NCF Nation: USC Trojans

Injuries, implosion muddle South picture

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
11:00
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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Wait. That's been used before. But, with apologies to Dickens, it fits. The Pac-12 weekend was a tale of one division, two teams, two cities, two quarterbacks, and it was a day of thrills and it was a day of misery.

The plot certainly thickened in the Pac-12's South Division on Saturday, but not necessarily in a good way.

A week after posting a gritty upset at Stanford, USC was humiliated at Boston College, while UCLA cobbled together a win over Texas behind scrappy, ebullient backup QB Jerry Neuheisel. Neuheisel's services were required because Heisman Trophy candidate Brett Hundley was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with an elbow injury. His status remains uncertain, though there was reasonable hope based on initial reports that his injury wasn't serious.

[+] EnlargeAntwaun Woods
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesUSC's shocking loss to Boston College underscored the vulnerability within the Pac-12 South division.
Our second city is Tempe, Arizona, where UCLA will be on Thursday, Sept. 25, squaring off with defending South Division champion Arizona State, which beat Colorado on Saturday but also lost its star senior quarterback, Taylor Kelly, who beat out Hundley for second-team All-Pac-12 last year. Seeing Kelly on crutches due to a foot injury -- and his body language -- probably won't fuel great expectations that he will be ready for the Bruins.

The UCLA-Arizona State game was one we eyeballed in the preseason as a major measuring stick in the battle for the South. A significant part of the appeal was the quarterback battle. That hasn't changed, only now the intrigue is whether it will be Neuheisel for UCLA and Mike Bercovici for Arizona State. A week ago, that quarterback news would have heavily favored the Sun Devils. While Bercovici isn't the runner Kelly is, he's got one of the best arms in the conference and is well-versed in the Sun Devils offense. He is expected to win the starting job as a fifth-year senior next fall. Neuheisel was widely viewed as a career backup with a well-known father -- former UCLA QB and coach Rick Neuheisel -- but his second-half performance against the Longhorns suggested he can be more than a rudimentary game manager.

Both teams have an off week, when they can either get healthy or retool their plans. The stakes continue to be high, perhaps more so after USC threw up on itself with a wet-noodle performance at Boston College. While a nonconference game doesn't affect the Trojans' Pac-12 standing, it certainly made them look extremely vulnerable heading into a much-needed bye week. Other than USC fans, the most miserable folks watching that game surely root for Stanford, which probably can't believe it lost to the Trojans just a week before.

What this implosion and these injuries reveal in a wider sense is vulnerability in the South. In the preseason, UCLA looked like a decisive South favorite. Then USC made a statement with a win over the Cardinal. Arizona State was lurking with a great offense and a questionable defense. At this point, however, none of these three teams is scaring anyone. And don't look now, but Arizona and Utah remain unbeaten and have shown flashes that suggest they might be factors in a divisional race that previously seemed limited to the aforementioned troika.

The Wildcats play host to California on Saturday. Lo and behold, the Bears also are unbeaten, and this game suddenly possesses some potential meaning it didn't seem to have in the preseason. If Cal gets the upset, it can fully erase last season's misery and start thinking bowl game. If Arizona gets the win, it will be 4-0 and eyeballing the Top 25 with a visit to No. 2 Oregon looming on Thursday, Oct. 2.

Arizona appears suspect on defense, but the offense, with impressive redshirt freshman QB Anu Solomon, a good O-line, deep corps of receivers and breakout freshman running back Nick Wilson, will make the Wildcats a threat to any foe.

Utah visits Michigan on Saturday. While the Wolverines don't look like they'll be hailing in much victory this season, a Utes win would certainly raise more than a few eyebrows. While Utah's trouble hasn't been in nonconference games since joining the Pac-12, a 3-0 start would hint they are not a South afterthought, particularly if the offense continues to shine with QB Travis Wilson.

While Oregon's win over Michigan State coupled with Stanford's loss to USC only boosted the Ducks' status as North Division favorites, the South intrigue has seemingly spiderwebbed since the beginning of the season. The race appears more wide open and complicated. UCLA's visit to Arizona State remains a major measuring stick, but it's just as likely either team would sacrifice that game -- as horrible as that sounds -- to know it will get its starting quarterback back healthy for the rest of the season.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
2:00
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What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 3

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
2:50
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Some things we learned about the Pac-12 in Week 3:

Marcus Mariota should be your Heisman front-runner: On the strength of his 19-of-23 performance (82.6 percent passing) with two passing touchdowns and two on the ground during Oregon's 48-14 win over Wyoming, I challenge you to find someone more deserving three games into the season. He has 11 total touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has a signature win against a top-10 team and he's got a "Heisman moment" highlight. Whatever your criteria, Mariota meets it thus far.

Defensive POY up for grabs: Erick Dargan snagged a pair of interceptions against Wyoming. Shaq Thompson had two defensive touchdowns. Eric Kendricks, Danny Shelton, Leonard Williams and AJ Tarpley should be in the discussion. (I'm not going to name every player, so apologies if your favorite player or team feels slighted.) I have no clue who is going to win it. But it's going to be one of the fun storylines to follow as we start to flow into full-time conference play.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesMarcus Mariota passed for two touchdowns and ran for another two in the victory over Wyoming.
The Cardinal can rebound: Stanford improves to 8-0 following a loss under David Shaw. The Cardinal haven't lost back-to-back games since 2009 or back-to-back home games since 2007, which was Jim Harbaugh's first season. Their 35-0 shutout of Army was the second shutout of the season for the Cardinal and their sixth since the start of the 2010 season. Only Alabama has more. If Stanford can find a little more consistency on offense, there's no reason to rule it out of anything yet. But that's a big if.

