Here’s the deal.
Stanford is looking to break a trend nearly a decade in the making. USC is seeking revenge. Both teams suffered devastating losses last week. The No. 16 Cardinal (4-1, 1-1 Pac-10) and the Trojans (4-1, 1-1) resume one of the Pac-10’s longest rivalries, one that has taken on a particular tone in recent seasons, when the two schools converge on Stanford Stadium Saturday night at 5 p.m.
Last November, the Cardinal embarrassed the Trojans 55-21 in the Coliseum, sending fans to the exits by the end of the third quarter. But Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh was not done, as he controversially attempted a two-point conversion (it failed) after taking a 27-point lead with under seven minutes to play. The post-game midfield conversation between Harbaugh and then-USC coach Pete Carroll spawned a brief meme–“What’s Your Deal” –as well as Stanford football’s newest marketing slogan.
Much has changed since then, particularly for the Trojans. Carroll left, replaced by Lane Kiffin, and USC was hit with far-reaching sanctions that have already led to an exodus of talent. Stanford, meanwhile, has continued its rise to the upper echelon of the conference and, for the first time in recent memory, will be favored against the Trojans. It’ll also be going for its first back-to-back wins over USC since the 2001 season.
“When Stanford played USC it was always ‘How bad is the score going to be this year?'” said redshirt senior cornerback Richard Sherman. “It has changed a little bit.”
But neither team is concerned with the past. Both are looking to rebound after losses last Saturday–Stanford was blown out in the second half against Oregon, and USC squandered a late lead to Washington. The defeats marred each squad’s previously perfect record. That alone, Kiffin said, was enough fuel for this weekend’s game.
“We have so many things that we need to correct. We let a game get away from us that we should have won,” Kiffin said.
Indeed, this USC team is hardly the same squad that took home three consecutive Rose Bowls earlier this decade. NCAA sanctions, and subsequent transfers, have left the Trojans with only about 70 scholarship players, as opposed to the 85 allowed by the NCAA. Harbaugh says that USC’s troubles and coaching turnover are the least of his concerns.
“[There are] some subtle differences, particularly defensively. But they’re not dramatically different. USC has an identity, both offensively and defensively,” Harbaugh said. “Every team is going to be different the following year. It’s a trademark of USC to be well-coached.”
The focus on preparing their teams physically and mentally after Saturday’s losses permeated Harbaugh’s and Kiffin’s attitudes on their upcoming match. Both noted the need to improve defensively: USC against the pass, Stanford against the run. A struggling Jake Locker tore through the Trojans for 310 yards through the air, while the Ducks tallied nearly 400 yards on the ground.
“We didn’t tackle very well, especially in the secondary,” Kiffin said. “We’re not playing as fast as we’d like to…we’re digesting the defense instead of playing really fast.”
“It’ll be a challenge this week, as it was last week,” Harbaugh said. “Last week, we played a tremendous back, and this week, we’ll play backs that are just as good. We have to step up to that challenge and get ready to play physical run defense.”
Stanford must also deal with key injuries. Its top two receivers, senior Ryan Whalen and junior Chris Owusu, are banged up. Whalen, who dislocated his elbow against Wake Forest, was adamant that he would play this weekend, but the status of Owusu, who was involved in a brutal helmet-to-helmet collision against Oregon, is still unclear. USC has also been nicked up, but both center Kris O’Dowd, the anchor of the Trojans offensive line, and playmaking fullback Stanley Havili, who is recovering from a dislocated shoulder, are expected to play.
Though the Cardinal is deep at the receiver position, Whalen and Owusu have often been safety valves for redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who has thrown four interceptions in the past two weeks. Harbaugh maintained that his star passer played an “outstanding” game against Oregon, but Luck was unable to lead Stanford to a second half score. Still, against a USC secondary that has not had a tremendous amount of success against deep and midlevel routes, Luck will have a chance to respond.
To their credit, the Trojans possess a fine young quarterback of their own–a much-improved Matt Barkley, who is in the top 15 in passing efficiency. He presents perhaps the first significant passing threat to Vic Fangio’s new defensive scheme.
“It’s a big game, both teams are hungry for a win,” Harbaugh said.
He emphasized that the Cardinal has responded well to last week’s defeat.
“We probably had our best Monday practice that we’ve ever had since I’ve been around here,” the fourth-year coach said. “I felt like the attitude was good.”
As for any sort of grudge match? Both Harbaugh and Kiffin described past history as “irrelevant.”
“We’re not even going to talk about it,” Kiffin said. “All that motivation stuff, as soon as the ball is kicked off, goes away.”
Stanford will kick off against USC at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Stanford Stadium. The game will be nationally televised on ABC.