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October 28, 2011

Game 8: USC vs. Stanford Preview

Game 8: 'Let's Get Together and Do It Again'

After thrashing the Irish in South Bend, can USC continue its revenge march against BCS-contending Stanford?

The USC Trojans (6-1, 3-1 in the Pac-12 Conference), ranked No. 20 by the Associated Press, return home on Saturday, Oct. 29, to face the Stanford Cardinal (7-0, 5-0 Pac-12), ranked No. 3 in the USA Today coaches' poll, No. 4 by AP and No. 6 in the BCS, at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC television audience. The 90th meeting between the two schools in USC's oldest rivalry (dating to 1905) will kick off with Troy holding a 59-27-3 edge. However, Stanford has won three of the past four meetings, including a 37-35 victory last October in Palo Alto and a 55-21 whipping in the last Los Angeles meeting in 2009.

A week ago, the Trojans surprised Notre Dame, 31-17, in South Bend, Ind., in the Irish's first home night game since 1990. USC brushed off the manufactured "Super Bowl" flourishes put on the game by a hopeful Notre Dame administration (and East Coast media) by delivering its most consistent and focused performance of the season. The Trojans forced three key Notre Dame turnovers and manhandled the Irish in the trenches, outrushing ND 219-41. USC also held on to the ball for nearly 40 minutes - the dominant statistics putting lie to the case made by many Domers that Notre Dame simply gave the game away with mistakes. Meanwhile, the Cardinal annihilated then-No. 25 Washington, 65-21, on the Farm. Stanford rolled up a school-record 446 rushing yards against a helpless Husky defense, making life easy for Heisman Trophy-frontrunning quarterback Andrew Luck, who completed 16-of-21 passes for 169 yards and two TDs.

Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (21-12 career collegiate head coaching record; 14-6 at USC) is in his second season at Troy. He also coached the University of Tennessee in 2009 and the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Stanford headman David Shaw replaced Jim Harbaugh after the 2010 season when Harbaugh took the San Francisco 49ers' job. Shaw had served as the team's offensive coordinator and running backs coach during Harbaugh's rebuilding of the Stanford program, and the Cardinal have yet to miss a step this season. Whether the credit for that goes to Luck or Shaw will be a question that's likely better answered in 2012.

Stanford Offense
Shaw and offensive coordinator/QB coach Pep Hamilton have continued what Harbaugh started, pounding teams with a tough, run-first offensive attitude on the Farm, then opening things up for the athletically and intellectually gifted Luck to do his thing in the passing game. The redshirt junior - whose presence as the presumptive No. 1 NFL pick next April has created the "Suck for Luck" phenomenon in cities like Indianapolis and Miami - leads a Cardinal attack that averages 48.5 points, 504 yards, 32 minutes of possession and has scored on each of its 38 trips in to its opponents' red zone (30 TDs, eight FGs). Luck, who is capable of (and often allowed to) call his own plays in the huddle, has thrown for 1,888 yards, 20 TDs and just three interceptions, completing nearly 72 percent of his passes (and he's been even hotter in the past four games, hitting on more than 75 percent of his throws). Luck is also a tough customer who picks his spots to run and is averaging more than five yards per carry.

Luck has no shortage of targets, as six Stanford players have at least 13 catches. Senior wideouts Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen see the vast majority of playing time at their spots. Owusu has 30 catches, two for scores, and is a fast, sizeable target. Whalen has 24 catches (one TD) and is an effective possession receiver. But where Stanford is spectacular is at tight end. Senior Coby Fleener leads the Cardinal in receiving TDs (seven in 17 catches) and is making a bid for the Mackey Award. However, redshirt sophomores Zach Ertz (22 catches, three TDs) and Levine Toilolo (eight grabs, three scores) have been nearly as effective.

Junior Stepfan Taylor has been outstanding at running back for the Cardinal. He's averaging 6.3 yards on his 111 carries and has scored six TDs on the ground. He's also an effective pass catcher, with 13 grabs and a touchdown. Junior Tyler Gaffney and sophomore Anthony Wilkerson round out a stout but speedy trio. Gaffney averages 7.2 yards per carry, while Wilkerson has banged out 214 yards. They have combined for eight rushing TDs. Fullback Ryan Hewitt, a redshirt sophomore, has also been outstanding as a lead blocker and as a pass catcher. He has 15 catches, three for TDs, so far in 2011.