USC: Dude.

USC (Take 2): Not sure what's more shocking about BC's 37-31 win over the Trojans. That USC lost a week after securing such a significant conference win for Steve Sarkisian, or that the Trojans were out-rushed 452-20. 20! Tailback R U kidding me? Not what we expect from a Sarkisian offense, nor is it what we expect from a Justin Wilcox defense. Twice the Trojans had a double-digit lead, only to cough it up. For a team that has shown a tremendous amount of fortitude through the first two weeks, it was severely lacking in Week 3.

Those gritty Bruins: Seeing Jerry Neuheisel carried off the field by his teammates, chanting "Jerry, Jerry" following the Bruins' 20-17 win over Texas in Dallas is exactly why college football is awesome. That was a brutal environment, and for the Bruins to fumble away the game with four minutes left, and then excel in all three phases -- defensive stop, huge punt return, clutch touchdown pass -- shows that this team is capable of putting it all together. If the Bruins can do it for 60 minutes, they will be a scary, scary team. The status of Brett Hundley's elbow will no doubt be much debated in the bye week.

The Cougs have a pulse: A 59-21 win over Portland State is a good start. Now do it against an FBS team. Washington State's offense is potent enough that every single Pac-12 North team should be wary.

The full Washington: When the Huskies put it together on both sides, they can be a pretty darn good football team, as evidenced by their 44-19 win over Illinois. They were balanced (245 rushing, 219 passing), the defense was nasty and the aforementioned Thompson (two defensive touchdowns) hauled in the first interception of the season for Washington after several missed opportunities the first two weeks. Another team that, when/if it all comes together, could shake things up in the North.

QB question marks? The bye week comes at a good time for UCLA and ASU. Their Thursday night showdown on Sept. 25 in Tempe has massive Pac-12 South implications. At least it has the last couple of years. But with Taylor Kelly nursing a foot injury (he was on crutches and in a boot) and Hundley's elbow injury, both teams could use the week off to get their high-profile signal-callers healthy. (We should also note another outstanding performance from ASU running back D.J. Foster, who had 147 yards on the ground and a score, and 59 yards receiving and a touchdown in a 38-24 win against Colorado.)

No more Paul Richardson questions: Though the Buffs fell to 1-2, they were fairly competitive against the Sun Devils and Nelson Spruce continues to emerge as one of the premier playmakers in the league. He entered Saturday as the league leader in receiving yards per game and he tacked on seven more catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns. The Buffs are going to shock someone this season.

Wildcats' backfield growing up fast: Redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon tossed three touchdowns on 22-of-26 passing with one pick in the Wildcats' 35-28 win over Nevada. True freshman running back Nick Wilson rushed for 171 yards and two scores on 29 carries. Both have quickly developed into A-list playmakers in the Pac-12. And it's hard not to imagine them only getting better with experience. Really intriguing game next week with Cal coming to town.
As the season progresses, USC could potentially end up with one of the more balanced offenses in the Pac-12. Not just from a run-pass standpoint, but also in terms of the who it’s able to spread the ball to.

While the Trojans are light numbers-wise and on the young side, their collection of skill players on offense still stacks up favorably. Theoretically, the Trojans should be able to throw it or run it with a lot of success. And against Fresno State in Week 1, the results -- 16 players touched the ball to combine for 701 yards of total offense -- backed that up.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Tony Avelar/Associated PressNelson Agholor (pictured) and Javorius Allen got the majority of the looks and touches for USC against Stanford.
However, against a much more formidable defense in Stanford on Saturday, that wasn’t the case.

If it felt like quarterback Cody Kessler had two jobs: receive the snap and A) hand the ball to Javorius Allen or B) throw the ball to Nelson Agholor, there’s good reason. Those two scenarios accounted for 61 percent (36 of 59) of the plays USC ran against Stanford.

Most of the credit should go to the Cardinal for limiting what USC felt comfortable doing, but USC coach Steve Sarkisian knows moving forward there needs to be a better recipe for success.

“I’d prefer it to be spread out more -- I think we saw some of that in the first week against Fresno -- but like I’ve said before, every game takes on its own personality and games go in different directions for a variety of reasons,” he said. “And this game was one where [Allen] carried the ball a lot for us out of the backfield and [Agholor] got the ball thrown his way quite a bit.”

“I don’t foresee it being like that every single week, but this game happened to go that way, and it was good enough for us to win with.”

Despite being relatively predictable, Sarkisian had his reasons for sticking with Allen and Kessler had his for continuing to target Agholor.

“Probably stubbornly at times, we ran the ball more than people anticipated. We just had to hang with it,” Sarkisian said. “We knew what type of game it was going to be, especially at halftime with the number of plays and possessions that Stanford had, [it] was going to become a possession game."

Allen finished with 23 carries for a career-high 154 yards, which is particularly impressive when looked at in a historical context. Since David Shaw took over as the Cardinal’s head coach in 2011, only one player has run for more yards in a game, UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin (194) in 2012.

After some preseason speculation that this could be a backfield by committee, all signs point to Allen being the Trojans’ feature back, filling the role Bishop Sankey did for Sarkisian at Washington the past two seasons.

“I think for [Allen] is he's starting to get a feel for this system,” Sarkisian said. “It's a little bit different than what he ran a year ago. He's just starting to get going.”

On the 13 passes Kessler targeted Agholor -- nine of which were completions -- he averaged 7.0 yards per attempt. On his other nine pass attempts, Kessler averaged 4.9 yards per attempt. Through two games Agholor has been targeted 21 times and has more receptions (14) than anyone else has targets.

