USC vs. Stanford Complete Game Preview
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 6, 3:30 p.m. ET
WHERE: Stanford Stadium, Stanford, California
The Steve Sarkisian era of USC football began with a bang in a 52-13 rout of Fresno State Saturday. The Trojans have little time to revel in their impressive Week 1 victory, however, because their first road and conference games under the new regime begin USC's Pac-12 championship pursuit in earnest.
Two-time defending league champion No. 11 Stanford welcomes No. 15 USC to The Farm, where the Trojans have not won since 2008.
USC successfully snapped another losing skid to the Cardinal a season ago. A 20-17 USC win last November ended a four-game Cardinal win streak in the series and effectively removed Stanford from the BCS Championship hunt.
Stanford won't be lacking for motivation in a heavyweight bout with early, yet very real championship implications.
"We do have a chip on our shoulder," Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan said at Pac-12 media days. "We've been successful, but that can't stop us from being the hunters rather than the hunted."
USC Keys to Victory
Build Off Week 1
The Trojans played a great game in all phases Saturday against Fresno State. According to Sarkisian, the most noteworthy facet of his team's thoroughly dominant win was its intensity.
"When you really look at the film, and you see the amount of guys running to the ball on defense and special teams, [and] the effort our guys played with on the offensive line was really impressive," he said on his conference call Sunday.
USC has a lot of positive to take from the win.
Test the Cardinal's Speed
USC beat Stanford at its own game a season ago. The 2013 encounter was a war of attrition in which the Cardinal budged on the Trojans' final drive. The 37 combined points scored are two touchdowns, an extra point and a two-point conversion less than USC put up in its first game of the no-huddle era.
Sarkisian's new scheme promises a different feel to this year's game. Though USC is not running a spread offense, the way in which wide receiver John "JuJu" Smith and others attacked Fresno State on the perimeter stretched out the Bulldogs defense in a manner similar to that of a spread.
The Trojans can keep Stanford back on its heels with a diverse offensive approach, alternating between the quick strikes to receivers on the outside and power rushing from running back Javorius "Buck" Allen. The diversity of play-calling combined with USC's quick approach to the line of scrimmage will challenge the Cardinal's ability to react.
Stanford Keys to Victory
Capitalize in the Red Zone
In each of its Pac-12 losses a season ago, Stanford suffered from red-zone failures. The Cardinal went just 2-of-4 inside the 20-yard line at USC in last season's loss.
One key takeaway from that contest is that every opportunity matters. Just one more touchdown extends the Cardinal's win streak over USC to five games and potentially lands Stanford in its first BCS title game.
A resurgent tight end corps will play a critical role in Stanford's red-zone offense this season, which was a missing dynamic in 2013. The Cardinal also have a multifaceted backfield to offer different looks with their run game when in the red zone.
One surefire way to slow down an uptempo offense is to keep it off the field. Stanford has been exceedingly proficient in this regard in recent seasons thanks to its power-run game and methodical execution.
Head coach David Shaw's game plan against the Pac-12's uptempo forerunner, Oregon, ground the Ducks to a halt. Stanford monopolized possession for 42 minutes, 36 seconds, steadily moving the ball downfield while keeping Oregon on the sideline.
Replicating this approach is key to slowing down a USC offense that proved to be both explosive and capable of playing keep-away in Week 1. USC had possession for more than 38 minutes against the Bulldogs.
Win the Turnover Battle
The perfect complement to a calculating run game against an uptempo offense is the defense's ability to garner takeaways. This is an area in which Stanford has excelled against hurry-up teams.
However, ball security on the other end is paramount, as the exact opposite effect is true for a team that gives an uptempo offense the ball back. Fresno State experienced that firsthand when it gave away possession four times.
Stanford needs Hogan to be flawless. He threw two interceptions in last year's loss at USC.
USC Players to Watch
WR John "JuJu" Smith
John "JuJu" Smith lived up to his 5-star billing and then some in USC's win over Fresno State. The freshman caught four passes, and his 123 yards were most among the 10 Trojans with a catch.
Smith took long strides toward becoming one of quarterback Cody Kessler's top options to complement Nelson Agholor—literally. His breakaway ability generated big plays against the Bulldogs.
USC's dynamic receiving duo of Agholor and Marqise Lee—whose No. 9 Smith now wears—was central to the Trojans' upset of Stanford a season ago. Smith can play a similar role in 2014.
The Offensive Line
USC started two true freshmen on the offensive line Saturday, guards Toa Lobendahn and Damien Mama. Per USCTrojans.com, it was the first time in the "post-World War II era" that two freshmen started Week 1 on the line. Also making his first career start at right tackle was Zach Banner.
