It is generally accepted that USC's two biggest and most vehemently detested rivals are UCLA and Notre Dame, though their rank as important rivals seems to depends upon the source quoted. Despite that, I personally enjoy seeing the Trojans dismantle Stanford as much as I enjoy seeing them beat any other team. The reasons are numerous and easy to understand. First and foremost, I have a long memory and I still detest the way Bill Walsh, the former Stanford Head Coach and longtime Trojan critic would badmouth USC and then later in his career, he would refer to them as "Yesterday U". Oh how I enjoy the thought of him eating his words. More importantly, it is essential to beat the Cardinal because as another prestigious private school, Stanford poses a unique challenge to USC that no other Pac-10 school can muster. Stanford has its own family, a huge sprawling campus, its own huge endowment and its own academic legacy. While Trojans often rejoice at pointing out the shortcomings of some of the public schools in its conference, Stanford more than holds its own against SC in many categories and even though Stanford is synonymous with mediocrity on the gridiron, its overall athletic accomplishments are impressive indeed.
How does one accurately describe a game such as this? It certainly appeared that USC was capable of scoring at will had their starters played for the entire game. As it was, even without starting tight end Dominique Byrd, the Trojans scored 44 first half points. In the first half alone, Matt Leinart threw for 245 yards and hit on 4 touchdown passes. Stanford showed no ability to stop the SC passing attack, the running attack or anything at all. Reggie and LenDale had not trouble running the ball and Reggie broke off a 42 yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Naturally, coming out for the second half, it is more difficult to maintain one's intensity when it is obvious that the opponent is simply incapable of matching one's team. The irony or ironies in this game is that Stanford ended up controlling the statistics and the scoring in the second half, winning the second half battle 14-7.
If there is any silver lining at all to come out of this game it is that the backups got to see significant minutes, perhaps more than at any other time this year. John David Booty played the entire 4th quarter and in my opinion, he looked very good. He did not throw any interceptions and there were no fumbled snaps. There was one obvious miscommunication with a wide receiver that cost a potential touchdown, but one got the feeling that it was the receiver who ran the wrong route. When given the chance to get into a groove, JD showed that he can hit the open guys quite well and that he can move the team up and down the field. Booty connected on 7 out of 10 passes for 86 yards and as his snaps increase, so does his apparent comfort level being out there as a leader. Patrick Turner caught 3 balls and the ever improving Fred Davis grabbed 4 balls, including his first touchdown grab of the season. Perhaps equally impressive in Fred's case is that he demonstrated the ability to run after he catches the ball. The only thing separating Fred and stardom appears to be time. His willingness to go over the middle, along with Patrick's ability to do the same bodes very well for the Trojan passing game for the rest of this season and for years to come. Both of these youngsters are physical, to say the least. With the injuries to Michael Coleman and Desmond Reed, I was wondering who would emerge as the next guy in line to get some reps at tailback. If tonight's game was any indication, one major candidate is Brandon Hancock. Brandon showed some really nice speed and ability to get outside on his touchdown run and at 6'1 and 230 pounds, he also has the ability to bang.
Defensively, this was truly a game of two halves. For the majority of the first half, the USC defense simply shut down the Cardinal. It looked like Lawrence Jackson was on a personal crusade to keep Stanford off balance and in deep trouble. He played with a fierce intensity and with awesome pass rushing ability. At one point, he was so dominant in his pass rush that Stanford had to bench their Right Tackle because LoJack was simply beating him like a drum. The Trojans were shutting down the Stanford offense most effectively and the Cardinal could score only once in the first half on a drive well into the second quarter. If there was one area of defensive concern during prime time in this game it was with the play of the cornerbacks. Once again Justin Wyatt got beaten on a couple of long passes. What is so strange is that Justin is always in the thick of things and he is rarely just flat out beaten. For whatever reason, he simply does not seem to see the ball and turn his head at the right time. On the other side, Josh Pinkard had most things under control, but he also appeared to be in position to make a play on a long pass, yet he also missed out on his opportunity. Of course, as all corners learn quickly, it is essential to have a very short memory and very thick skin. Having said that, one certainly has to hope that Justin can take the next step up. It is time to see him actually break up a long pass as opposed to being in the right place but being unable to finish for whatever reason. As for turnovers, SC won that battle, gaining five and giving up none. That has to please the entire staff.
The linebacking situation in the game tonight was downright amazing for lack of another word. USC is already missing Dallas Sartz. Word had it that Thomas Williams was also playing hurt and Keith Rivers was held out due to a hamstring injury. To complicate matters, the team's leading tackler, Oscar Lua got hurt on the kickoff team early in the game and he did not return. (Rumor on the television broadcast was that he had a mild sprain in his left knee) Thus, USC was faced with a most unusual scenario. Not one of the linebackers who were starters at the beginning of this season were in the game after early in the first quarter. It's one thing to have an injury or two, but this situation is simply ridiculous. As deep a team as SC appears to be, nobody can sustain this many hits without really feeling it. For a significant part of this game, the backers were Colin Ashton at the Will linebacker spot, Thomas Williams at the Mike Backer and Brian Cushing at the Sam Linebacker position. And at other times, the three linebackers out there were true freshmen Kaluka Maiava, Rey Maualuga, and Brian Cushing. (Personally I have a feeling that Pete's decision to play Rey Rey as he is known will evoke some serious discussion on the message boards and in the media. I intend to leave that discussion there.) In all the years that I have followed USC Football, I can't recall seeing three true freshmen in the game at all three linebacking positions simultaneously.
It should also be noted that when Stanford was moving the ball up and down the field in the second half, the defensive ends were often true freshmen Kyle Moore and Sophomore Jeff Schweiger. At other times, the DT's were Chris Barrett, Travis Tofi, Travis Draper, and Fili Moala. Even seldomly used Lawrenece Miles and Jermyah Graves got to see the field. SC's defense takes some unfair criticisms from various members of the media for giving up this many yards etc, but the starting unit is getting stronger and stronger by the game. Unfortuntely, giving up third down conversions is still plaguing this team, and I will defer to the coaches as to the best approach to improve that one aspect of the defense.
Special teams continues to be inconsistent. It is hard to say much about punt coverage since Tom Malone only punted once for 49 yards. The Trojans did convert on one field goal but missed an extra point. I believe this is the first time Danelo missed a PAT which was associated with a penalty. On his prior two misses, Mario was kicking from further back than normal. However, today he simply missed a non penalilzed PAT. As for the kickoffs and coverage, the term up and down would have to apply. One time Troy VanBlarcom would kick it so deep that it could not be returned, while on the next attempt he would kick it out of bounds or short.
So now USC is 9 and 0 and the big game against the California Bears is on the horizon. This year, the Trojans would seem to be the clear cut favorites to beat the Bears, but in the past three meetings, Coach Tedford has had a great gameplane and his teams have been up and ready for the Trojans. We are all aware that the last time USC visited the Bears in Berkley, USC lost the game in triple overtime. Southern California has not lost a single game since and the winning streak certainly needs to continue if USC is to succeed in its bid for a third consecutive national title. I can't believe this is not a game that the Trojans are looking very much forward to playing. We all know that Pete preaches the one at a time line and I am sure it is successful. Nonetheless, one can 't help but wonder if this game has not been circled, at least in Pete's mind for some time now. Nothing is a given, but if both teams play their best game, USC should win. I certainly hope Oscar Lua and Keith Rivers are healthy and that the Trojans come ready to play some serious ball. Even if the coaches haven't been pointing toward this rematch, something tells me the fans have. Let the best team win--and that means USC.