Week 2 statements can be deceiving

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
10:30
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Each college football season is a whodunit. Or, more accurately, it's a "who-will-do-it." It contains plot twists and turns, false leads and subtle clues about how things will play out. It's basically a 14-chapter potboiler, so if we seemed to have a couple of big reveals in Chapter 2, we should greet them with equanimity. Even skepticism.

No. 3 Oregon made the biggest national statement so far this season with a 46-27 victory against No. 7 Michigan State. The Ducks answered questions about their ability to match up with an elite physical defense and established their legitimacy. That quarterback Marcus Mariota turned in a tour de force for the Ducks further validates the preseason feeling that he was the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Also getting a hole punched in their validation cards were Ducks coach Mark Helfrich and new defensive coordinator Don Pellum.

[+] EnlargeRoyce Freeman
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesWe shouldn't punch Oregon's ticket to the College Football Playoff just yet.
Meanwhile, USC and new coach Steve Sarkisian also answered questions, though the Trojans' 13-10 triumph at Stanford was pretty much a quasi-comic thriller unto itself. For one, there's USC athletic director Pat Haden, who has never previously merited a rating on the wacko scale, apparently deciding there was some wisdom in his engaging the officials for all to see. Yes, a former USC quarterback, Rhodes Scholar and 61-year-old member of the College Football Playoff selection committee apparently didn't think making a spectacle of himself would turn out badly.

As for football, the Trojans won a second consecutive nail-biter over the Cardinal, propelling themselves into the top 10, They won in large part because Stanford couldn't get out of its own way. The Cardinal had nine drives inside the Trojans’ 35-yard line but scored just 10 points, which almost seems mathematically impossible. That red zone ineptitude would be notable for any team, but it's even more stunning when you consider Stanford's well-established reputation for disciplined, bruising, efficient play.

Nonetheless, the victory made the Trojans the second-highest rated team in the Pac-12 in both major polls. Two weeks into the season, one might call them the South Division favorite and most likely team to challenge the Ducks.

But what of USC's friends from Westwood, UCLA, the previous holder of both those designations? The Bruins improved to 2-0, but only after an unimpressive performance in an anxious 42-35 victory against lightly regarded Memphis. They continued a tumble in national estimation, falling from a preseason ranking of No. 7 to No. 12 in the latest AP poll. In Week 1 at Virginia, the Bruins' offense, particularly the line, appeared hapless. In Week 2, the defense took the day off.

UCLA is a cipher. The Bruins look good on paper -- the depth chart suggests no obvious deficiencies -- but have not looked good on turf, at least thus far. They remain unbeaten but are presently the most deserving owner of the dreaded "overrated" label. They could turn out to be the Chapter 1 good guys who end up as heels. Or the opposite. They could be lying in wait, bland and unimpressive, before leaping out of the shadows to make their heroic flourish. Feel free, by the way, to put your own spin on coach Jim Mora's brief postgame interview in which he said he liked his defense "a lot," before frumping off, leaving reporter and audience hanging.

In the preseason, there was some hope that UCLA's game with Texas on Saturday in Cowboys Stadium would be revealing. While expectations weren't terribly high for the Longhorns under first-year coach Charlie Strong, there were reasonable projections this game at least would be a matchup of ranked teams. But Texas is battling growing pains, as well as injuries and suspensions, under Strong. It just got whipped for a second consecutive season by BYU, so the Longhorns look like more of a banana peel than a national stepping-stone for the Bruins.

If UCLA loses, it probably will fall out of the Top 25, going from vogue pick for CFP semifinalist to unranked within three weeks. If it wins, most will shrug and point to the Sept. 25 date at Arizona State, a Thursday night showdown between South Division contenders, as a true measuring stick for whether the Bruins merit our preseason gushing.

This skepticism, however, carries little more authority than everyone's present approbation of Oregon. It's just fickle words, really. Fodder for the daily grind of sports fandom, this week's topic. In December, Oregon's 2-0 might not end up being any more meaningful than UCLA's 2-0. Further, UCLA at 4-0, no matter how it got there, would probably rework its popular descriptive term from "overrated" to "opportunistic."

In other words, our present takes are no more than hunches. These are educated hunches based on tangible evidence, but we all know tangible evidence often has a brief shelf life in college football. Oregon, USC and UCLA have made statements about themselves through Week 2, and it's inevitable that we react to what has been said.

That doesn't mean we won't be breaking down a rematch between Arizona State and Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game when the regular season ends.

Pac-12 bowl projections: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
8:00
PM ET
We have twice as much data to work with than a week ago, but let's not kid ourselves with this: Trying to accurately project bowl games during the first week of September is a fool's errand.

At this point, you can really put everyone outside of Oregon, Colorado and Washington State in a bag, draw them out randomly and make valid points to why that random order makes sense.

If you agree with the order, cool. If you don't, you're probably justified.

College Football Playoff: Oregon
Fiesta Bowl: USC
Valero Alamo Bowl: UCLA
National University Holiday Bowl: Stanford
San Francisco Bowl: ASU
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Arizona
Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl: Utah
Cactus Bowl: Washington
Heart of Dallas Bowl*: Oregon State
*-At large
video
Fresh off its marquee win against Michigan State, Oregon is the new No. 2 team in the AP poll. The Ducks' decisive 46-27 win against the Spartans on Saturday was enough to vault the team over previous No. 2 Alabama, which beat Florida Atlantic 41-0 this week.

Oregon received 16 of the 60 first-place votes and remains behind No. 1 Florida State, which received 38 first-place votes.

USC's 13-10 win against Stanford in coach Steve Sarkisian's first big test moved the Trojans up five spots to No. 9 -- vaulting over previous No. 11 UCLA, which fell to No. 12 overall.

Stanford dropped two spots to No. 15 and is the second-highest-ranked team with a loss behind only No. 13 Michigan State.