The young line acquitted itself nicely against a Fresno State defense that ranked No. 6 in the nation with 40 sacks a season ago. The Bulldogs did not get to Kessler once on Saturday.
This week at Stanford, the youthful Trojans offensive line must contend with the nation's top sacking defense of a season ago, a defense that remained quite veteran in its front seven despite losing starters Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov.
CB Adoree' Jackson
Five-star 2014 signee Adoree' Jackson played in all three phases Saturday, and Sarkisian said on his Sunday conference call he hopes to give the freshman more opportunities on both sides of the ball.
His speed could be crucial to USC defending Stanford's passing attack, which showed explosive potential in a Week 1 romp over UC-Davis. The Cardinal receiving corps has some impressive speed in veteran Ty Montgomery, but newcomer Christian McCaffrey adds another gear that Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox must combat with speed of his own.
DL Leonard Williams
The bedrock of USC's defense, Leonard Williams played every bit like the best defensive lineman in the country against Fresno State. He had seven tackles, two passes broken up and an interception.
Sarkisian gushed about Williams' performance on the coach's conference call Sunday.
"Sometimes you don't appreciate defensive line play until you look at the film," Sarkisian said. "Leonard was spectacular and the numbers say he was."
Stanford's game plan centers around its ability to methodically move the ball on the ground. USC must win at the point of attack against a stout and talented Cardinal offensive line. Williams is the cornerstone of that effort.
Stanford Players to Watch
WR Christian McCaffrey
All freshman Christian McCaffrey did on his first collegiate reception was go 52 yards for a touchdown. Not a bad debut for the son of former NFL standout receiver Ed McCaffrey.
McCaffrey has blazing speed to match that of USC's secondary. He gives the Cardinal's offense a dynamic one-two punch with Montgomery playing a similar role as a home run threat. The two then, in turn, prevent defenses from keying in on just one of the receivers.
TE Austin Hooper
Pass-catching tight ends were central to Stanford's offense during the program's rise. But last season, none of the Cardinal's youngsters at the position ever stepped up into that role.
Hogan told me at Pac-12 media days that would change dramatically in 2014.
“We’re going to have to have plays where we put three tight ends [on the field],” he said. “It’s not a bad problem to have."
Austin Hooper took over as the primary target in Week 1 with four receptions, including a touchdown.
DE Henry Anderson
With Murphy and Skov gone for the NFL, Henry Anderson now takes the lead of the Cardinal's pass-rush defense. Anderson hit the ground running, as he debuted with a sack in Week 1.
USC left tackle Chad Wheeler improved by leaps and bounds in his ability to protect Kessler in 2013, but Anderson promises to test the Trojans' tackle.
DT David Parry
Joining Anderson up front is veteran tackle David Parry, arguably the most important single player in the Cardinal's defensive effort against USC. Parry is one of the most seasoned and talented tackles USC's young interior offensive line will face all season, and the Trojans' freshmen draw him in Week 2.
What They're Saying
Sarkisian on his Sunday conference call, discussing the weekly preparation for a team of Stanford’s caliber: "One, you have to put a good game plan together. Two, you have to go out and practice really well. Three, you have to go out and execute. It’s really a simple formula. It doesn’t make the game easy, but the formula for success is one that doesn’t really change week-to-week."
Hogan at Pac-12 media days on how a full season as starting quarterback has prepared him for 2014: "I'm much further [than a year ago]. When I took over two years ago, I only had a certain amount of plays [I could run]. I didn't have the playbook down. Last year was just [about] getting more comfortable with playing against every team. … This year, I'm much more comfortable in my preparation."
Defensive back Jordan Richards at Pac-12 media days on Stanford's process of building underclassmen to contribute once seniors leave the program: "It starts when you’re a freshman. You come in, ‘I’m a 4-star that, I’m a 3-star this.’ We all have that welcome to college football moment in conditioning.
"From there, you’re broken down…and that’s good, because you’ve got to start with a clean slate. From there, it’s just building, getting stronger mentally and physically."
This burgeoning rivalry has been one of the most intense and exciting in the Pac-12 in recent years. Each of the last four contests were decided by single digits, and the underdog won the last two installments.
That bodes well for USC this time around. Stanford opened as a four-point favorite, per Odds Shark. The Trojans also have the sheer talent to stand toe-to-toe with the two-time defending Pac-12 champions.
However, Stanford has decided advantages both in overall experience and home field. The Cardinal have lost at Stanford Stadium just once since 2010.
Expect another instant-classic edition in this series. As it has in seasons past, one play could make or break either team. I give the slight edge to Stanford—though the Trojans proved capable of defying expectations a season ago.
Prediction: Stanford 28, USC 27