A huge factor in the Cardinal's success has been an offensive line that lost three starters from a year ago, but just keeps on truckin'. Not only is Stanford averaging six yards per carry and 219 rushing yards per game, but the line has allowed just two sacks in seven games. Led by its two returning starters (and 2010 all-conference first teamers), redshirt juniors in LT Jonathan Martin and RG David DeCastro, this group has come together well. Redshirt freshmen David Yankey (LG) and Cameron Fleming (RT) and redshirt junior Sam Schwartzstein (C) have started all seven games.

Stanford Defense
With Harbaugh taking veteran defensive coordinator Vic Fangio back to the NFL, Derek Mason and Jason Tarver are splitting the duties on the Farm. The duo has done exceedingly well with Stanford's base 3-4 set, as the Cardinal have allowed just 12.5 points and 314 total yards per game. Stanford also has recorded 25 sacks with its attacking style, and has forced 11 turnovers (the Cardinal are +6 in turnover margin this season). The team has been outstanding in the first and third quarters so far, allowing just 13 total points in those periods in 2011.

Stanford had to replace two starters in its front three this season, but redshirt sophomore end Ben Gardner (19 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) and junior nose guard Terrence Stephens (2.5 tackles for loss) have stepped right up. Reserve nose guard David Parry (a redshirt freshman) also has six tackles. The lone returning starter, reliable senior end Matt Masifilo has been the leader of the group as expected, with 16 tackles, including three for loss.

In Stanford's design, linebackers have been counted upon to become playmakers. Cardinal linebackers have accounted for 17 sacks this season, led by junior outside backer Chase Thomas (5.5 sacks among 31 tackles) and sophomore outsider Trent Murphy (three sacks, 20 total stops). Inside, the Cardinal were hurt badly by the loss of juniorShayne Skov to a season-ending knee injury (he had 19 tackles in less than three games). Redshirt sophomore Jarek Lancaster has stepped in and performed admirably. He's tied for first on the team with 33 stops, but isn't the same type of playmaker as Skov. Senior Max Bergen and redshirt freshman A.J. Tarpley also see plenty of time at ILB. Bergen has 27 tackles (1.5 sacks) and Tarpley has 24 stops.

Experience is a factor in the secondary, as Stanford was starting three seniors and a sophomore before strong safety Delano Howell was lost in the Washington State game. He's not expected back this week, which hurts the Cardinal as the senior had 25 tackles in the first five-plus games. Senior free safety Michael Thomas, who is tied for the team lead with 33 tackles and has two of Stanford's three interceptions, slid over to the strong safety spot against Washington last week, allowing sophomore Devon Carrington to jump in at free safety. Carrington, who was a key factor already in nickel situations, has 21 tackles. Freshman Jordan Richards is also in the mix at safety. At corner, senior Johnson Bademosi and sophomores Barry Browning and Terrence Brown performed reasonably well.

Stanford Special Teams
Redshirt freshman placekicker Jordan Williamson is 11-of-12 on field goals and 41-of-43 on PATs in his college career. He's got plenty of leg, with a long of 45. He also handles kickoff duties. Senior punter David Green is averaging about 41 yards per boot. Reserve receiver Drew Terrell has been solid on punt returns, averaging more than 12 yards per chance, while freshman receiver Ty Montgomery is getting the bulk of kick return duties. Montgomery has a 96-yard touchdown this season and is averaging 32.5 yards per chance, but Owusu is still a threat as well.

USC Offensive Gameplan
USC coached and played with purpose on offense in the first half of last week's win at Notre Dame. The Trojans surprised just about everyone by coming out and establishing the run early against the Irish, controlling the line of scrimmage and the clock - which then set up Matt Barkley to take shots against the ND secondary. At the same time, USC's offense controlled the pace of the game completely, keeping the Notre Dame offense off the field and its own defense well rested. USC outgained the Irish, 443 to 267, and made very few mistakes. In all, it was the most impressively controlled performance since Kiffin took the reins of the program.

Now, with the atmosphere 180 degrees different - a pumped-up Coliseum crowd, many looking for payback for Stanford's 2007 "greatest upset ever" victory - the Trojans must come out with the same type of control, composure and focus. I'm not saying USC will utilize the same type of game plan that worked against Notre Dame but controlling the ball, minimizing mistakes (turnovers and penalties) and capitalizing in the red zone are imperatives if USC hopes to dash Stanford's national title dreams.