Arizona State is up a spot to No. 16 after its 58-23 win against New Mexico.

Pac-12 Power Rankings: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
2:00
PM ET

Pac-12 helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
Sep 7
9:00
AM ET
Time to tip our cap to those who were the best of the best in Week 2.

Nick Wilson, RB, Arizona: The freshman was a workhorse on the road in Arizona's 26-23 win over UTSA, carrying 30 times for 174 yards and a touchdown.

Nelson Spruce, WR, Colorado: The Pac-12 blog thought Sefo Liufau had a strong game. And Spruce was a big reason he did. Spruce hauled in 10 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns, including a 70-yarder that put Colorado ahead of UMass on its way to a 41-38 win.

D.J. Foster, RB, Arizona State: Foster was on fire against New Mexico, carrying 19 times for 216 yards and a touchdown in ASU's 58-23 win.

Leonard Williams, DE, USC: Beast. He tied for the team lead in tackles with 11 (eight solo) and also recorded a sack and a tackle for a loss in the 13-10 win over Stanford. Now, imagine him without a sprained ankle.

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon: Five tackles and an epic pick in the 46-27 win over Michigan State. Of his eight career interceptions, six have come in the red zone. A true gamer.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: Beat a top-10 team, get two helmet stickers. Mariota was 17-of-28 for 318 yards and three touchdown passes. He also rushed for 42 yards on nine carries.

Travis Wilson, QB, Utah: He was just 11-of-20 for 181 yards, but those five passing touchdowns looked awful nice during a 59-27 win over Fresno State. The Utes are a different team when they have consistent, quality quarterback play. They're, ya know, better.

Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington: We said last week, you have to do something special to get a helmet sticker against an FCS team. How about 14 tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, and three carries for 66 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown run in a 59-52 win over Eastern Washington? Good enough for us.
Some things we learned in the Pac-12 in Week 2:

  • Oregon is a playoff-caliber team: Explosive offense? Check. Heisman candidate quarterback? Check. Underappreciated but potentially stout defense? Absolutely. The Ducks put together the full package in their 46-27 win over No. 7 Michigan State. They now have a signature win (so does Mark Helfrich, for that matter) to put on their playoff résumé.
  • Stanford-USC was what we thought it would be: What, were you expecting a run-of-the-mill 27-21 game? Of course not. Abnormal is normal for these teams. The game was accented by penalties and mistakes and coulda, woulda, shouldas from Stanford. The Trojans weren’t exactly in mid-season form, either. The Cardinal controlled the game, but scoreboard is scoreboard with the Trojans coming out on top 13-10. And after a tumultuous week leading up to the start of the season, the Trojans are 2-0. We’ve been saying all week this game is always full of wackiness. We wouldn’t steer you wrong.
  • [+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
    Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesMarcus Mariota passed for 318 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Ducks to a signature nonconference win.
    Cal is for real (we think): But wait, Pac-12 blog, aren’t you the one always telling us we shouldn’t read too much into or praise teams that whoop up on FCS teams? Why, yes, gentle reader, we are. But here’s why we feel justified making that statement. They already beat an FBS team -- on the road and from a Power 5 conference -- and they easily took care of their business against Sacramento State, 55-14 something they didn’t do last year (they beat Portland State, but only by a touchdown). Good teams leave no doubt against weaker opponents.
  • The South is rising: USC, UCLA, ASU, Arizona and Utah are all undefeated. Colorado just beat an FBS team on the other side of the country. The North still has the top team with Oregon, but Stanford lost, Washington has looked shaky, Cal is improving, we don’t know much yet about Oregon State and WSU is winless. We're not saying the South is the dominant division, but it’s up for discussion.
  • Utah could be that good: We don’t want to get too gooey over the Utes. They’ve fooled us before. Utah is now 10-1 in nonconference play since joining the league, and we have to wait until they get into conference play. But so far so good for the Utes and Travis Wilson, who tossed five touchdowns in the 59-27 win over Fresno State.
  • Wildcats are intriguing: Don’t think for a second that going to play at UTSA was going to be walkover. That’s a veteran team with a coach who has won a national championship. The Wildcats faced a little adversity, overcame a deficit and were able to hang on for a 26-23 win. They are a really, really interesting team.
  • Quarterback play makes a difference: Last week, 336 total yards of offense for Washington and 162 passing yards on 10-of-26 passing from Jeff Lindquist. Saturday, with Cyler Miles, the Huskies had 536 total yards during their 59-52 win over Eastern Washington. They got three rushing touchdowns from Miles and 14-of-24 passing for 180 yards. That defense, though ...
  • WSU: Dude.
  • Colorado has weapons: Trailing 31-20 on the road, the Buffs showed a little bit of fight in coming back and winning 41-38 over UMass. We're not calling them a bowl team (because they probably won’t be), but the offensive numbers from Sefo Liufau -- 26-of-42 for 318 yards and three touchdowns (one interception) -- were encouraging. Nelson Spruce’s performance of 10 catches for 145 yards and two scores was nice to see, as were rushing touchdowns from Christian Powell and Tony Jones.
  • Not sure what to make of UCLA: They are 2-0. Both wins are against FBS teams. One of them is on the road. One week, the offense looks bad and the defense shines. Saturday, the offense is explosive and the defense is leaky in a 42-35 win over Memphis. The Bruins have a brutal schedule that will only get tougher. Best thing they can do is go to Texas next week and scorch the Longhorns with a complete performance.
  • Vernon Adams: The Eastern Washington quarterback could start for pretty much any team in the Pac-12. Just sayin … guy can play.
  • D.J. Foster can carry the load: Granted, the Sun Devils haven’t faced a defense with any bite yet. But at least this week it was against an FBS team. Foster carried 19 times for 216 yards and a touchdown to go with three catches for 54 yards during a 58-23 win over New Mexico. He averaged 11.4 yards per carry. He made up a nice tandem when Marion Grice was around. But he’s more than capable of being a solo act.
  • The Beavers can be balanced: Three hundred passing yards and three touchdowns from Sean Mannion (who is inching closer to that conference passing record), plus a pair of scores on the ground and 124 yards from Terron Ward in a 38-30 win over Hawaii. We still don’t know a ton about the Beavers, but it’s nice to also see some production on the ground for the second straight week.
On a chalkboard, the base offenses of Stanford and USC probably look very similar. Both derive from pro-style philosophies and principles. But if games were played only on a chalkboard, you’d have no idea just how different they really are in application.

