start at Northwestern (57.1 completion percentage, 155 yards with a crucial late interception), he responded last Saturday. While he’s never thrown a TD pass against USC, his play this weekend likely will tell the tale for the Cardinal.

Hogan lost a key playmaker when Ty Montgomery graduated after the 2014 season. Still Stanford does have a couple of experienced targets in junior Michael Rector and senior Devon Cajuste. Rector is Stanford’s top deep threat – he caught a 53-yard touchdown last week on a flea-flicker – averaging nearly 20 yards per catch in his career. Cajuste is a big target at 6’4” and his six catches this year bring his career total to 69. Senior Rollins Stallworth and junior Francis Owusu will also see time. Stanford’s tight end group, for years a big factor in the Cardinal offense, hurt USC a season ago on the Farm. USC must account for sophomores Austin Hooper and Greg Taboada, and redshirt freshman Dalton Schultz.

To replace the speed and versatility Montgomery brought in recent years, Stanford has turned to sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey. Through two games, McCaffrey is the Cardinal’s leading rusher (124 yards, 3.9 per carry) and receiver (nine receptions, 9.1 per catch, one TD). Whether in the backfield or the slot, McCaffrey is quickly becoming Stanford’s top weapon. Behind him, senior Remound Wright and junior Barry Sanders split time, with Sanders averaging 4.8 yards and scoring Stanford’s lone rushing touchdown this season. True freshman Bryce Love is also worth a look after catching two passes out of the backfield for 135 yards, including a 93-yard TD, a week ago.

A year ago, Stanford had to replace four starters on its offensive line. This year, they return four starters – but the group has struggled to live up to recent standards. Hogan was sacked three times in the loss at Northwestern (and pressured even more often) while early-season struggles in the rushing attack have been documented. Still, this is a talented group that, should it come together Saturday, presents an imposing task for the Trojan defense. Three seniors – left tackle Kyle Murphy, left guard Joshua Garnett, and center Graham Shuler – as well as junior right guard Johnny Caspers are the four returnees, with sophomore Casey Tucker the lone newbie at right tackle.

Stanford Defense

Second-year defensive coordinator Lance Anderson must’ve felt like the new guy all over again this spring and summer, as he worked to replace nine starters from 2014. That’s a lot of new faces for Stanford’s 3-4 set, but through two games, he must be pleased with the results. The Cardinal are allowing just 255.5 yards per game – including an outstanding 128 yards passing, while holding opposing quarterbacks to just a 42.6-percent completion rate. However, Stanford hasn’t exactly faced experienced or overly talented passers thus far – and Northwestern did rush for 225 yards in the season opener.

Up front, the Cardinal suffered a huge loss when sophomore defensive tackle Harrison Phillips went down with a torn ACL against Northwestern. Stanford’s two-deep across the three line spots now consists of four total players. Senior Aziz Shittu (eight stops) is the starter at one end, but can shift to the tackle spot, where he backs up redshirt freshman (and big-time 2014 recruit) Solomon Thomas (nine tackles in 2015, first career sack last week). At the other end, graduate transfer (from Cal) Brennan Scarlett has notched eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss. Junior DE Jordan Watkins, who has not recorded a tackle in 2015, fills out that lean depth chart.

Stanford linebacker corps has been star studded in recent years. With inside backer Blake Martinez and outsider Kevin Anderson on hand for their senior campaigns in 2015, the Cardinal have two natural leaders. Martinez leads the team with 22 stops and also has Stanford’s only interception of 2015, while Anderson has a team-leading 2.5 tackles for loss among 15 stops. He and the new starter at the other outside spot, junior Peter Kalambayi (15 tackles, one sack), combined for 12 sacks in 2014 and need to pick up that pace. Sophomore Kevin Palma (four tackles) starts at the other inside spot, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Jordan Perez there, as well.

Stanford’s rebuilt secondary will face its first true test on Saturday. Senior cornerback Ronnie Harris, a captain, is this group’s elder statesman. He started three games a season ago and had three pass breakups last weekend. At the other corner, redshirt freshmen Alijah Holder and Alameen Murphy are listed as co-starters, though Holder’s gotten the nod in the first two games. Senior (and former receiver) Kodi Whitfield (eight tackles) is the free safety, while junior (and former quarterback) Dallas Lloyd (seven stops) is the strong safety. Sophomore Terrence Alexander gets most looks when Stanford moves into the nickel, but freshman Quenton Meeks is pushing for time.

Stanford Special Teams

Senior Conrad Ukropina has taken over the placekicking duties for the departed Jordan Williamson. He’s been perfect in 2015, including three-of-three on field goals with a long of 52 against Central Florida. Freshman Jake Bailey handles kickoffs (just two touchbacks in nine opportunities). Junior Alex Robinson is averaging 43.9 yards on 10 punts in his first season as a starter. McCaffrey and Sanders are a potentially dangerous duo as return men.

