‘The Weekender’ rolls around again. Can the Trojans and their fans return home from NorCal with a key early-season win against the defending Pac-12 champs?
The USC Trojans (1-1) travel north to open their 2016 Pac-12 schedule against the Stanford Cardinal (1-0), ranked No. 6 in the USA Today poll and No. 7 by the Associated Press (AP), on Saturday, Sept. 17, at 5 p.m. PDT at Stanford Stadium and in front of a national ABC television audience. It’s the 96th meeting in a series that dates to 1905 (Stanford is USC’s longest-tenured rival) with the Trojans holding a 61-31-3 edge. However, the Cardinal have won six of the past eight meetings, including a pair of victories a season ago: 41-31 in Los Angeles in September and 41-22 in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Santa Clara, Calif., in December. This is the third consecutive season – and fourth time in five years – that USC and Stanford have faced off in the conference’s opening game.
Last week, USC bounced back from its season-opening loss to No. 1 Alabama, throttling Utah State 45-7 at the Coliseum. Two big special teams plays – a blocked punt by Michael Pittman in the first quarter and a 77-yard punt return TD by Adoree Jackson in the third quarter – bolstered a Trojan offense that netted 422 total yards. The USC defense held the Aggies to just 49 yards rushing a week after USU had rolled up more than 400 yards on the ground. Meanwhile, Stanford enjoyed an early bye week after a grinding 26-13 season opening home win over Kansas State on Sept. 2.
USC Coach Clay Helton (7-5 at USC in parts of three seasons) faces Stanford for the second time in five games since signing a five-year contract on Nov. 30. Stanford headman David Shaw (55-14, 36-9 Pac-12) is in his sixth season on the Farm. In his first five seasons, Stanford has won three Pac-12 championships and appeared in three Rose Bowls and a Fiesta Bowl, going 2-2 in those games. In 2016, though, he’s facing perhaps his most daunting task: navigating the Cardinal’s extremely tough schedule with just five starters back on offense and six on defense. Of course, most expect Stanford to fare just fine as long as college football’s top all-around offensive threat, Christian McCaffrey, stays healthy.Stanford Offense
Fourth-year offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren enters his first season steering an offense that doesn’t feature Kevin Hogan, who was 37-10 as a starter, at quarterback. The prospective replacements – junior Ryan Burns and sophomore Keller Chryst – both look the part. Each is listed at 6-foot-5 and more than 230 pounds. Burns won the job in camp, but Chryst made an appearance in the Kansas State game (and he’s expected to do so again Saturday). Burns was efficient in the opener (14-of -18, 156 yards, one TD), which is exactly what Bloomgren (and Shaw) want out of the position until he gains more game experience. It remains to be seen if Burns or Chryst presents the sneaky run threat that Hogan did.
Efficiency and game management will be all that’s asked as long as McCaffrey remains at the center of the Cardinal offense. The all-everything back led the nation in all-purpose yards in 2015 and was both Stanford’s leading rusher and receiver. Adding in his kick/punt return duties, McCaffrey had the ball in his hands more than 32 times per game a season ago – and he had exactly 32 touches against Kansas State (22 carries for 126 yards; seven catches for 40 yards; 2 punt returns – including a 97-yard TD that was called back by a penalty – and one kickoff return). Sophomore Bryce Love missed the opener vs. Kansas State with an unspecified leg injury, but is expected back for Saturday. He’s a speedster – someone USC must keep an eye on when he enters. Junior fullback Daniel Marx is a bruising lead blocker.
Senior Michael Rector is the Cardinal’s most dangerous wide receiver and their top deep threat. He averaged 16.4 yards on 34 catches in 2015, scoring seven TDs. In the opener, he snagged four passes for 73 yards and a score. Senior Francis Owusu and sophomore Trenton Irwin, who combined for 25 grabs a season ago – none more incredible than Owusu’s much-replayed TD snag against UCLA – are the other starters. Redshirt freshman JJ Arcega-Whiteside is an impressive physical specimen who could make a splash this season. And, of course, Stanford is fully stocked at tight end: both sophomore Dalton Schultz and senior Greg Taboada are solid blockers and pass catchers.
