Now that’s the Stanford football team we’ve been waiting for.
That’s the team that was still on sabbatical for last Friday’s 20-17 nailbiter against San Jose State, a poorly executed debut that almost turned disastrous. That’s the team that is favored to finish second in the Pac-12 North, especially after unconvincing starts for 1-1 Cal and Washington. That’s the team that, when it was supposed to crush Duke, actually did.
And that’s the team that, when No. 2 USC visits next week, is going to compete—if not win.
Stanford has knocked off USC four of the last five years, beating the point spread—sure to be in the Trojans’ favor again this week—by over 40 points in both 2007 and 2009. And for what it’s worth, the Pac-12 was no stranger to upsets on Saturday, as unranked Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona all beat ranked opponents.
Meanwhile, the Trojans looked beatable in their 13-point victory against unranked Syracuse this weekend. The Orange outgained USC by 10 yards, was a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone and picked up 27 first downs to the Trojans’ 17. That’s a lot of good stuff on tape for a Cardinal coaching staff that has eked out close wins over Lane Kiffin’s squad each of the last two seasons.
Syracuse struggled on the ground—133 yards, just 3.2 per carry—just as Stanford did against the Blue Devils. But the Orange’s 322 passing yards kept things close and even brought the game within five to start the fourth quarter, while the Trojans only sacked Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib twice. At the same time, the Cardinal’s Josh Nunes exploded for 275 yards and three touchdowns in just his second start, exposing an experienced Duke secondary. He missed some throws, yes, but only one was picked off.
All of which is code for one thing: Stanford should be able to score on USC, especially with a healthy Ryan Hewitt returning at fullback.
Putting up points won’t be the Cardinal’s biggest concern against the Trojans, though. That distinction falls to holding back USC’s three-headed monster on offense: the nation’s best quarterback, an explosive tailback tandem and college football’s best receiver duo.
How to behead such a beast? Against Duke, Stanford already took some of the steps that will give it a fighting chance next Saturday.
To shut down veteran passer Matt Barkley—who set a USC record with six touchdown throws on Saturday—the Cardinal will need to bring the same relentless pressure with which it pestered Duke’s Sean Renfree. It recorded only two sacks against the Blue Devils, but the heat was definitely there; Renfree didn’t have much time to work with and threw three interceptions as a result. Junior safety Ed Reynolds snagged two of those, taking one back for a touchdown, and now has nabbed passes in each of his first two collegiate starts.
How big will interceptions be next week? In the three Stanford-USC meetings from 2007-09 (when the Trojans were favored), the Cardinal registered four picks, no picks and three picks. Twice it recorded a pick-six; once it did not. Guess which game it lost.
Onto the second prong of USC’s attack, fifth-year senior Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd in the backfield. They racked up 170 of the Trojans’ 258 rushing yards against the Orange after combining for just 70 in USC’s opener against Hawaii. Given that Syracuse allowed fewer rushing yards per game than Hawaii in 2011 and returned an experienced front seven, it’s safe to say that the Trojan ground attack is trending up.
Still, Stanford’s is the best rush defense USC will face all season. Even though last year’s matchup went to triple-overtime, in that game the Trojans fell 15 yards short of their season average in rushing yards. The Cardinal’s dominant linebackers are back and better than ever, allowing 71 yards on the ground to San Jose State and just 27 against the Blue Devils.
Despite all that, what may win Stanford the ground battle are Saturday’s injuries to USC centers. Captain and starter Khaled Holmes, who was carted off the field in the fourth quarter, left the locker room on crutches and with a boot on his right ankle, and fifth-year senior Abe Markowitz was seen wearing a sling on his shoulder after the game. That’s a lot of pressure to put on redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi, listed as the Trojans’ second-string center before the injuries, and without a potential All-Pac-12 selection in Holmes on the field USC will have a harder time running the ball and will be vulnerable to Stanford’s strong pass rush.
But when it comes to the Trojans’ two electric receivers, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, the Cardinal may not have the same answers. This is the one facet of the USC offense that Stanford will be wholly unprepared to go up against if it duplicates its performance against the Blue Devils.
The aforementioned interceptions against Duke were big, of course, but the secondary is still not where it needs to be by next Saturday. Stanford was able to control the Blue Devils’ deep-threat wideout, limiting senior Conner Vernon to just 46 yards, but in the meantime Duke was able to find other receivers and went for 347 yards through the air on the evening. If the Cardinal can control either Lee or Woods, that’s a big victory, but USC’s second option will be far better than any of Duke’s.
For the second straight week, Stanford’s pass defense was porous in the third quarter, as the Blue Devils passed for 163 yards in the 15 minutes after halftime alone. That’s got to remind you of USC’s quick start to the third quarter against Stanford in 2011, when it erased a 10-6 halftime deficit to go up 20-10 in under five minutes. Some big rushes from McNeal fueled that surge, but this year’s game could get away from the Cardinal early in the second half if USC can exploit Stanford’s secondary consistently.
If Stanford’s pass-defense woes against Duke proved anything, it’s that USC should win next Saturday. But if—and only if—a much-improved secondary shows up for the top-25 showdown, the Cardinal very well could win.
And that’s the team we’ve been hoping for.