After reviewing last season's heartbreaking 37-35 loss on the Farm, I expect USC will lean on a similar look to that game. The Trojans only ran the ball for 108 yards, but Kiffin and Co. stuck with it enough that the Cardinal had to respect it. Barkley and Robert Woods absolutely torched the Stanford defense (390 passing for Barkley, 224 receiving for Woods and three TD connections). Stanford's linebackers will come after Barkley this week, but USC does have the luxury of having faced two consecutive attacking 3-4 looks coming in (Cal and ND). I doubt Kiffin wants to see Barkley throw it 45 times as he did last year, but the good news is that even before last week's game, the Trojans had been effective in time of possession by utilizing a short passing attack. Expect the Trojans to try to spread Stanford thin and strike against their corners, inside backers and safeties - but to do so in a thoughtfully paced way.

USC Defensive Gameplan
Across the way, the USC defense has to be feeling pretty good about itself. In the past two games, the Trojans forced eight combined turnovers by Notre Dame and Cal and allowed just two TD drives. USC's secondary is playing a more physical brand of football, as cornerbacks Nickell Robey and Isiah Wiley have been freed to step up to their assignments more often. At the same time, USC has allowed just 76 rushing yards the past two weekends, and the Trojans look much faster to the ball and much surer tacklers than at any point in 2010.

However, doing that against Zach Maynard and Tommy Rees is completely different than doing it against Luck. The Cardinal signal caller completed 83 percent of his 24 throws against USC last year, and Stanford rolled up 478 yards (193 rushing). And the kid is even better this season - it seems every time I flip past a Stanford game, he's hitting a miscellaneous tight end in the middle of the field with no defensive player within 10 yards. The guy simply reads defenses impeccably and knows how to utilize each weapon at his disposal.

With that as the challenge, USC cannot back off of its recent style of play and into a cover-two shell. Stanford only has two reliable outside threats in the passing game - let Wiley and Robey body them. Yes, Luck will have success from time to time against blitzes - to be blunt, if USC keeps Stanford somewhere in the 30s this week, the Trojans have a great chance to win. USC still must bring those blitzes to try to speed up his reads, and not get frustrated when they don't get to him. Forcing an incompletion or even a pass that isn't caught in stride and results in fewer yards must be seen as a win. At the same time, USC's front seven must contain Stanford's rushing attack. Gap control from Dion Bailey and the linebackers will be crucial. If T.J. McDonald has to provide too much run support, leaving Jawanza Starling responsible for the Cardinal tight ends, it will be a very long night. Most importantly, the defense can't get down mentally if it gives up a play. Get back at it, because when Luck and the Cardinal smell blood, games can fall apart quickly.

The Pick
A week ago, USC got the jump on a Notre Dame team that had been absolutely dominant in the first quarter all season. Stanford has been dominant early, as well. With the Cardinal facing the combination of a truly hostile environment and solid competition for the first time all season, the Trojans need to ride what promises to be the best wave of emotional support they've seen at the Coliseum in 2011. What USC can ill afford, though, is being too pumped up by the opportunity and making silly mistakes early on.

Incredibly, oddsmakers and bettors somehow see this game as a closer pick than USC-Notre Dame. Realistically, Stanford should be about a two-touchdown favorite coming in. It's clear that Stanford's schedule is playing a factor here, as many want to see Luck and the Cardinal in a truly difficult situation (so do I). After all, not only has Stanford won 15 straight games, but they've won the past 10 by at least 25 points.

I'd be surprised if that second streak continues Saturday. Unless the Trojans play fast and loose with the football and commit mental mistakes, USC has the players to play with Stanford - especially in the Coliseum. I don't believe Stanford is appreciably better than they were last October (except for Luck's mental acuity) - but I do think USC is. In fact, heading into last week's game, I was looking at Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon remaining on the Trojans' schedule and circled this one as the best opportunity for a USC victory. After last week, when Kiffin and Co. stepped up and battered my "I still don't trust a Kiffin-coached team in the atmosphere the Trojans will face on Saturday night" comment into the Indiana turf, I should be more confident. Right? But, are two big tests in a row too much for this young USC team? As the game goes on, will the Kiffins revert to the form that has hampered USC at times in the past season-and-a-half? I feel better answering those questions than I did a week ago. But, as much as I would love to see the Trojans snatch Stanford's one chance at a national championship away as payback, it's going to take a massive effort - and one I just can't quite justify picking ... yet.

Stanford 45, USC 37

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 11 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu or followed on Twitter at @thrants



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