One kick. One fumble. One stop on fourth down. Those are three different endings that led to three different white-knuckle victories for the Stanford Cardinal over USC in the last three years.
The Cardinal have dominated the series with USC of late, having won four in a row and five of the last six. But the scoreboard tells a different tale. The scoreboard shows that one missed kick, or a little more ball security, or one converted fourth down could swing the wins in favor of the Trojans.
“We expect a barn burner,” said Stanford coach David Shaw.
“It’s going to be a dog fight,” countered USC interim coach Ed Orgeron.
Stanford comes into Saturday’s game at the Coliseum teeming with confidence following last week’s 26-20 over then-No. 3 Oregon. The win moved the Cardinal into the No. 4 spot in the BCS rankings and made them the clear-cut favorites in the North Division. If the Cardinal win this weekend and next week against California in the Big Game, they’ll wrap up the division and advance to the Pac-12 title game for the second straight year.
“Honestly, in the seven years I’ve been here now, I think five of them have gone down to the wire,” Shaw said. “We expect the same thing. I don’t think anybody in our conference is surprised at how well they are playing. Good schemes, good coaches, they are healthy and they are dangerous.”
USC also has divisional hopes. Since Lane Kiffin was fired and Orgeron took over, the Trojans have gone 4-1 and are still very much in the hunt for the South Division.
This is more than just a league game for the Trojans. A victory gets a tree-sized monkey off of USC’s collective back, keeps them in the race for the South title with Arizona State and UCLA and likely will have folks in Troy asking, “Why not Coach O?”
Consider the change in attitude and production since Lane Kiffin was fired following USC’s 62-41 loss at ASU. The Trojans have beaten a pair of bowl eligible teams in Arizona and Oregon State and taken down a dangerous Utah team.
Under Orgeron the Trojans are averaging 181.2 rushing yards per game. That’s not a huge swing from the Kiffin era. The difference is they are getting better production on first down. Per ESPN Stats and Info, USC is running the ball 70 percent of the time on first down, up from 62 percent under Kiffin. The result is more yards per rush (5.8), more touchdowns (8) and more rushes of 10-plus yards (23).
That increased production on first down has led to, not shockingly, better efficiency on third down. Through their first five games, the Trojans converted on just 28 percent of their third downs. In the Orgeron era, they are up to a 36-percent conversion rate on third down, including a 52-percent conversion rate the last two games.
“I think they are just playing better,” Shaw said. “I’ll throw on top of that I think they are healthy. When Marqise Lee is banged up and so is Nelson Agholor, you take the top two fastest guys off any team and you’re not going to have the same production, not to mention they were going back and forth at quarterback … the quarterback is settled and your two big threats are back and healthy and making plays and the defense has been playing really well all year.”
The increased production of the running game has also trickled down to the quarterbacks. Under Orgeron, USC’s quarterbacks are completing 64.7 percent of their throws with six touchdowns to two interceptions.
Rumors and speculation about the USC job will continue to circulate for at least the next four to six weeks. But Orgeron has proven that the Trojans will play for him. And snapping a losing streak against the Cardinal would go a long way toward making the case for dropping “interim” from his title.
The Cardinal, however, have their own aspirations. Still in the national championship conversation, though needing some help, Stanford needs to keep winning to stay ahead of Oregon in the North Division.
Recall after beating Oregon last year, the Cardinal buckled down and topped the Bruins in back-to-back games to lock up the division and the Pac-12 title. Shaw said he’s looking for a similar back-to-business effort this weekend. Euphoric hangovers are not on the agenda.
“We don’t have time for that,” Shaw said. “The conference is too tough and going down to play at the Coliseum against USC on national TV, that’s enough to get your attention. We can’t afford to dwell on any of the things that happened last week. There’s still enough negative from last week to make sure that we carry forward and improve.”