When the No. 14 Trojans head to No. 13 Stanford on Saturday for the Pac-12 opener for both teams, the game will feature USC’s up-tempo attack versus Stanford’s methodical ground-and-pound approach.

Think of it as pro-style versus pronto-style.

Last Saturday in Steve Sarkisian’s debut as USC's head coach, the Trojans ran a conference-record 105 plays in a 52-13 pasting of the Fresno State Bulldogs. Leading the charge for the Trojans was quarterback Cody Kessler, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for a fifth score as the Trojans amassed 701 yards of offense -- their most in a game since 2005.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Juan Lainez/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesCody Kessler will try to keep the USC offense humming at Stanford.
“They were what you want to start the season with,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “They were efficient and explosive. Sometimes you get one without the other, but they were both. Cody played well. It’s obvious he’s got some weapons. Like us, they turned the ball over too many times and had some first game issues. But when you watch them play, they can go up-tempo, they have great personnel, they’re big on the offensive line. They are tough to crack and get after the quarterback like we like to because they are big up front. It was an impressive thing to watch.”

Impressive indeed. But duplicating that kind of success will be a chore against the Cardinal. Known for its stout defense and ability to keep offenses sidelined (it held Oregon to just 58 plays last season), Stanford will try to play the ball-control game. Shaw & Co. have their own idea of tempo. And it’s speeding up the game by slowing it down.

“They are a lot more multiple than people give them credit for,” Sarkisian said of Stanford’s offense. “Everyone wants to focus on when they go to their big package and bring in the [extra] offensive linemen. But they do stuff out of the traditional pro-style. 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 their stuff really well.”

It's also worth noting that Washington integrated this scheme USC deploys last year, when Sarkisian was the coach there. And the Huskies totaled 489 yards of offense in a 31-28 loss to the Cardinal in Palo Alto.

"Tempo" is a word you’re probably going to hear a lot on the telecast and read a lot following the game. Because whoever establishes tempo is, in essence, dictating the flow of the game. And for as much credit as USC’s offense deserves in the first week, Shaw said it’s the USC defense that deserves as much of the praise.

“If you don’t stay on the field on offense, they are going to run a ton of plays,” Shaw said. “For me, that’s not a function of tempo, that’s a function of playing good defense and getting Fresno State off the field very quickly with a bunch of three-and-outs. Small time of possession, very few plays, and that gives their offense more opportunities with the ball. [USC defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox is as vital to how many plays they get on offense and how many points they get on offense as what they do on offense. USC is a very good defense. One of the best in the country. And they are going to give that offense a lot of opportunities.”

Last Saturday, the Trojans forced Fresno State into three three-and-out drives and six punts. Stanford forced UC Davis into nine three-and-outs. Offensively, Kessler was the model of efficiency on third down, completing 9 of 10 passes for 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns on third down. Davis was just 1-of-13 on third-down conversions against the Cardinal and didn’t cross midfield until the final play of the game.

And when you throw in the fact that Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is 10-1 in his career against ranked teams and that the Cardinal are riding a 17-game home win streak (including nine straight against ranked teams) and that the series has been a thrill ride of late, you have all the trappings for another fantastic showdown.

“It’s been really, really good football,” Shaw said of recent games with USC. “When both teams have been ranked or one team has been ranked, it doesn’t matter.”
The Stanford-USC game has evolved into one of the best rivalries in the conference, if not the country. It seems like every year both teams up the ante on thrills and heartbreak. This year, the Trojans head to Stanford ranked No. 14, while the Cardinal are No. 13.

While this series dates back to 1905 -- and there have been plenty of outstanding games along the way (Jim Plunkett in ’70, the tie in ’79), the series became a different animal starting in 2007 when the 41-point underdog Cardinal shocked USC at home.

Here are snapshots of the ’10-’13 games. Earlier today we looked back at '07 through '09.

