USC Football: How Steve Sarkisian's History vs. Stanford Will Help Trojans

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USC Football: How Steve Sarkisian's History vs. Stanford Will Help Trojans
USA Today

No. 13 Stanford and No. 14 USC do not have much time to study game film on the other in preparation for Saturday's Pac-12 contest at Stanford Stadium. 

But one need not refer to the game tape to know what to anticipate. 

"Two really good football teams with playmakers...and great defenses, too," Stanford head coach David Shaw said on Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call. "The games are tight and exciting and are fun to watch." 

When the Cardinal and Trojans get together, the result is a competitive game. Each of the last four outcomes were decided by single digits. 

The same has been true when Shaw and first-year USC head coach Steve Sarkisian meet. In their last two encounters while Sarkisian was at Washington, each claimed a single-digit-point decision. 

In fact, losses to Sarkisian and USC account for two of the Cardinal's three Pac-12 blemishes over the course of their two-year reign as conference champions. 

USC ended a four-game losing skid to Stanford last November in a 20-17 thriller at the Coliseum. In 2012, Sarkisian's Huskies beat the Cardinal in a similar defensive struggle, 17-13. 

Stanford is a team known for its defensive prowess, and low-scoring contests would seemingly be right in the Cardinal's wheelhouse. However, the last few seasons proves Stanford is at its most vulnerable when scoring is dragged down into the teens. 

The Cardinal may not run a spread system, and they will huddle after most plays. But Tuesday, Sarkisian described an offense that is anything but vanilla. 

"The one thing that makes Stanford difficult [to prepare for] is that I think they're a little bit more multiple [in their formations] than people give them credit for," he said. "Everyone wants to focus on the makeup of their big package and they bring in the [extra] offensive linemen. 

"But they still do the traditional pro-set. They do stuff out of two-tight end sets. They do stuff out of three-wide receiver sets. They give you a lot of different looks and they execute well." 

 

Turnover Battle 

On his Sunday conference call, Sarkisian discussed a "simple formula" to game-planning for an opponent of Stanford's caliber. Execution was one part of his equation, and that's been plainly evident in the history both the coach and his new team have with the Cardinal. 

More specifically, lack of execution has opened windows of opportunity that both Sarkisian and USC have successfully exploited against the two-time Pac-12 champions. 

Mistakes were critical in each of the last four combined meetings between USC and Stanford, and Sarkisian and Stanford. 

The 2013 classic between USC and Stanford saw the Trojans defense intercept Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan twice, including once in the red zone. USC also recovered a Stanford fumble. 

Winning the turnover battle proved equally key to Sarkisian's teams efforts against the Cardinal as well.

With Josh Nunes playing quarterback, the Cardinal failed to score an offensive touchdown and coughed up two turnovers against the Huskies in 2012. 

"The challenge this week is prominent," Shaw said. "We can't make mistakes." 

Landing on the other side of the turnover coin plays into Stanford's game plan, and Sarkisian has experienced it firsthand. 

In Washington's visit to Stanford last October, the Huskies gave up just one turnover, but it proved costly in a 31-28 loss.

Quarterback Keith Price's fourth-quarter interception was the unceremonious end to an 18-play, five-minute-and-37-second drive that led Washington to the Stanford 7-yard line.

Washington was also plagued by special teams mishaps in that game, allowing a 99-yard touchdown return from Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery. Montgomery set up another Cardinal score with a 68-yard return. 

Montgomery got his 2014 started in similar fashion with a punt returned for a touchdown against UC Davis.   

Containing the speedy Montgomery is paramount for the Trojans special teams, and generating pressure is key to the Trojans defense forcing Stanford into mistakes. 

USC's kickoff return team accomplished the former last season, holding Montgomery to 17.8 yards per return. 

As for the latter, former Washington and current USC coordinator Justin Wilcox's defenses have applied more pressure to Stanford's quarterbacks in the last two years than most Cardinal opponents. The Huskies recorded two sacks in each of the two meetings. 

USC's ability to apply pressure on Hogan Saturday will play a crucial role in the outcome. 

 

Line vs. Line

Perhaps no other Pac-12 contest will attract quite as much attention for its line play. USC's defensive front against the Stanford offensive line takes top billing—specifically, defensive lineman Leonard Williams and offensive tackle Andrus Peat. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Shaw praised Williams as "a difference-maker," while Sarkisian credited both Peat's individual talent as well as Stanford's recent tradition of line play. 

"[The Stanford coaches] continued to develop him, like they have with lineman in the past," Sarkisian said. "If [he is] not the leader, then [he'ls one of the leaders of that offensive unit, and it shows in his play." 

The two may not see much of each other head-to-head—Williams will often line up on the interior—but their individual performances will set the tone in one of the game's most crucial elements. 

"They're two of the better players in our conference," Sarkisian said. 

 

Picking Up the Pace

Outstanding line play is nothing new for either program. The significant, new dynamic USC brings to The Farm for this year's installment in the series is its implementation of a no-huddle offense. 

Last season was Sarkisian's first in such a system, and Washington had success with it against Stanford's ballyhooed defense. 

The Huskies accrued 489 yards of total offense with 350 through the air. 

That's promising for USC quarterback Cody Kessler's outlook on Saturday, particularly given how comfortable he looked operating in the new scheme against Fresno State.

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Kessler won the first Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week nomination of 2014 for his career-high 394-yard, four-passing touchdown performance against Fresno State. 

Shaw said some offenses excel in their efficiency and others in their explosiveness, but USC showed both qualities.  

Stanford's staked its claim to the Pac-12 championship each of the last two years at the expense of uptempo offensive foes, however. 

Breaking the near-stalemate between these teams is exceedingly difficult, no matter how much time Sarkisian or Shaw had to game plan. 

But Shaw did express confidence in one component of this matchup—where it falls on the schedule, on Week 2. 

"I don't think either of us would have chosen this," he said. 

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.

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