It's not exactly that USC wants to be just like Stanford. Nobody wants to be just like anybody else in football, certainly not somebody you play every year in a game that matters maybe more than most these days.
No, Stanford was not the team USC wanted to be. It was the team USC wanted to beat. And twice in 2015, USC came from behind in the third quarter to take the lead against the Cardinal only to get smoked by a physically tougher, stronger Stanford team to the finish. Both games, USC gave up 41 points. And both games, USC knew why.
Stanford was tougher physically and mentally. When push came to shove and the chips were down, Stanford pushed and shoved USC all over the Coliseum and Levis Stadium just to make sure USC got the message.
Memo to Stanford: USC did. Now the question is, will they be able to do anything about it?
"This is what we've worked for since then," Clay Helton said after Tuesday's full-pads practice, noting those two games last year when "we were ahead in the third quarter." No question the defense under Clancy Pendergast is faster, more physical and more ready to play a sixth-ranked Stanford (1-0). It's the offense that is still the question here.
Is it ready?
For Alabama, the Trojans (1-1) were clearly not. For an undermanned Utah State, the results were better. "Good not great," Helton called the 45-7 win in a game "we really needed" after "playing poorly" against Alabama. Let Stanford have the bye. USC needed to get back on the horse.
If Tuesday's practice is any sign, despite some missing personnel (Zach Banner out with the stomach flu, Noah Jefferson still bothered by a sore AC sprain, Ronald Jones' sore ribs and thigh bruise and Marvell Tell needing one more doctor's check after his potential concussion) and some switches (Khaliel Rodgers from defense to backup center with Toa Lobendahn out for the season and a demoted Chuma Edoga back with the ones in Banner's place), things moved along at a faster pace we hadn't seen the last three Tuesdays.
"A good day," Clay said of the way USC's offense and defense "worked together to get up to the speed of Stanford . . . I'm really impressed with their personnel."
"I think we made some progress," O-line coach Neil Callaway said. "We're working at it."
Back to 100 percent health after rest, rehab and the right orthotic for his plantar fasciitis, Chad Wheeler said "I'm back, it's good, I'm fine," of the foot. Now it's time for him, despite mostly missing fall camp, to get back to his starting role at left tackle and do what he's supposed to do starting with "eliminating the dumb mistakes, and that starts with communicating."
Told it looked like they had in a fast-paced practice, Chad said "I'll tell you tomorrow -- after I look at the tape."
If he sounds like a coach, Chad says "I'm a senior, I've been around the last four years. It's my responsibility to lead by example."
That example? "Hit somebody in the mouth every play."
No better time than against a Stanford team that leads him 3-2 in his time here. And to get even, he'll need help from the rest of the offensive front. "We're either all wrong or we're all right," Viane Talamaivao said of how one player making a mistake makes the whole line look bad. Especially against Stanford.
"They're just a consistent team," said Damien Mama, who has won the battle to start at left guard against Chris Brown, Callaway said. "Every game is up to us, you gotta' dominate up front . . . we have to come out every day and get better, finish our blocks and listen to Coach Callaway." And since Stanford is a play-slow/huddle team, Damien said, it's even more important to get it right and be consistent "since you don't get that many chances."
"Year in, year out you know they're going to be disciplined," senior tailback Justin Davis said of Stanford, "like Alabama. I liked this practice, the way we came out. The intensity was up. They [Stanford] like to come out and hit you but if we come out and hit them first, that's the kind of start we need."
"Game speed is a lot different from practice speed," said quarterback Sam Darnold, who got a decent amount of game speed Saturday going five of seven in his red zone play that had him passing for two TDs and producing three in his three series. "But I thought the speed today was awesome."
Although we're finding out that Darnold can get up to game speed with the virtual reality of the practice field just observing. On that perfect read and 15-yard TD strike to JuJu Smith-Schuster in the fourth quarter, Sam admitted "I didn't get to rep it in practice but I watch Max do it and made a mental note of where JuJu would be." And there he was when he hit JuJu in full stride inches past the linebacker.
"It felt really good," Sam said of that throw. "But I expected it."
"He's just a baller," offensive coordinator Tee Martin said of Darnold who in two games has had more meaningful snaps than Max Browne, who had a class Tuesday and was unable to talk, in his three years here. "He [Sam] is way past where you would expect a redshirt freshman to be . . . and then to have the guts to pull the trigger, he's like shooter in basketball who just knows it's going in -- and it does . . . that's what's so impressive."
Clay had good words for USC's entire wide receiving corps and tailback Aca'Cedric Ware, who continues to generate praise for his tough running . . . Clay said Jefferson is at best 50-50 to play Saturday and then revised it to less than that . . . What a difference Matt Boermeester's booming kickoffs are making, Clay said, taking pressure off the cover teams. With seven kickoffs into and some out of the end zone in two games, that compares with USC's total of 11 in 14 games last season. And with Christian McCaffrey on the horizon Saturday, giving him three or four fewer times to touch the ball is a very good start for this game . . . Said of his use of Sam, and the ability to have him ready to play, "We're going to use every weapon on this team to win games," and clearly one of those weapons is Sam Darnold.
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