The Stanford-USC rivalry game always gets blood boiling on both sides. The rivalry is perhaps even more tense now: the teams didn’t meet last year due to the Pac-12’s abbreviated schedule; the 2020 season was the first time since 1945 that the Cardinal did not face the Trojans.
No. 14 Southern California enters the 2021 game from a commanding 30-7 win against San Jose State, while the unranked Cardinal hope to improve upon a lackluster 24-7 loss to Kansas State. Led by junior quarterback Kedon Slovis, USC has captured three of the last four meetings at the Coliseum — including the most recent meeting, a 45-20 Trojan victory in 2019.
The Daily’s Jibriel Taha, Jacob Neidig, Ells Boone, Michael Espinosa and Daniel Wu comment on the Stanford quarterback question, establishing the run game and how to stop Slovis.
Cybele Zhang [CZ]: Last time the Cardinal and Trojans met, both teams had new starting quarterbacks. Davis Mills ’21 made his first career start after K.J. Costello ’20 was injured the week before against Northwestern — Slovis, then a true freshman, made his first start after J.T. Daniels (now at Georgia) went down the week before versus Fresno State. And the new-quarterback storyline continues this weekend: head coach David Shaw announced Tuesday that sophomore Tanner McKee would start over senior Jack West — the two will not rotate as they did Week 1. How does this decision change things for the Cardinal?
Jibriel Taha [JT]: As evident on Saturday, McKee has the higher ceiling of the two quarterbacks and looked to be in greater command of the offense than West did. While McKee missed his fair share of throws on Saturday, he still managed to record a passer rating of 156.7 and a QBR of 47.4, compared to West’s passer rating of 86.5 and QBR of 15.5. Those stats fail to take into account the dropped pick-six McKee threw — but nevertheless, the offense looked more dangerous when he was on the field. The Cardinal offense clearly needs time to gel, and ending the quarterback competition to allow McKee to get all of the first-team reps is a step in the right direction.
Jacob Neidig [JN]: I think this decision should have been made before the season — the consequences of indecisiveness were made even more transparent during the game last weekend. Tanner McKee is the future of the program and possesses a much higher upside than Jack West. I think starting McKee without any rotation shows an investment in the short-term and the long-term. Allowing him to build chemistry with teammates that he will need for the next few seasons will be invaluable. Waiting for the wrinkles to be ironed out, however, is going to be painful. I don’t think McKee will suddenly jump-start our offense into averaging 43.2 points per game as the offense did during Shaw’s first year as head coach. A better performance from everyone — including play-calling and personnel decisions from the offensive coaching staff, not just the quarterback — is required if the Cardinal want to perform better for the rest of the season.
Ells Boone [EB]: Like Jacob, I think McKee should have been the guy from the beginning, but we got there in the end. I think Shaw’s decision to not rotate quarterbacks against USC will help the offense immensely. McKee will have the chance to develop a rhythm, and it will prevent the offense from having to juggle between the two quarterbacks’ tendencies. Game-planning for Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard will also be easier. Now, starting McKee does not guarantee that the offense will play well or that the Cardinal will stroll into the Coliseum and get a win — but it does increase the team’s chances, in my opinion. McKee just has more potential, and he deserves a fair shot at realizing it.
Michael Espinosa [ME]: Tempo, tempo, tempo. Emmanuel Acho said at halftime on Saturday that the Cardinal couldn’t get into a rhythm. Stanford was running a play only every 38 seconds, and twice we saw the team burn a timeout because the formation was not set before the play clock was about to expire. That cannot happen against USC, and I don’t expect that will be the case. Nevertheless, I don’t have high hopes for the other aspects of the team.
Daniel Wu (DW): Everyone else has said it already: I don’t think there’s a single Cardinal fan who’s unhappy with the decision to start Tanner McKee, and the team has more upside in both the short- and long-term with him under center. I don’t expect it to change much in terms of how the Cardinal offense operates. Against Kansas State, Stanford was playing slow, bruising ShawballTM no matter who the quarterback was — something which won’t change unless they go down several scores to USC. Within that system, McKee has shown he can execute some of the time: he led the team’s two longest drives in Dallas, and he flashed his ability to scramble and place the ball for his big receivers. It’ll just come down to consistency. If it turns into a shootout, I hope the coaching staff lets McKee play loose and take some shots downfield sooner rather than later — the Cardinal will be going into the Coliseum to face a ranked team with nothing to lose.