The other big concern for Stanford’s offense in 2016: replacing three starters on the offensive line, including 2015 Outland Trophy-winning left guard Joshua Garnett. Solid left tackle Kyle Murphy and center Graham Shuler also departed. The Cardinal have been a force in OL recruiting in recent seasons, so the drop in talent might be minimal but how quickly can the replacements get up to Pac-12 speed? Junior Casey Tucker, who started all 14 at right tackle last year, has shifted to LT, while right guard Johnny Caspers is a third-year starter. Senior David Bright is getting the first crack at replacing Garnett, while junior Jesse Burkett is the starter at center. Sophomore A.T. Hall earned the nod at right tackle.Stanford Defense
Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson (third year as DC, 10th year on the Stanford staff) oversees a unit that’s been one of the nation’s best during this decade. Though the Cardinal stormed to a 12-2 mark in 2015, though, Stanford’s normally vaunted run defense showed some chinks in the armor, while a youthful secondary was susceptible to the occasional misstep. However, even with the loss of four starters in the front seven, many expect that Stanford will reestablish itself fairly quickly in 2016.
The lone new coach on the Cardinal staff, Diron Reynolds, returned after one year at Oklahoma to take on the defensive line, replacing retired Randy Hart. The return of senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, who missed all but the opener last season due to a torn ACL, was expected to be a big boost for Stanford. But he went down with an injury to his other knee in the opener – much less severe – and his status for Saturday is doubtful. That means senior Jordan Watkins, who notched his first two career sacks against K-State, is likely to start. Sophomore defensive end Solomon Thomas appears to be a star in the making while redshirt freshman Dylan Jackson made his first career start on Sept. 2. Converted tight end Luke Kaumatule is a wild card here. A 6-foot-7 senior, the Cardinal like his athleticism at the end spot.
Stanford returns plenty of talent at linebacker – eight of the 10 LBs who recorded at least 9.5 tackles in 2015 return, helping offset the loss of insider Blake Martinez, who led the Cardinal with 107.5 stops. Athletic junior outsider Peter Kalambayi is the leader – he notched 2.5 of Stanford’s eight sacks against Kansas State. Sophomore Joey Alfieri is expected to build on a solid freshman season where he proved disruptive while splitting time at the other outside spot. At the two inside spots, junior Kevin Palma and sophomore Bobby Okerke are the starters, but there is plenty of solid depth available in the rotation.
The Cardinal started over in the secondary a season ago, but that means there is solid, experienced talent in this group today. Stanford has a four-deep rotation at the two corner spots with sophomores Alameen Murphy, Quinton Meeks, and Alijah Holder joined by junior Terrence Alexander. Meeks saw a lot of time at nickel a year ago, but appears to have overtaken Murphy for a starting nod. The Cardinal are also solid at safety with senior Dallas Lloyd and sophomore Justin Reid the starters. This group got a big boost when senior Zach Hoffpauir returned from a year away playing baseball. He’s an honors-candidate-level talent, and he led Stanford with nine stops in the opener.Stanford Special Teams
Senior placekicker Conrad Ukropina made 18-of-20 field goals and all 67 PATs attempted last year – and he started 2016 in style by knocking through a 50-yarder against K-State. Sophomore Jake Bailey handles punts and kickoffs. And, of course, there’s that man once again: McCaffrey is always a threat on both punt and kick returns.
USC Offensive Gameplan
After the Trojans’ well-documented struggles in the opening loss to Alabama, a 45-point performance seems like the perfect balm for those wounds opened by the Tide. Yes, USC rolled up 29 first downs and 422 yards (178 rushing), while punting just twice. However, the Trojans’ performance still felt a bit … muddled? USC’s pace and personality seem a bit of a mystery on the offensive side. Though the Trojans got JuJu Smith-Schuster going a bit, and Helton and Tee Martin had to like what they saw from both Max Browne and Sam Darnold, USC’s offense operated more in fits and starts than with a solid flow.
