There are few — if any — rivalries around the country that have equalled Stanford-USC in excitement and spectacle over the last several seasons.
From the “Biggest Upset Ever” in 2007 to the “What’s your deal?” game in 2009, from the triple-overtime thriller in 2011 to “Unfinished Business” in 2012 and Trojan fans storming the Coliseum for the first time ever in 2013, if there’s anything to be learned, it’s to always expect the unexpected when these teams take the field against each other.
In the 2015 edition of the rivalry, No. 6 USC (2-0) is expected to handily dispatch Stanford (1-1) on Saturday. But that only adds to the intrigue.
“First thing Monday, when they come in, they know we have a very good opponent and we know that we have very few people that think we have a chance to find a way to win,” said head coach David Shaw. “I try to guide that. Attitude doesn’t win football games. Preparation does.”
After two sloppy weeks marred by poor execution against lesser opponents like Northwestern and Central Florida, the importance of the Cardinal’s preparation for their matchup against USC cannot be understated, especially given the unparalleled talent and explosive ability of the Trojans.
Mistakes are what killed the Cardinal in last year’s matchup, in which Stanford outgained USC 413-291 and drove past the USC 32-yard line on every drive but still lost 13-10 due to penalties, missed field goals and turnovers.
Stanford simply can’t afford to miss any opportunities that are bound to be few and far between on Saturday.
“We have to play our best football game,” Shaw said. “We can’t play like we did in the first two weeks to have a chance to beat a team like this. We have to be tight, we have to be together, we can’t make any mistakes.”
If recent history is any indication, though, this matchup has a tendency to play tighter than anyone expects year after year: The last five meetings between the two teams have been decided by a total of 23 points.
In order for the game to be close, Lance Anderson and the Stanford defense will need to figure out a way to stop a USC offensive juggernaut that has amassed 1,246 yards and 114 points in just two games.
For the Trojans, it all starts with third-year quarterback Cody Kessler, who was a preseason favorite for the Heisman Trophy and has certainly delivered on those expectations thus far, having completed 79 percent of his passes for 7 touchdowns and no turnovers. Although his career got off to a slow start, the quiet Kessler burst onto the scene as one of the most accurate and mistake-free quarterbacks in the country last season, which turned quite a few heads around the nation.
“He’s a better athlete than anybody gives him credit for,” Shaw said. “He throws great on the move, great from the pocket, he’s got a very, very nice, tight, quick throwing motion… He throws the ball very accurately in safe locations.”
Of course, it helps that Kessler has an elite corps of playmakers to throw the ball to, headlined by possibly the most talented receiver duo in the country, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson. Smith-Schuster has already caught 14 balls for 281 yards this season, and Jackson, who plays both ways as both a receiver and a cornerback, has already drawn Charles Woodson comparisons from Shaw.
Although Stanford can’t possibly hope to stop USC’s elite playmakers all game, Shaw believes that the Cardinal defense’s attention to solid schematic play can limit the Trojans’ yards-after-catch potential, and, as a result, their big-play ability.
“We try to think of it as our entire secondary against their core,” Shaw said. “Our guys have to know where our help is. It’s not just about going out there and taking those guys on one-on-one the whole game. It’s about taking something away from them and to where your help is. Your help’s got to be there. This is a big, big, big team defense game.”
Another big obstacle for Stanford’s defense will be the pace of the game. The Trojans began running an up-tempo offense before last season, which aims to wear down opponents and prevent defenders from being able to communicate and substitute between snaps.
This could be a particularly big problem for Stanford on the defensive line, where senior Nate Lohn has been ruled out for the game due to injury, essentially leaving Stanford with four playable linemen. And even then, the Cardinal will likely only play three of their linemen for the vast majority of the game.
That means that the challenge for fifth-year senior Brennan Scarlett, senior Aziz Shittu and sophomore Solomon Thomas will be monumental, not only in matching up with the Trojans’ monster offensive linemen, but also in doing so at breakneck pace without the possibility of a rest.
That’s not to say USC’s offensive line has been unbeatable — in fact, the Trojans yielded 5 sacks to Arkansas State in the season opener, something to which the defensive line and outside linebackers Joey Alfieri, Kevin Anderson and Peter Kalambayi are privy.
On the offensive side, the name of the game for Stanford will again be execution. Stanford does have the talent and personnel to move the ball against USC, but if the Cardinal can’t execute their gameplan and keep the chains moving, the beleaguered defense will be put under a lot more pressure, and points for Stanford will be few and far between.
That means the penalties, drops and missed blocks will need to go away. That means fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan needs to make his reads quickly. That means Christian McCaffrey needs to find his blockers and get into space.
“We have to take care of the ball, we have to run the ball and we have to do everything right on offense,” Shaw said.
And finally, Stanford will likely need to turn to a new face: freshman running back Bryce Love, the defending offensive player of the game. Shaw has admitted to using Love differently than he had with other freshmen in the past — giving Love some less-practiced plays that he hadn’t necessarily planned on before the game — and hinted on Wednesday after practice that much more was in store for the Cardinal’s young back.
Love has the potential to stretch the field laterally on sweeps and screens and has breakaway speed in the open field. He will look to be a threat that keeps USC’s defense off-balance, giving Stanford’s receivers and tight ends more room to work.
With all that said, though, Stanford is still facing an uphill battle on Saturday against the preseason favorites to win the Pac-12 Championship and claim a College Football Playoff berth. But maybe, for a Stanford team that played its best football in 2012 as an underdog, that might not be the worst thing.
“Every Saturday is going to be a challenge,” said fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris. “This week is going to be an extraordinary challenge.”
In this rivalry, we’ve certainly seen the improbable time and time again. Who’s to say that lightning can’t strike for the Cardinal on Saturday at the Coliseum?
The game will kick off at 5 p.m. and will be televised on ABC.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.