With Stanford coming to town, you know USC is in for a physical matchup. The big question is how do the Trojans take care of business against a team that has helped produce instant classic after instant classic over the last few years — though last year’s game was an instant classic of inability because Stanford showed its futility when inside USC territory over and over, getting inside the USC 35-yard line nine times, yet only managing to score 10 points.
The Trojans have to protect Cody Kessler and give him time to throw. They have to put pressure on Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and not let him get into a rhythm and the physicality is a given with the Cardinal, but what else should you be looking for?
For the past decade, Stanford has gone from that fifth grader hanging out and getting picked on at the middle school to the bully in high school to now being the kid that stayed local while everyone else went to college. While the Cardinal is still trying to prove its worth and rule over its classmates, everyone has taken to brushing them off and shaking their head every time they get loud and obnoxious.
But here’s three under-the-radar keys that you should be paying attention to:
Stanford does a great job of staying over the top with its safeties so that it doesn’t give up any big plays deep. In order to have explosive plays against the Cardinal defense, you have to go hat-on-hat. If the Trojans want to bust free for some long scores, they aren’t going to be able to rely on Juju Smith-Schuster or Adoree’ Jackson getting behind the defense. It’s going to have to be something that starts at the line of scrimmage or an intermediate catch with some solid blocking from the skill players.
Downfield blocking has been a point of pride for the receivers and for offensive line coach Bob Connelly when his guys have had the opportunity to get to the third level of the defense, such as when Viane Talamaivao, Max Tuerk and Zach Banner were all making blocks more than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage on Tre Madden’s 65-yard touchdown run against Arkansas State.
If you go back and look at all of USC’s explosive runs this season, you’ll see the receivers on seek-and-destroy missions looking for someone to blow up whenever possible. Darreus Rogers has been a guy that has taken a lot of pride in blocking and that’s why he’s on the field as much as any other receiver (Rogers has played one less offensive snap than Smith-Schuster and 10 more than the next receiver).
“It’s just part of my mindset that I’m just trying to be perfect this year. No matter what it is. If I get one pass or 10 passes, everything that I try to do is at 110 percent. Somebody is watching, man, so never pouting. Just keep working everyday. If I’ve got to block, I’ll block each and every time for my running backs. Anything to win.”
When you are expected to win by 43 points, special teams suddenly becomes more important. Andre Heidari, the Cardinal Killer, is gone. Mr. Blueshirt Matt Boermeester was supposed to seamlessly take over the place kicking duties, but that hasn’t been the case.
Alex Wood has done a sufficient job on kickoffs, knocking six of 19 into the end zone for touchbacks and having the kickoff coverage unit holding the opposition to an average starting point of the 22-yard line, three yards short of where a touchback puts an opponent. He also has made his one field goal — a chip shot at 24 yards — but he has missed one extra point and these games have come down to kickers over the past six or seven years. Jordan Williamson made half his career off making game-winners against USC.
And in any closely contested game, field position is critical, especially considering the last five games between USC and Stanford have been decided by an average of 4.6 points. That’s why it is important for the good Kris Albarado to show up. Albarado can be a very hot and cold kicker. Watching him boom kicks 50+ yards routinely during fall camp gives a false sense of security when he kicks three straight punts less than 40 yards, including one that went 34 yards and was downed on the 48-yard line.
That means the punt protection unit, which allowed Idaho to get awfully close to Albarado on one punt last week, has to do a better job keeping people out of the punter’s peripheral vision and he has to do his job sending a deep spiral that either ends in a quick tackle, which have been big licks a couple of times this season, or fair catches.
On the other end, the Trojans have blocked two extra points and Soma Vainuku came really close to blocking a punt last week.
“I thought I blocked it. I'm surprised I didn’t,” Vainuku said. “I think I didn't get my other arm across.”
Do the Trojans get another block this week?
Tackling in Open Field:
One thing that has been a concern for the Trojans has been tackling. While Arkansas State has a couple of shifty guys, this is the first test against a Power 5 team and the first time the Trojans will truly feel the effect if they miss tackles in the open field. Players like Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love and Michael Rector can make the defense pay in a hurry.
Rector has speed to burn while Love already has a 93-yard touchdown after getting behind the defense and McCaffrey is a guy that can do a little bit of everything out of the backfield for the Cardinal.
USC may try to press up on the Cardinal skill players out wide to try to take away any easy throws that would allow Hogan to get into his rhythm early, so if Stanford is able to get between a corner and safety in cover-2, then the tackling has to be there to make sure it is a 15-yard gain for a first down rather than a 45-yard explosive play. And if the Trojans back off and give Hogan easy lateral throws at the line of scrimmage, the secondary has to come up, hit and wrap up to minimize the gains.
One of the guys that defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox know he can count on is freshman Cameron Smith. While Smith doesn't stand out physically in any certain attribute, he just constantly makes tackles. He currently leads the Trojans with 13 stops through the first two games.
"He’s a tough guy and he can tackle," Wilcox said. "I know you probably think that’s a given, but it’s not. He’s an instinctual guy that plays inside that can finish. When he gets his hands on people, he usually gets them on the ground."