USC Offensive Game Plan

As expected, the Trojans had little trouble against Idaho’s defense. USC averaged 10 yards per play, completed passes to 13 receivers, and had four tailbacks rush for between 37 and 83 yards (with three of them scoring at least once). The Trojans are averaging 57 points and 623 yards of offense through two weeks – and even cleaned up one of their first-game problems, allowing zero sacks to Idaho after giving up five to Arkansas State. USC continued to struggle on rare third-down opportunities, going one-of-six (now four-of-16 this season). However, Stanford’s third-down defense has struggled similarly in 2015, ranking No. 109 nationally.

A veteran Stanford defense held USC to just 291 total yards and only 135 passing yards in 2014. The Trojans’ lone downfield passing attempt (an incomplete deep fade to Nelson Agholor) came early in the fourth quarter. Additionally, the Trojans’ pace of play slowed to a crawl – mainly due, it seemed, to Stanford’s huge time of possession advantage throughout the first three quarters, meaning that USC needed to give its limited number of scholarship players on defense as much rest as possible.

On the positive side, Buck Allen had an outstanding game against Stanford’s front seven (rushing for 154 yards on 23 carries), breaking a recent string of dominating Stanford rush D performances against USC. Allen was particularly effective on stretch plays – a hopeful sign for freshman tailback Ronald Jones II this weekend. Jones’ speed has been a game-changer on such plays for USC so far in 2015. While USC will likely try to establish the run with Jones, Tre Madden and Justin Davis against Stanford’s shallow defensive front, the Trojans must test the Cardinal secondary. While Stanford likes to play its corners with a pretty big cushion to limit downfield passing, USC must do a better job of utilizing its extensive receiving weapons than it did in 2014. Smith-Schuster, Steven Mitchell and Adoree Jackson (whose use on offense at Stanford last year was limited) will get opportunities for big plays.

USC Defensive Game Plan

The revolving door on defense continued against Idaho, as the Trojans freely rotated players in all three position groups. Season-opening games against the likes of Arkansas State and Idaho created the perfect opportunity for USC to get some of its younger players in-game experience prior to stepping up to Pac-12 competition. And while the Trojans again struggled to sack the quarterback – Su’a Cravens’ sack was USC’s second of the season – USC has blitzed much more often in these first two games than it did in 2014. The Trojans’ pass rush was especially effective against Arkansas State, though veteran QB Fredi Knighten limited the sack total with some experienced throwaways.

As usual, Stanford is a whole different beast. The Cardinal’s patient ball-control attack slows down the pace of the game. Hogan’s running ability remains a wildcard – especially on third downs – but while Stanford may not want to grind you physically as much as they did in the past, the Cardinal’s offensive design is not revolutionary. USC should be able to continue to rotate players, especially in the front seven. There are a couple of concerns. The middle linebacker spot, expected to be shared this week by freshman Cameron Smith – who has performed admirably thus far – and senior Lamar Dawson – returning for his first action since 2013 – is crucial against Stanford’s rushing attack and also against its tight ends in the receiving game. At corner, with Kevon Seymour a game-time decision, how will the Trojans’ youngsters – Jonathan Lockett and Iman Marshall react?

Still, the goals for USC’s defense remain rather similar to recent seasons against Stanford: be stout against the run, keep the Cardinal out of third-and-short (Stanford has also struggled mightily on third downs so far in 2015, ranking No. 106 nationally), keep an eye on the key playmaker (this year, McCaffrey), and try to limit Stanford’s tight ends down the field. Those Cardinal tight ends hurt USC in 2014 (and could have hurt them even worse if not for a chop block that overturned a fourth-quarter TD pass). Finally, assignment football for the linebackers and safeties is crucial as Hogan has been atrocious throwing downfield so far in 2015 (six-of-27 on throws of 10 or more yards) – the Trojans can’t afford mistakes that allow big plays from a struggling offense.

The Pick

A number of things stood out upon a recent viewing of the 2014 USC-Stanford game. Both teams were sloppy when it came to penalties – a trend that has continued in early 2015 for Stanford, but that the Trojans seem to have cleaned up (so far). USC won the turnover battle, 2-0 – something that’s become de rigeur for the Trojans of late. And the limited numbers the Trojans played with – especially on defense, and especially once Hayes Pullard was ejected for targeting – remain astounding. It also was shocking to realize that Cravens played a fairly limited role in the first-half game plan for USC’s defense. Of course, he was a major difference-maker in the second half.

Everyone remembers Stanford’s red-zone struggles – the Trojans’ win on the Farm last September set a tone for both teams in the red zone that continues to this day (Stanford ranks No. 120 in red-zone offense through two games this year). But few recall a note I brought up earlier – the Trojans’ surprisingly conservative offensive effort. Yes, it appeared that USC’s offense limited itself in order to preserve a thin defense. But that should not – and cannot – be the case come Saturday.

Yes, Stanford lost – even worse, looked atrocious – at Northwestern. Yes, USC appears to be clicking across the board, with more depth and talent than it’s had in years. But this matchup has been a one-score battle of attrition in each of the past five years. Can the Trojans send a “changing of the guard” message similar to the one that Stanford sent in its 2009 thrashing of USC? Perhaps. But most Trojan fans should simply be happy if USC is 3-0 come 8:30 on Saturday night.

USC 27, Stanford 19

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 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 thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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