For all the talk of establishing a physical, run-first personality, the Trojans are struggling for consistency behind an offensive line that isn’t yet performing to expectations. The return of reserve center Khaliel Rodgers from his brief stint on defense should bolster that front five’s depth this week. But, if USC is to compete in this matchup, this group must have its steadiest performance yet. If the Trojans are serious about creating that personality, it must start this Saturday.
The health of Ronald Jones II – he suffered bruised ribs against Utah State, but it appears he’ll be ready to go – is another key. Jones gives USC the kind of speed off the edge that Stanford’s defense can struggle with. The Trojans still enjoy an edge – if a dwindling one – in athleticism against the Cardinal defense. Can they exploit it? Don’t be surprised to see a lot of Darnold in the red zone, once again. He provides the kind of threat that could be a difference maker if this game stays tight. Plus, after the Cardinal notched those eight sacks against K-State, mobility at the quarterback position could be rather beneficial.USC Defensive Gameplan
The Trojan defense bounced back strong from the second-half woes that turned the Alabama game into a rout. A determined effort – led by linebacker Cameron Smith – held a run-first Utah State team to just 49 yards on the ground and 13 first downs. The Aggies didn’t get on the board – and really didn’t get all that close to it – until a late third-quarter touchdown broke a 31-0 shutout. The attacking style of Clancy Pendergast’s defense seems to fit USC’s personnel rather well and the young defensive line – even without injured Noah Jefferson – has performed better than expected.
It’s interesting to think back on the last time a Pendergast-coached USC defense faced the Cardinal – in USC’s 20-17 upset victory at the Coliseum in 2013. With the Trojans’ sanctions-depleted ranks near their nadir, Pendergast came up with a plan that kept Stanford at bay while playing only 12 players on defense in the entire game. Now, with a more complete group at his disposal, what will he come up with?
This plan likely begins and ends with trying to minimize McCaffrey’s game-breaking ability. How can the linebackers and secondary account for McCaffrey while also not losing track of the Cardinal’s solid receiving corps? Expect USC to try to put a lot of heat on Burns early in an effort to rattle him – while he got his feet wet in the opener, this is his first start in a game of this magnitude. Can USC get under his skin and force mistakes? The Trojans are likely to make every effort to put the game in Burns’ hands – and then take it away from him.The Pick
Though the Trojans’ opening loss put a big damper on things, the next two weeks will determine whether or not USC is ready to and capable of competing for the Pac-12 title and a shot at the Rose Bowl. Once the air clears after next Friday night’s battle in Utah, will USC be a troubled 0-2 in the conference? Or will they be 1-1 – or, even 2-0 – with an October schedule that looks rather favorable?
Much has been made of Stanford’s two strong wins over the Trojans in 2015.There’s no doubt that the Cardinal wore down USC and turned both games into something far from the recent nail biters in this series. However, it’s also true that USC led both games in the third quarter and was within a score in the fourth quarter before falling apart. Can the Trojans hang around for four quarters this time and give themselves a chance to win?
I expect to see a very motivated and focused USC team on the Farm on Saturday. The Trojans can match up, player for player, with the Cardinal. There’s no reason to believe they can’t. But, if USC is going to make its way back to the top of the Pac-12 anytime soon, this is the kind of game it needs to win. For the Trojans, this is a “prove it” game. And while I believe that USC could do just that, until they do, I’m going to ride with the favorite. Stanford has made the key plays at the key moments for most of the past decade against USC. Until the Trojans show they can turn that around consistently, the Cardinal must be the pick.
Stanford 27, USC 20
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 16 years. The editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry, he graduated 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)