The stage is set for the USC Trojans to rumble with the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal on Saturday night, in front of a (likely) sold-out homecoming crowd in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Lee Corso and the ESPN College GameDay Crew will also be in attendance, as this game has been dubbed the cant-miss tilt of the week.
It pits a streaking Trojan squad against a powerful Cardinal one. Stanford has bested USC over the past four straight years, their longest winning streak against the Trojans in history. USC–newly bowl-eligible after beating the California Golden Bears last week–looks to turn the series back in its favor, after coming very close in each of the past two seasons in particular.
In an interesting bit of history, this is the 19th time that USC has followed up a game against Cal with a tilt against Stanford. For the past eight times this has happened, USC has emerged victorious over the Cardinal.
Will the football gods find the Trojans in their favor?
USC certainly seems to be revitalized under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, so we could very well indeed be in for another thrilling installment of this conference rivalry.
But first, the vitals:
Kickoff: 5 p.m. PT
Place: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Radio: 710 ESPN (it will also be carried on USCTrojans.com)
Spread: Stanford (-4.5), via VegasInsider.com
For USC to upset Stanford, the following things need to happen:
Big Plays: The Trojans have come out on top of their last two road contests–one of which was in the hostile Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore.–because they were able to create moments for big plays. Against Oregon State, it was Marqise Lee torching a defender for a 71-yard touchdown to start the game, followed by touchdown runs of 23 and 52 yards from Silas Redd and Buck Allen, respectively. At Cal, it was a litany of explosive moments: two returned punts from Nelson Agholor, a blocked-and-then-returned punt by the Trojan defense, Allen scoring touchdowns of 43, 57 and 79 yards, not to mention a pair of long rushing touchdowns from backup running back Ty Isaac. The big plays had both the Beavers and the Golden Bears reeling, and put USC in positions to win. They will need to create situations to similarly get the best of Stanford's defense on Saturday.
Strong Offensive Line Effort: USC's offensive line has been incredibly inconsistent this season. Sometimes, it's racking up countless penalty yards and leaving Cody Kessler vulnerable to sacks. Other times, it gives incredible push, creating huge gaps for the running backs and ample time for Kessler to sling the rock. Stanford touts a stout defensive line, so the Trojans will need the latter performance if it hopes to contend with the Cardinal. On the other side of the ball, the USC defense needs to just do what it has been doing all season. Defensively, Stanford and USC rank 18th and 19th, respectively, in points against, only giving up 19.4 and 19.6 points a game, on average. Needless to say, this game will be won in the trenches.
Composed Secondary Play: The secondary hasn't been too much of a liability these past two weeks, though some of that has to do with the Trojans defensive line creating so much pressure up front that opposing quarterbacks can't get the plays going. Still, when quarterbacks did have a window to hit a target, often times, they did. USC cannot afford to give up big chunks of yards to Stanford through the air, so it is crucial that the likes of Josh Shaw, Dion Bailey and Su'a Cravens–the Trojans most reliable defensive backs–bring their A-game.
No. 5 Stanford comes into this game with the physical advantage, so all they need to do is play like they are the better team. That will be easier said than done, however.
As previously mentioned, the Trojans match up very well with the Cardinal, and the two teams have endured some pretty intense slugfests over the past few seasons. The Trojans rank 75th in passing yards per game (216.7 average) to the Cardinal's 104th ranking (183.2). While USC can throw a little better, Stanford is pounding the rock with more gusto, averaging 205 yards per game to USC's 185.9. Even in points scored, these two squads are close: Stanford is putting up 31.9 points a game on average and USC, 29.
Remaining composed in a hostile environment will be essential to Stanford avoiding the upset to unranked USC. The Trojans are looking for a little revenge against Stanford after suffering so many close defeats at the hands of the Cardinal, and Stanford would be wise not to forget that.
Leonard Williams: the standout defensive end did not play against California due to a shoulder injury, but according to Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com, Coach Orgeron told the media on Tuesday night that he expects Williams to play on Saturday. While J.R. Tavai and Jabari Ruffin have done a very good job filling in on the line, Williams' physically commanding presence and style of play will play a crucial role in the defense's ability to be competitive.
