5 things to watch: Stanford-USC
October, 28, 2011
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
1. GameDay and a sellout crowd. USC is expecting a sellout crowd -- or very close to it -- to turn up at the Coliseum on Saturday, which will likely make for the Trojans' biggest home crowd since September 2008. Yes, USC hasn't sold out a home contest since the Ohio State home opener that year. And to add to the craziness, ESPN College GameDay is going to be broadcasting outside the Coliseum starting at 6 a.m. PT -- 11 hours before kickoff. The atmosphere is going to be a blast from the past. Who will handle it better: the Cardinal or the Trojans?
2. Barkley-Luck. It's been the No. 1 topic of conversation this week around this game, maybe the No. 1 topic in all of college football. Who's going to outplay who on the Coliseum field Saturday? Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck played fairly evenly in Palo Alto last season -- Barkley throwing for more yards but on more attempts and a worse completion percentage. Neither player threw a pick in that game, although Barkley threw three in the Trojans' loss to Stanford back in 2009, a game people have forgotten to add to the discussion this week. Luck wasn't asked to do much back then, but he quietly completed more than half of his passes, threw two touchdowns and stayed mistake-free. The truth is that he doesn't have to do much more than that in order for Stanford to win on Saturday. Barkley, on the other hand, has to have a legitimate big game. But if there were ever a time to show up on a national stage, this will be it.
3. The respective run games. Stanford has three capable running backs plus Luck in the backfield; USC has two, Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler. Both units had impressive performances in the teams' last games, but both the Cardinal and Trojans' front sevens are better than the units they posted those games on. The talk surrounding this game has been all about Luck and Barkley and hardly about McNeal, Tyler, Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney. But Taylor may be the best back USC has seen this season, and he's going to get the ball a lot against the Trojans. Tyler and McNeal had never really been an old-fashioned 1-2 tandem before, but they did against Notre Dame last week and it worked perfectly. It will be interesting to see if Lane Kiffin rotates the two in and out as fluidly as he sometimes did against the Irish.
4. Woods' percent USC's No. 1 receiver and only true offensive playmaker, Robert Woods, is not fully healthy. We don't know what is ailing him, so we can only speculate that it's his ankle and elbow again, but we do know that it kept him from participating fully in practice this week. Obviously we don't know exactly what percent it takes him to be successful, but if Woods is not up to around 75 or 80 percent by game time Saturday, it's going to be extremely tough for USC to beat Stanford. Who else will Barkley target when he's pressured by the Cardinal? Who's going to pull in the tough third-down grabs to extend drives? The Trojans need Woods, and they need a healthy Woods.
5. Sacks Luck and Barkley have dropped back to pass nearly 500 times this season, considering pass attempts and scrambles and all. Only six of those times -- six -- have they been sacked by the opposition. These offensive lines and these play-callers know how to keep the two golden boys off the ground. If either team can get to the quarterback even two or three times on Saturday, that could throw off a lot of things for both players. And, as a corollary, pay attention to the dominant play by the two teams' left tackles, Matt Kalil and Jonathan Martin. Both guys are likely to be picked in the top half of the first round next April.
And a bonus thing: The kicking games. Stanford's senior kicker -- Nate Whitaker, the guy who redeemed himself from a PAT miss to beat the Trojans last year -- is gone. But sophomore Jordan Williamson has come in right away and been almost perfect. USC faces questions at the position this week with Andre Heidari nursing a sprained right ankle, which will be a game-time decision. If he doesn't go, the Trojans likely won't kick a field goal longer than 30 yards, which would obviously affect their game plan in a big way.