Preview: USC at Stanford

Stanford Stadium
Stanford, CA
September 15, 2012
TV: Fox

It’s not as highly publicized as Notre Dame or UCLA, but Stanford is Southern California’s oldest rival. It’s a natural rivalry, with the two schools being the only private institutions in conference, and its origin dating back to 1905.

USC dominated the series in the past, but it’s Stanford that owns the present. The Cardinal has won four of the last five meetings, which includes a current 3-game win-streak. The program now seeks another victory that would establish a first, since the private school of the north has never beaten the private school of the south in four consecutive games.

As the Cardinal aim to make history, Matt Barkley looks to avoid a shutout. The senior, now in his fourth year starting, has tasted victory over 10 of 11 conference opponents. The lone man standing is Stanford, who is 3-0 in games played against the Trojan star quarterback.

Stanford Cardinal (2-0)
National Rank: 21 (AP), 16 (Coaches)
Last week: Stanford 50, Duke 13

Offense

Andrew Luck departed to become the first overall pick of the NFL draft, and he took much of the Cardinal offense with him. Accounting for 39 of the team’s 73 touchdowns in 2011, and passing for more than 3500 yards, Luck’s talent isn’t replicated overnight. Josh Nunes is the new man behind center, and through two games, is far from mirroring his predecessor.

Leading a passing attack that currently stands 85th best in the nation (203 ypg) and 10th in conference, Nunes has thrown for 400 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first two weeks. He managed just 125 passing yards in the Cardinal’s escape of San Jose State, but more than double that number in the team’s rout of Duke.

A new quarterback relies heavily on the success of the running game, and Stepfan Taylor is the primary horse to carry the load. The senior was a 1000 yard rusher for the Cardinal in each of the past two seasons, and needs just 1,079 yards to surpass Darrin Nelson as the school’s all-time rushing leader.

Pass catchers remain the biggest mystery at Stanford, with no player emerging as the go-to guy. Tight ends were key components in the Andrew Luck attack, but have accounted for just 10 of the team’s 32 receptions and a single touchdown heading into week three. The size of Levine Toilolo (6’8, 265-pound) can instantly create a mismatch, which makes for the ideal red zone target and the greatest threat against a defense on third downs. But it’s still a matter of establishing chemistry between himself and his new quarterback, which has been little so far.

Defense

Stanford returns 7 defensive starters from 2011, which includes all-Pac 12 second-team selection Ben Gardner. The Cardinal finished last season second in conference in quarterback sacks (39), and the senior defensive end was an integral part of that success. Also returning is LB Shayne Skov (All-Pac 10 honorable mention 2010), who participated in only 3 games in 2011, after tearing his ACL.

USC Trojans (2-0)
National rank: 2 (AP), 3 (Coaches)
Last week: USC 42, Syracuse 29

Offense

Matt Barkley is the national leader in touchdown passes (10), after tying his own school record with 6 against the Orange last week. In the same game, Silas Redd would rush for 100 yards for the first time as a Trojan, and for the eighth time in his college career. Robert Woods and Marqise Lee would punish another secondary, with each recording double-digit receptions, and the Trojan offense would score 40-plus points for the second straight week.

But all is not so well on the western front, where Center Khaled Holmes remains questionable for Saturday’s game. The senior was carted off the field in the second half versus Syracuse, and Lane Kiffin remains hush on his status. If Holmes is unable to go, USC will plug the middle with Cyrus Hobbi, who played the final quarter in relief last week. The challenge for the redshirt freshman will be the multiple fronts shown by the Cardinal defense, and the recognition of blocking assignments that change with each look.

Defense

Syracuse may have lost the game last week, but it exposed a weakness in the Trojan secondary. The unit struggles at the corner opposite Nickell Robey, where it has rotated Anthony Brown and Torin Harris. It’s a position vacated by Isiah Wiley (academically ineligible), and after two games, is the position of greatest concern. USC ranks 84th in the nation defending the pass, allowing an average of 265 yards per game.

For the failure in the secondary, there is promise up front. The Trojan defense hasn’t allowed a 100 yard rusher in the opening weeks, and is averaging 3.5 sacks per game. The biggest surprise continues to be defensive end Morgan Breslin, who has recorded 10 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss as a substitute for the injured Devon Kennard.

Analysis: The strength of USC plays into the weakness of Stanford, with the Cardinal secondary (290 ypg) struggling even more to defend the pass. Expect another big day for Woods and Lee, as well as more touches for the tight ends. Containing Stepfan Taylor should be priority for the Trojan defense, as it would transform the Cardinal offense into a one dimensional unit.  This transformation can only result in positives against a quarterback making his third start. It was common knowledge that Andrew Luck could beat you with his arm. The game plan for USC is to force Nunes to prove he can do the same.

X-FactorSpecial teams– Just as it was last week, special teams will be a determining factor in this one. Against Syracuse, my x-factor was the Orange punting, which proved to be significant in the game. USC started just one series from inside its own 20, which placed even more pressure on the Orange defense. This week I put the pressure on USC’s Craig McMahon, who will be kicking field goals and extra points in place of the injured Andre Heidari.

As already noted, Stanford has won 4 of the last 5 against USC, and three of those games came down to a final play. The kicker is most important in tight ballgames, and without Heidari, USC is lacking distance, efficiency, and coaches’ confidence.

All-Time Series: USC leads 58-28-3
Streak: Stanford has won 3
Last Meeting: Stanford 56, USC 48 3OT (Los Angeles)

Fun Facts

  • USC and Stanford first met in 1905, but the game became an annual event beginning in 1925.
  • Since 1925, the series has been interrupted for only 3 years during World War II.
  • Stanford is 9-33-2 at home versus USC
  • Since 2000, USC has won 4 of 6 games at Stanford Stadium.
  • Stanford is currently riding a 3-game win streak over USC. The Cardinal has never beaten the Trojans in 4 consecutive games.
  • Stanford has scored 55, 37, 56-points in the last three meetings with USC. No Cardinal team scored more than 35-points in the 86 meetings prior.
  • Since 2009, Stanford is 5-2 at home versus ranked opponents, and 1-2 versus top10.
  • Stanford has played 10 true freshmen in the first two weeks of the season.
  • Matt Barkley enters the weekend as the national leader in touchdown passes (10)
  • Stanford has won 10 consecutive games in the month of September
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~ by Anthony on September 13, 2012.

One Response to “Preview: USC at Stanford”

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