An in-depth preview of the Card’s showdown against USC

Sept. 15, 2012, 7:07 a.m.

Everyone knows what’s at stake today when No. 2 USC Trojans head to Stanford Stadium in an attempt to avenge three-straight gut-wrenching losses to Stanford. A win for the Cardinal, and it is firmly in the race for The Rose Bowl, if not more. A loss, especially if it isn’t close, and Stanford could find itself struggling for a respectable bowl berth. There’s been no shortage of dramatic stories about the game, so here is the in-depth preview of the matchups to look out for that will decide the football game.

Stanford running game vs. USC defensive line: 
A lot of people were quick to call out Stanford’s running game after the Duke win for being held under 100 yards. However, the coaches and players aren’t too concerned, as Duke played with nine defenders in the box for most of the game. Stanford didn’t run often, but it ran well enough to set up that deadly play-action passing game. For Stanford to have a chance of upsetting USC, it’ll need to dominate in the trenches, and that starts with the running game.

USC’s defensive line was its weakest unit heading into the season, and to make matters worse, they lost starting defensive end Devon Kennard to a torn pectoral muscle for almost certainly the entire season. Stanford needs to attack this unit early and often to create manageable third downs, set up the play action and perhaps most importantly, keep Matt Barkley and the potent Trojan offense off the field. If The Tunnel Workers Union plays to its potential, Stanford could be celebrating its unprecedented fourth straight win over the Men of Troy around 8 p.m. tonight.

Josh Nunes vs. the Trojan defense:
The other big matchup to look out for on the offensive end is a bit less conventional, Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes vs. USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Josh Nunes seemed to have trouble going through his progressions against Duke when the first receiver he looked for was covered. Luckily for Nunes, Stanford so overmatched the Dukies that his receivers were able to catch a lot of the 50/50 balls thrown into tight coverage. That isn’t going to be the case against USC, guided by legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. I’m certain that, after watching Stanford’s tape, Monte Kiffin will try to complicate his defensive schemes to force Nunes into longer progressions. Stanford’s offensive line should provide time for Nunes against an injury-depleted USC defensive line, but will Nunes be patient in the pocket and eventually find his open receiver or will he force throws and pay the price?

Stanford defense vs. USC passing game:
The part of the game that has most Stanford fans worried is stopping the explosive USC offense, led by Heisman frontrunner quarterback Matt Barkley. The matchup that keeps me up at night is USC wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee vs. Stanford’s secondary. Coach Shaw said that the Woods/Lee tandem is the best wideout 1-2 punch he has ever seen in college football, and might even be the best in college football’s modern era. Their explosiveness is downright scary, and Stanford will not stop them. The goal for the Cardinal secondary will be to limit the damage as much as possible and take full advantage of Barkley’s few mistakes. Shaw, along with both Ed Reynolds and Terrence Brown, stressed the importance of gang tackling for Stanford to be successful on Saturday with limiting yards after the catch. If Stanford cannot do this, then USC can completely neutralize the Stanford pass rush with short passes all the way to an easy victory. However, if Stanford can stop Woods and Lee from breaking free on bubble screens and other short routes, then Stanford’s ferocious pass rush could force Barkley into trouble. Ed Reynolds has already shown he can make a big play out in centerfield when quarterbacks are rushed (3 interceptions in 2 start); he just needs everyone around him to play with great fundamentals to give him a chance.

In the trenches:
There is a shining light of hope for the Cardinal in one key spot defensively, Stanford’s defensive line vs. USC’s offensive line. This is a big mismatch in favor of the Cardinal, but simply winning this matchup won’t be enough for Stanford. Stanford’s three down linemen need to dominate the line of scrimmage to free up as many linebackers and safeties as possible to help defend Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and the USC passing game. In addition, any pressure that Terrence Stephens, Ben Gardner, and Henry Anderson can generate themselves will take additional strain off the linebackers in all facets of the game.

The wildcard in this matchup is the health of USC’s centers Khaled Holmes and Abe Markowitz. Holmes was carted off the field with a leg injury against Syracuse and Markowitz left the stadium in a sling. There are rumors that Holmes is trying to play but Markowitz is definitely out. If Holmes can’t play, it’ll come down to third-string center Cyrus Hobbi, who as a redshirt freshman seriously lacks game experience. Look for Stanford nose tackle Terrence Stephens to go to town on Hobbi and try to collapse the USC offense from its core. If Stanford can pull off the upset, there’s a good chance Terrence Stephens gets the game ball.

This is in no way shape or form going to be an easy game for the Cardinal to win. Like every college football fan’s good friend Kirk Herbstreit, I don’t like giving predictions on games that I’m going to broadcast, but I am going to go out on a limb here. If Stanford’s defense scores a touchdown, the Cardinal will win the game. Otherwise, Matt Barkley and the Trojans avoid losing four straight to Stanford for the first time in history. So, is there a little magic left to keep the run alive?

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.

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