Buck Allen: this sophomore tailback has been on an incredible tear over the past two games. He's torched opponents for 268 yards and five touchdowns in just two games for USC. Fomerly lost in the annals of Lane Kiffin's depth chart, Allen has really benefitted from the coaching change. When starting tailbacks Tre Madden and Silas Redd have had to miss time due to injury, Allen has filled in seamlessly. Gary Klein of the LATimes tweeted on Tuesday that Orgeron also said Redd is questionable to play against Stanford, after dinging his knee at Cal. If he doesn't, expect Allen to carry the bulk of the load on the ground, hungry to have a big game against the Cardinal.
Soma Vainuku: Vainuku has been an absolute beast on special teams of late, and teams are starting to account for his explosive, bone-crushing tackles on kick and punt returns. It was his aggression against Cal that led to a muffed punt that cornerback Josh Shaw recovered and returned for a touchdown. The Trojans are going to need that fierce blocking presence during special teams and when the Trojans try to run their offense. He might even have a new role on Saturday: Abraham also tweeted that Vainuku got some reps at tailback on Tuesday, so we could be seeing him if Redd cannot play.
Cody Kessler: He's grown a lot since his first official start against Boston College, and he has even impressed much over the past few weeks. It goes without saying, but Kessler is really going to need to be a field general and lead the Trojan offense to a victory. He can't get flustered by the big bodies on Stanford's defensive line, and he can't get frustrated with himself if he makes mistakes. Where Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck dueled in the past, Kessler and Kevin Hogan will have a similar tango with each other on Saturday.
Kevin Hogan: Obviously, Hogan is going to be a major player for the Cardinal against USC. He's just four yards shy of 1600 yards on the season, with 13 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He led his team to a very impressive and commanding (for a while) win over the then-No. 3 Oregon Ducks last week, so he is definitely riding an emotional high. How he plays will set the tone for how USC responds, and how the Trojans attempt to exploit his weaknesses.
Tyler Gaffney: Gaffney has been shredding teams for yards this season, having 100-yard performances in all but three games. On the season, he has rushed for 1043 yards and 13 touchdowns on 211 carries, and he will be looking to wreak havoc on the Trojans defense next week. USC will need to find a way to contain him, and fast. The Trojans haven't given up a rushing touchdown since September, but Gaffney could be the reason this impressive streak ends.
Gary Klein of the LATimes says that Stanford has one of the toughest, most unstoppable front lines in college football:
Stanford is one of the most physical teams in college football, boasting a deep and stout offensive line and an aggressive defensive front.
"It's going to be a big man's game," said quarterback Cody Kessler, a phrase echoed by several teammates after the Trojans' victory over California last week.
Anthony Riccobono of the International Business Times points out that the success USC has found under Coach Orgeron could spell an upset for the Trojans:
But in the last three seasons, the Stanford-USC matchup has been among the most competitive in the Pac-12. The Cardinal won all three games, though they failed to defeat the Trojans by more than one score. The last time the two programs met at the Coliseum was in 2011, when the game was decided by a USC fumble in the endzone in triple overtime.
While the Cardinal have their sights set on a possible national championship, the Trojans have been on a roll. Under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans have outscored their last three Pac-12 opponents by a total of 112-45 to improve to 7-3 after a 3-2 start under Lane Kiffin.
To Elliot Almund of the San Jose Mercury News, Shayne Skov downplays Stanford's desire to dominate in the state of California:
Linebacker Shayne Skov is one of the most thoughtful and entertaining characters on Stanford's football team.
But Tuesday he did his best to downplay a remark from teammate Kevin Danser ahead of No. 5 Stanford's showdown this weekend at USC.
"We want to be the kings of California and sweep out all the other California teams," said Danser, a fifth-year senior center.
To which Skov replied a little later: "Got to be careful with bulletin board material with that one. We want to be the best team in the Pac-12, and part of that means being the best team in the state. We take pride in dominance of the state. I'm not saying we do, but at the end of the season, if we do, we take pride in that. I'm just clarifying it."
It's a tough call, but I am going to go with the upset pick and say USC wins, 38-31.
Stanford really is that good, however, and a team with so much experience that could prove to be too much for the injury-plagued Trojans to handle. Because Stanford hasn't blown out the Trojans for some time, I have reason to believe this game will be yet another grudge match. Plus, Vegas has it pegged as a close game, and those guys are wizards.
Coach Orgeron has a good thing going with this team, and if the Trojans find themselves with their backs against a wall, he has the grit and the fire to will them to fight on. But David Shaw and his squad are so well-disciplined that I expect them to come into the Coliseum with an all-business attitude.
Whatever the outcome, expect the atmosphere in the Coliseum to be just as electric as it was in 2011. The Trojans did not win, but man, that was a game.