CZ: The Cardinal running backs were virtually immobile last weekend. Junior Austin Jones had a net total of 25 yards, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, and sophomore E.J. Smith could only add 18 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. All other Stanford rushers were in single digits, if not negative yardage. How can the Cardinal establish the run play? Would it be possible to win without it?
JT: The mere 39 rushing yards the Cardinal recorded against Kansas State were not the fault of the running backs — it was on the offensive line. What was once one of the position groups that Cardinal fans had the most confidence in heading into the season is now a major area of concern. Having a dominant offensive line is vital if Stanford wants to achieve what they hope to on offense — and the lack of running lanes, as well as constant penalties, on Saturday were a massive disappointment. For the way the Cardinal play and with their current lack of an elite game-changing quarterback, it’s nearly impossible for Stanford to win without a strong run game.
JN: It couldn’t have been said any better. While the quarterback position is undoubtedly the focus after last week’s game, the offensive line is actually my biggest concern. When integrating a new quarterback into an offense and attempting to build their confidence, a strong ground game and time to throw the ball are critical. Having a rushing attack that forces the defense to stack the box creates one-on-one matchups in the secondary that lead to better results. On top of that, having time to throw gives inexperienced quarterbacks the time to read and react to the defense as they build their decision-making ability. The Stanford offensive line did not provide either against Kansas State — a disappointing shock, given that most people expected the unit to be one of the strong points for the Cardinal. Stanford averaged fewer than two yards per carry and gave up four sacks last weekend. Without an improvement in the trenches, the offense is going to struggle, no matter who is receiving the snap.
EB: I agree with Jibriel and Jacob — the running issue Week 1 was not because of the running backs. Personally, I was shocked that the offensive line struggled against Kansas State, given how well they played down the stretch last season. The unit was responsible for a few penalties, which cost the team some much-needed momentum at times. To establish the run against the Trojans on Saturday, the offensive line will need to improve quickly. Junior Drake Nugent and sophomore Myles Hinton now have their first starts under their belts. Stanford has the running backs to do some serious damage, but they need the offensive line to do its part. As for the Cardinal’s chances of winning without the run game, Tanner McKee would need to have a huge game for that to happen. David Shaw’s offenses have always been built on the run, and I do not see that style changing anytime soon.
DW: The Tunnel Workers’ Union will decide this game. If they play as they did in Dallas, Stanford’s slim chances for an upset will disappear. A slow, ball-control game established by the offensive line is the strongest defense Stanford has against USC’s wide receiver firepower, and will also determine how much is asked of McKee in his first start. Not too long ago, it was well within this unit’s capabilities. It’s too early to assess if the offensive line’s performance against K-State was an issue with coaching, replacing starters or just a one-off hiccup in a new timezone. But at the very least, Stanford has to get rid of the penalties that stalled multiple drives against K-State. That will be tough in the Coliseum.
CZ: Last time USC and Stanford met, Slovis threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns, completing nearly 85% of his passes. What does the Cardinal defense need to do this weekend to prevent a repeat of the 2019 game? Junior Kyu Blu Kelly’s (the son of former USC All-Conference cornerback Brian Kelly) first-quarter interception in the endzone was arguably the most impressive single play in Dallas. Can the Cardinal repeat such a play? Is fifth-year TE/DE Tucker Fisk’s single sack the D-line’s only hope?
JT: The defense cannot get off to a rough start like it did against Kansas State. That said, Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson deserves credit for making the necessary halftime adjustments and getting a much-improved second-half performance out of his group, and hopefully they will pick up where they left off. If not, digging a big deficit for themselves would force an inexperienced quarterback and a Michael Wilson–less wide receiver group to take over the game — something that Stanford cannot count on to happen. The Cardinal’s front seven must have a stellar game, as the Trojans’ excellent wide receiver corps will likely have their way with a depleted Cardinal secondary if Stanford cannot pressure Slovis and stop the run.
