Take 2: Trojans vs. Cardinal

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
12:00
PM ET
Pretty straight forward this week. The first Pac-12 Conference game features two ranked teams with a fun recent history. Make your case:

Ted Miller: Stanford has two chief keys against USC on Saturday. It must run the ball well. And it must contain USC's passing attack. The reason the Trojans are going to win this football game -- and end a three-game losing streak in the series -- is Stanford won't be able to do either consistently.

Against San Jose State and Duke, the Cardinal averaged 3.7 yards per rush. I know this is a risky thing to type, but you guys know I'm not afraid to write bold things: USC's defense has more talent than San Jose State and Duke. No, really.

[+] EnlargeMarqise Lee, Robert Woods
Shelly Castellano/Icon SMIMarqise Lee and Robert Woods (2) are as good a receiving tandem as Stanford coach David Shaw says he's seen.
If Stanford's offensive line can't get a push against San Jose State and Duke, it will not do so against the Trojans. Which means new starting quarterback Josh Nunes will be forced to throw into a very good secondary, one that already has four interceptions.

Nunes throwing a lot is what USC wants. Stanford is still lacking at receiver, so the Trojans' back half will have a significant athletic advantage. And it doesn't hurt that Nunes and not old what's-his-name will be delivering the ball.

Speaking of athleticism at receiver ... hey, USC! Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. And tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer. Those are four superior athletes, all of whom made plays last year against the Cardinal.

Quarterback Matt Barkley threw for 284 yards and three touchdowns in last year's triple-overtime classic, and Stanford is replacing three starters from its secondary. Barkley's numbers will be big on Saturday.

Against San Jose State and Duke, Stanford grabbed four interceptions and surrendered just one touchdown pass. That's the good news. The bad news is a 67.3 percent completion rate and 290 yards passing per game. And just five sacks seems modest for a team with such a salty, talented front seven.

While Stanford's scheme is about stopping the run first and foremost, which it has done very well in the first two games, it might have to change its approach against the Trojans. More nickel and dime looks will mean the Cardinal will be forced from their comfort zone. And that could open up the Trojans' running game.

A balanced USC is a scary thought, with Barkley & Co. ready to pull the trigger on a deep fade route when they see one-on-one coverage.

Then there's this: What about a close game? USC is capable of winning this one going away, but that's not what I foresee. I expect the game to be won in the fourth quarter.

Stanford has won consecutive nail-biters against the Trojans. It's difficult to not attribute that ability to win the fourth quarter to having an advantage at quarterback. That advantage now belongs to USC by a wide margin. And that will be the difference.

Kevin Gemmell: A good debater can come at a problem from all sides. But since ESPN wouldn't hire one just for a Take 2, and since Ted went first, I guess I'll take a swing at making the case for Stanford. We both picked the Trojans to win, but détente makes for poor debate.

Stanford coach David Shaw knows how to attack the Trojans. When Shaw was coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers with the Baltimore Ravens, you know who the defensive coordinators were? Mike Nolan and Rex Ryan. You don't think he picked up a couple of tips on how to call plays against a sophisticated, Rex Ryan defense? The past five meetings, when Shaw was either offensive coordinator or head coach, Stanford has increased its total offensive yards in every game against the Trojans. As a playcaller, Shaw is 4-1 and averages 413 total yards and 39 points per game against USC.

[+] EnlargeDavid Shaw
Kyle Terada/US PresswireStanford is 4-1 against the Trojans with David Shaw calling the offensive plays.
On paper, this game should be a double-digit win for the Trojans. Even Shaw said he has never seen a pair of wide receivers like Woods and Lee on the same team in the modern football era.

But there are intangible factors at play. The Cardinal have to be -- at least a little bit -- in the heads of Trojans players given the circumstances of the last few meetings. It's not a matter of USC "owing" one to Stanford from a tight game the previous year. The Trojans owe the Cardinal three, and there are only so many times you can go to the "we-owe-them-one" well. At some point, that becomes a mental hurdle.

The world expects USC to win this game. But here's a little worm that might be wiggling into a few Trojans' brains.

What if they don't?

What if Stanford takes a 14-0 lead? What if there's a pick-six or a special-teams touchdown that swings momentum and it all starts to fall apart? It probably will take something out of the ordinary -- a special teams touchdown, a crucial turnover or a trick play (anyone know if Nunes can catch?) to swing the tide. But the Cardinal lead the conference in turnover margin at plus-5. They've allowed fewer red-zone touchdowns than any team in the Pac-12 (except Oregon State, which has played one game). USC's defense is allowing teams to convert third downs at an alarming 45.5 percent. It's one thing to give up yards and allow completions. But the longer Stanford's offense stays on the field, the less time the Trojans' touted troika is playing.

Stanford's defense, which looked sluggish in the opener, was much livelier and motivated when Shayne Skov returned to the lineup last week. Expect the same emotional boost when Ryan Hewitt returns to the offense. Barring any setbacks on his ankle, he's expected to play. And his presence opens up a lot for Stanford: stronger run blocking, more receiver options, more diversity in offensive personnel groupings and formations.

Anyone who remembers last year's Stanford-Oregon game knows the Cardinal buckled under the weight of expectation. Every victory was another ton of bricks they carried leading up to that moment. This game has similar implications, sans the bricks. All of the pressure is on the Cardinal & Gold, not the Cardinal.

Ted Miller | email

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