Oct. 9, 2010

Stanford Stadium
     
  • Final score: No. 16 Stanford 37, USC 35
  • The setup: After trading blowouts the previous two seasons, the 2010 game kicked off what would be a fantastic string of close finishes.
  • Key play: Stanford’s Nate Whitaker connected on a 30-yard field goal as time expired.
  • Remember this? Whitaker almost wasn’t the hero of this game … but the goat. He had missed an extra point after Stanford went up 34-28 on a touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to Doug Baldwin. The Trojans took a 35-34 lead with 1:08 to play. But Luck drove the Cardinal 62 yards in seven plays to set up Whitaker’s game-winner. There was also this (I had to watch at least five times).
  • Quotable: "I knew I had to make it," Whitaker said. "There wasn't too much else going through [my mind] except it was my chance to redeem myself and give the team what it needed."
Oct. 29, 2011
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
  • Final score: No. 4 Stanford 56, No. 20 USC 48 (3OT)
  • The setup: Luck had returned for another season, and the Cardinal were cruising under new head coach David Shaw. The Trojans had been stunned earlier in the year by Arizona State but were still considered a very formidable opponent -- and by far Stanford’s greatest test to date of the season.
  • Key play: With Stanford leading 56-48 in triple overtime, Curtis McNeal was hit at the line of scrimmage by Terrence Stephens. The ball flew forward out of McNeal’s hands and into the end zone, where A.J. Tarpley jumped on it end the game. McNeal's costly fumble overshadowed a phenomenal 20-carry, 145-yard performance with two touchdowns.
  • Remember this? It almost didn’t get to overtime. With the score knotted at 27-27 and 3:51 to play, Nickell Robey intercepted Luck and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown, giving the Trojans a 34-27 lead with 3:08 to play. That also prompted an announcement reminding fans not to rush the field following the game. Stanford players later recalled hearing the announcement and being quite perturbed at the assumption.
  • Quotable: "No excuse, I just fumbled," said McNeal. ”I feel like beating myself up, but I've just got to keep pushing. I'm going to face worse things in life. I just have to keep my head up."
Sept. 15, 2012
Stanford Stadium

     
  • Final score: No. 21 Stanford 21, No. 2 USC 14
  • The set up: The Trojans started the year No. 1, and Matt Barkley had returned for his unfinished business. Having lost three straight to the Cardinal, this was supposed to be the year the Trojans seniors broke the Stanford curse. The Andrew Luck-less Cardinal were expected to take a step back. They didn’t.
  • Key play: Josh Nunes dropped a perfect ball to Zach Ertz, who made one cut and went 37 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, putting Stanford up 21-14 with 10:20 left in the game.
  • Remember this? In the final eight minutes of the first half, there were four interceptions (two from Barkley and two from Nunes), and three of them came on three consecutive plays. Points off of turnovers? Zero.
  • Quotable: "It's not the end of the world," said USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We'll get back on the plane, go home and we'll get better."
Nov. 16, 2013
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

  • Final score: USC 20, No. 5 Stanford 17
  • The set up: On the heels of Stanford’s 26-20 win over No. 2 Oregon, the Cardinal were in the driver’s seat for a second-straight conference title. USC had faced a tad of turmoil with the firing of Kiffin (his quotable from last season feels more ominous now, doesn’t it?) and rebounded under Ed Orgeron. The Cardinal would eventually win that second-straight conference crown. But only because they got help from Arizona. Not because of what happened in Los Angeles.
  • Key play: USC kicker Andre Heidari connected on a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining to put the Trojans ahead 20-17.
  • Remember this? The Cardinal failed to score on their final six drives -- including a 75-yard drive down to the USC 6-yeard line, where Kevin Hogan was intercepted by Dion Bailey.
  • Quotable: "Obviously there's going to be some decisions made here after we play UCLA,'' Orgeron said. "That's out of my hands.''

NFL scouts eye Williams vs. Peat

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
1:00
PM ET
Leonard Williams, Andrus PeatAP Photo, Icon SMILeonard Williams and Andrus Peat are among the top NFL prospects in all of college football.
STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford has become a frequent stop for NFL scouts traversing the country for the top college talent. For coach David Shaw, who spent nine years as an assistant coach in the NFL, those are visits he enjoys.

The conversations help Shaw gauge where the stock of his own players stands, and perhaps more importantly, give him informed opinions on players he’ll be charged with scheming against. One of his major takeaways is especially relevant this week with No. 14 USC coming to The Farm to play No. 13 Stanford.

“You ask [the scouts] the question ‘Who is the best offensive player you've seen? Who is the best defensive player you've seen?'" Shaw said. “Some of them said [Stanford receiver Ty Montgomery] on the offense. Some said some other guys, which is great.

“All of them said Leonard Williams at USC [on defense]. It's not just me, everybody sees it.”

Williams rolled his ankle in practice Tuesday and didn’t practice Wednesday, but even at less than 100 percent, the 6-foot-5, 300-pound physical freak will have the Cardinal’s full attention on Saturday. The Stanford coaching staff learned its lesson a year ago in USC’s 20-17 upset in Los Angeles, when Williams played despite a lingering shoulder injury.

“We didn't think he'd play last year,” Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. “Not only did he play, but he played in a big way. He adversely affected our game plan. I can tell you that.”

And that performance came against a veteran offensive line that sent four players to NFL training camps this year, including a pair of draft picks in guard David Yankey and tackle Cam Fleming. This time, Stanford is still green in trenches. Talented, sure, but one game together against UC Davis wouldn’t exactly qualify as ideal preparation to face a player of Williams’ caliber.

That’s where Andrus Peat comes in.

What Williams represents as an NFL prospect on the defensive line, Peat does on the offensive line. At 6-foot-7 and 316 pounds, the junior is a prototypical NFL left tackle and also a potential top-10 pick in the 2015 draft.

“He’s a fantastic player and prospect,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Knew about him coming out of high school. Went to Stanford and they have just continued to develop him like they’ve done with the linemen in the past. I think he’s obviously become, if not the leader, then one of the leaders of that offensive unit and it shows in his play, but it also shows in his demeanor and body language.”

A year ago, there weren’t many opportunities to see Williams, who lines up at multiple spots on the line, and Peat go head-to-head, but it figures to happen at times on Saturday. When it does, count on NFL scouts to be watching closely.

“I can't wait,” said Bloomgren, who also coaches the offensive line. “Every chance they get to line up on each other, I hope USC puts him there and I don't think our guy will back down and I don't think any of our guys would back down from him. But that's going to be a pretty epic battle when 70 [Peat] goes against 94 [Williams].”

ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranks Williams as the No. 2 draft-eligible prospect for next year’s draft, but, like Peat, Williams has another year of eligibility remaining if he chooses to use it. McShay’s evaluation of Williams projects him at defensive end in the NFL and colleague Mel Kiper Jr. agrees.

“If Williams doesn't wow you with quickness on the edge, realize he's 290-plus pounds and won't get pushed around even if he moves inside,” Kiper wrote. “At his size, he's a special athlete who could line up as a defensive end and drive a tackle back or line up on the outside shoulder of a guard and create problems with power and quickness as well. He's the kind of disruptive, versatile lineman who can succeed in any system.”

Both McShay and Kiper rank Peat among the nation's top-10 prospects for next year, but it's still too early to forecast whether Peat or Williams will head to the NFL after this season.

For Shaw, the Peat-Williams matchup is intriguing, but he'd just assume any future meetings between the two players occur on Sundays.

"Hopefully Leonard will be a top-5 pick this year and hopefully Andrus will be a top-5 pick next year," Shaw said wishfully.

Even when Williams is lined up away from Peat, it should provide for good theater. Stanford's offensive line is as highly touted a unit as any in recent memory despite its collective lack of game experience. How it fares against USC's front seven should provide some insight into how the Cardinal's season will progress.
Back in 2007 new Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh seemed pretty foolish when, like a bombastic Don Quixote, he trash-talked USC and coach Pete Carroll. For no particular reason, he volunteered to a reporter that Carroll would soon bolt for the NFL. Then, at Pac-10 media day, a smirk flickered across his face when he archly announced that USC "may be the best team in the history of college football."

When challenged about his motives, he unveiled what became a program catchphrase: "We bow to no one at Stanford" -- pretty much saying he didn't give a rat's tookus if he bothered USC, Carroll or anyone else.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Matt SaylesThings started getting testy between Stanford and USC when Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll were at the helm.
Great fun ensued, of course. That first season, Harbaugh and Stanford shocked USC 24-23 as a 41-point underdog behind a backup QB, ending the Trojans' 35-game home winning streak. Any chance that would be viewed historically as college football's version of Halley's Comet was squelched in 2009 when Stanford drubbed USC 55-21, aggressively running up the score in the fourth quarter, including a gratuitous attempt at a 2-point conversion.

"What's your deal?" an irritated Carroll famously asked a smug Harbaugh during a wonderfully ungenial handshake.

Nonetheless, we had no idea what the actual deal would become between USC and Stanford. Early on, Stanford's success appeared to be a curious and anomalous run, a surprising reversal of fortune that briefly thickened the Pac-10 plot but seemed certain to be only temporary. Carroll and Harbaugh would both bolt to the NFL, where their personal rivalry has remained just as spicy. USC's short-term future was burdened with NCAA sanctions. Stanford's future seemed burdened by, well, being Stanford, the most elite academic institution playing FBS football.

When David Shaw, a polished Stanford graduate, ascended from offensive coordinator to replace Harbaugh, few imagined he'd maintain a top-10 program. There was a suspicion that Harbaugh built what he did because he was crazy enough to make it happen. Shaw was way too normal.

Yet here we are, two days away from a renewal of what has become the Pac-12's most meaningful cross-division rivalry. While Stanford-Oregon mostly has decided the Pac-12 champion the past four years, there's been little drama in their actual games, with only the 2012 contest being an actual nail-biter.

Three of the past four USC-Stanford games have been decided essentially on the game's last play, twice by field goals, once in triple-overtime. Average margin of victory in those four games? Five points. National importance? Stanford may have played Florida State in the BCS National Championship last year if not for being upset 20-17 at USC. In 2012, USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation before Stanford exposed the Trojans 21-14, starting a spiral from which former USC coach Lane Kiffin never recovered. QB Andrew Luck became Andrew Luck during thrilling Stanford wins in 2010 and 2011.

Both teams are star-laden NFL pipelines. Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champ, enters this game ranked 13th, just a little annoyed at how Oregon and UCLA have grabbed the biggest preseason headlines in the conference. USC is 14th, a team with fewer than 60 available scholarship players but as gifted with its starting 22 as just about any team in the nation.

Both crushed overmatched foes last weekend and looked impressive in doing so. The Trojans added a wrinkle for this go-round by switching from their long-standing pro-style scheme to an up-tempo offense under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who notes "up-tempo" isn't a transition from a power to a finesse attack, only a means to create more touches for his talented skill players.

If the football part of football wasn't enough, if we needed to introduce some new drama and personalities at loggerheads to liven things up, it's worth noting that Shaw and Sarkisian engaged in a public war of words after last year's Stanford-Washington game. Sarkisian, then the Huskies' coach, accused Stanford of faking injuries in order to slow down his up-tempo offense, going so far as to specifically point a finger at Cardinal defensive line coach Randy Hart. Shaw wasn't happy with the accusation, and he opened that week's Pac-12 coaches teleconference with a lengthy and strongly worded statement.

"I believe it's unprofessional to call out an assistant coach on another team," Shaw said. "It's unprofessional and it's disrespectful. The only D-line coach that I know of that's ever instructed players to fake injury works at the University of Washington."

That would be controversial coach Tosh Lupoi, now working at Alabama, who was suspended in 2010 while at California for instructing players to fake injuries against Oregon. Sark, however, never backed away from his assertions.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillSteve Sarkisian has his hands full with off-the-field drama at USC, but Saturday's game at Stanford is at the forefront of his worries this week.
While it might be fun if Sarkisian and Shaw continued to eyeball each other's throats, that doesn't seem to be the reality. It appears, rather, that they have agreed to disagree and let the issue die. Though they both admit they haven't revisited the conflict in order to make a formal peace, they also pointed out they've spoken amiably multiple times since then -- a couple of times, in fact, within range of reporters -- and they claim to respect and like each other.