JN: While there was definitely room for improvement on the defensive end, I was much more pleased with their performance as a unit against Kansas State than the offense’s. In the second half, the Cardinal gave up fewer than 100 yards of offense and held the Wildcats to just 10 points, seven of which came on a short field after a turnover. If the Cardinal defense can continue to play that way for all four quarters, find some ways to get pressure on Slovis and force turnovers, I don’t see any reason why he can’t be shut down. Bit if the defense plays like they did in the first half, giving up explosive plays and touchdowns, it could be another long day for the Stanford faithful. I’ll be looking for senior defensive end Thomas Booker and fifth-year defensive tackle Dalyn Wade-Perry to step up in the trenches and senior linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar, who is expected to return from injury, to make an impact in the second level.
ME: I’m going to have my eye on our cornerbacks. Kyu Blu Kelly can’t stop Slovis’s passing on his own. It’ll take senior Ethan Bonner and junior Zahran Manley to stay close to USC’s wide receiving corps.
EB: Stanford’s defense started off poorly against Kansas State last weekend, but they grew into the game and played a very solid second half. If they can keep that improvement up, they’ve got a shot against USC. We all know what Slovis can do, and he has a dangerous group of wideouts led by Drake London. The Cardinal secondary will have to come to play, and will need to rely on more than just Kelly. As for the defensive line, Thomas Booker needs to show why he is one of the conference’s best D-linemen, especially after getting locked up by the Wildcats’ offensive line. Hopefully, we will also see more of Tucker Fisk at the DE spot. This test will be tough for Lance Anderson’s unit, and the team will need to be at the top of its game to come out of the Coliseum with a win.
DW: As loaded as USC’s passing attack is, their offensive line actually feels like a vulnerability the Stanford defense can key in on. The Trojans gave up two sacks and seven tackles-for-loss against San Jose State, and they’re replacing a first-round draft pick at left tackle. If Stanford is going to hold Kedon Slovis at bay, it’ll be in the backfield, not with a depleted secondary. I think the Cardinal front seven are up to the task. Stanford’s rotation of defensive linemen produced results, and Ricky Miezan’s return at ILB was a breath of fresh air for what was a razor-thin position last year. In his postgame interview, Miezan said that returning to the Coliseum would be an emotional game for him and fellow senior, Mangum-Farrar — it’s where both of them picked up injuries that sidelined them for so long. I’m excited to see what the duo do on their redemption tour.
CZ: USC leads the all-time series between the only two private universities in the Pac-12, 62-33-3. What are your scoreline predictions for this weekend?
JT: Stanford 17, USC 31: USC did not look spectacular against San Jose State, and Stanford will be better than they were last week — but there are just too many concerns for the Cardinal at the moment.
JN: Stanford 20, USC 34: I think some of the concerns in the Stanford secondary will be exposed by Slovis, and while the offense figures out how to score before garbage time, the Trojans will end up winning the 100th matchup of the series by two touchdowns.
EB: Stanford 24, USC 38: Stanford’s offense will come out ready to make amends after almost getting shut out in week one, but USC’s offensive firepower will prove too much for the Cardinal D — Kedon Slovis and Drake London will combine for a few scores. Stanford can show plenty of improvement, though, and can carry it forward into the rest of its schedule.
ME: Stanford 14, USC 34: Boy, did I have to adjust my expectations after last week’s game. As much as I hope our corners can put on a show on Saturday, I wouldn’t be surprised if Slovis walks all over Stanford. Our editor Cybele certainly loves these predictions.
DW: Stanford 31, USC 28: Why do we have a USC fan as our editor again? There’s been so much gloom across the Cardinal message boards — so here’s a very optimistic tonic. Stanford can win if they rediscover the quality of the run game they had only a few games ago, bully the Trojan’s offensive line and get lucky with turnovers or chunk plays from Jones or McKee. I’m not holding my breath. But this team is better than the disaster we saw against K-State, and they should be fired up to play spoiler on the road on primetime TV.