"We had a disagreement in the heat of the moment; both of us have moved on," Sarkisian said.

Offered Shaw, "There is no animosity whatsoever."

Still, one suspects there are at least some residual fumes from this squabble, since a few Stanford players also took issue with Sarkisian's accusation.

There is another Shaw on the sidelines of this game, though figuratively: USC CB Josh Shaw, who last week went from heroic to notorious. Coupled with Anthony Brown calling Sarkisian a racist after the running back quit the team -- a charge that has been supported by absolutely no one -- USC was dealing with substantial tumult and unfavorable national headlines last week. It may have been a bit surprising that the Trojans overcame those distractions to efficiently dismantle Fresno State 52-13, setting a Pac-12 record by running 105 plays.

An easy way for Sarkisian to change the narrative around his program and to win over Trojans fans who remain skeptical about his hiring is to beat the Cardinal on Saturday. Winning cures just about everything in college football.

In any event, even without Harbaugh and Carroll sniping at each other, we know the deal between USC and Stanford. It has endured as an annual battle imbued with drama and meaning, with the winner Saturday likely pushing into the top 10 and announcing itself as a Pac-12 and national contender.

And who knows? Maybe the postgame handshake will offer up another memorable exchange.
With No. 7 Michigan State and No. 3 Oregon looming, the Pac-12 blog got to thinking about other games of similar magnitude over the past decade.

After taking a look back, there's only a few others that -- when they were played -- match the pedigree of Saturday's game. Dating back to the 2004 season, there have been just four other games involving a pair of teams ranked in the AP top-10.

In that same time period, there was a total of 21 games between top-25 teams. USC was involved in the most (7), followed by Oregon (3), Stanford (3), Cal (2), Oregon State (2) one each for Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington.

In chronological order, here are 10 of the most anticipated nonconference games of the past 10 years. The criteria for inclusion was simple: both teams had to be ranked and there could only be one matchup between the same teams. The second part eliminated No. 9 Cal vs. No. 23 Tennessee in 2006, No. 3 USC vs. No. 8 Ohio State in 2009 and Stanford vs. Notre Dame in 2011 and 2013 -- all of which would have been great choices, but would also have made for a less interesting look back.

Half the winners from these games finished the regular season undefeated.

(*-denotes ESPN's "College GameDay" was at the game)

2005 -- No. 5 LSU 35, No. 15 Arizona State 31: In Les Miles' first game as the coach at LSU, future No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell helped the Tigers erase a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to win. LSU finished the year No. 6, while ASU fell out of the ranking for good in Week 6 after losing back-to-back games to No. 1 USC and No. 25 Oregon.

2005 -- No. 1 USC 34, No. 9 Notre Dame 31*: Remembered simply as the "Bush Push" game, USC quarterback Matt Leinart scored a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds thanks to a memorable shove from running back Reggie Bush. USC went undefeated the rest of the way until losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl; Notre Dame finished ranked No. 9.

2006 -- Oregon 34, No. 11 Oklahoma 33: Oregon QB Dennis Dixon scored a touchdown with 1:12 left, the Ducks recovered a controversial onside kick moments later and scored another quick touchdown take the lead. The game wasn't settled until Oregon blocked a 44-yard field-goal attempt as time expired. Oregon eventually fell from the rankings in Week 11 and Oklahoma finished the year ranked No. 11.

2007 -- No. 12 Cal 45, No. 15 Tennessee 31: A year after losing to the Vols in Knoxville, WR DeSean Jackson and RB Justin Forsett led Cal to a big win against Arian Foster and Tennessee in the season opener for both teams. Cal climbed as high as No. 2 in the rankings before finishing unranked and Tennessee finished No. 12.

2007 -- No. 1 USC 49, No. 14 Nebraska 31*: USC led 42-10 at one point and rushed for 313 yards as a team. Coincidentally, Nebraska Sam Keller was ASU's QB in the 2005 game against LSU. USC finished No. 3; Nebraska lost six of its final seven to finish 5-7.

2008 -- No. 1 USC 35, No. 5 Ohio State 3*: QB Mark Sanchez and the Trojans handed Ohio State its third-worst loss in 20 years. USC finished No. 3; Ohio State finished No. 6.

2009 -- No. 14 Boise State 19, No. 16 Oregon 8: Chip Kelly's first game as the Oregon head coach was remembered mostly for LeGarrette Blount's postgame punch, but it also doubled as the first game in an undefeated season for Chris Petersen's Broncos. Both teams actually improved their rankings by the season's end: Oregon finished No. 13 and Boise State No. 4.

2010 -- No. 6 TCU 30, No. 24 Oregon State 21: A year after narrowly missing out on a berth in the Rose Bowl, Oregon State opened the year with a tough loss to Andy Dalton and the Horned Frogs in the second Cowboys Classic. TCU finished undefeated and ranked No. 3; Oregon State went 5-7.

2011 -- No. 4 LSU 40, No. 3 Oregon 27*: One of just two meetings between top-5 teams on this list, Oregon's mistakes proved costly against LSU in the third Cowboys Classic. LSU went on to play for the national title and finished ranked No. 2 and Oregon won the Pac-12 and finished No. 4.

2012 -- No. 7 Notre Dame 20, No. 17 Stanford 13*: As previously noted, any of the Stanford-Notre Dame games over the past three years would have qualified, but this one was played with the most on the line. If Stanford had won, the Cardinal would have finished the year a solid candidate to play for the national title. Instead, Notre Dame finished undefeated before losing that title game to Alabama. Stanford went on to win the Pac-12 and finished ranked No. 7.

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