Stanford football (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) cruised to a 41-10 victory over Colgate last weekend, returning to their winning ways after stumbling into a losing streak to end last season. No. 10 USC (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12), who lost four consecutive games to conclude its 2021 season, did the same in Week 1 with a 66-14 win over Rice. The only issue is, this is no ordinary USC team.
In Lincoln Riley’s first season at the helm, the Trojans look as explosive as ever. A plethora of transfers did not disappoint in their USC debuts, but it was the defense that made a huge impact with three pick-sixes. Stanford’s return to the field unveiled a new-look offense with an improved Tanner McKee and E.J. Smith, but will it be enough to overcome the star-studded Trojans? If history has shown us anything, it’s that you never know what to expect against the Cardinal in Stanford Stadium, especially if you’re USC.
The Daily’s Kaushik Sampath, Zach Zafran, Jibriel Taha and Noah Maltzman chime in on the positives of Stanford’s season opener, matchups this weekend’s game presents, and whether Stanford has another USC upset left in the tank.
Last week was the first time Stanford’s offense has truly clicked in over 11 months. What was the most promising showing on that side of the ball?
Kaushik Sampath (KS): I definitely think the skill positions were the most impressive part of the offense. Senior wide receiver Brycen Tremayne looked like his old self, and senior wide receiver Michael Wilson looks primed for a breakout season. Junior running back E.J. Smith showed off his elite vision on Stanford’s first touchdown of the season too. I don’t know if the Cardinal have enough to stick with USC’s offense, but it should be a better game than I would have anticipated before the season.
Zach Zafran (ZZ): Considering their opponent last week, I certainly want to take Stanford’s performance with a grain of salt. That being said, sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee looked like the second-coming of John Elway if Elway actually made a bowl game. The success of this team’s offense is predicated on how well its quarterback plays, and void of a small forgettable sequence in the third quarter, McKee was surgical in nearly every regard versus Colgate. With his receiving corps back and healthy, it appears like this could be a promising sign of things to come throughout the season.
Jibriel Taha (JT): It has to be the impact of having a healthy Tanner McKee and receiving corps. Aside from a blip in the third quarter, McKee was awesome, going 19-for-21 in the first half with the two misses being a drop and a deep ball. Colgate had a safety keying in on Yurosek, which opened up a bunch of one-on-ones for the Stanford wide receivers. As Kaushik said, it was great to see Michael Wilson healthy — McKee has a wealth of weapons at his disposal.
Noah Maltzman (NM): Like my colleagues, I have to say that Tanner McKee and the receiving corps was definitely the most promising, thanks in large part to the offensive lines’ play. While E.J. Smith had a fantastic 87-yard score, tied for the fifth-longest in Stanford football history, he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on his 10 other attempts. As I said before, the offensive line had a great showing, but much more for pass blocking than rush blocking. Out of the top 10 graded offensive players according to Pro Football Focus, five are linemen, and four out of those five had significantly higher pass blocking grades than run blocking grades — the odd man out being fifth-rated Myles Hinton. In general, the passing game looked great, especially the blocking up front, and as we all know the game is won in the trenches.
USC’s offense is headlined by transfers Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison. The personnel making up Stanford’s secondary is among the most talented bunch on the team’s roster. Who wins this matchup?
KS: I think USC’s offense gets the better of Stanford’s defense. First, their offensive line outweighs Stanford’s defensive line across the board. I think this size advantage will allow their line to effectively double team Stanford’s tackles and plaster themselves on the Cardinal’s linebackers on run plays. If they’re able to establish the run, Stanford may have to creep safeties into the box, which will allow for one-on-one opportunities for USC’s elite receivers. While Kyu Blu Kelly is a terrific cornerback, he alone won’t be able to stop Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.
ZZ: 12 different players caught a ball for USC last weekend. Twelve! I can see Stanford’s top corners doing well against their offensive matchups, but there is strength in numbers, and that is what USC has. While Stanford’s secondary has perhaps the greatest concentration of talent on the roster, the depth of USC’s receiving threats will be too much for the Cardinal. It’s a heavyweight matchup, but one that I have the Trojans taking.
JT: USC has the most talent at offensive skill positions in the conference, and they pose a major threat to every secondary in the country. I think that the Kelly/Bonner/Williamson/McGill/Fields secondary can hold their ground, but the front seven has to give them the chance to do so. They have to prevent USC from rushing all over them, and must get some pressure on Caleb Williams. And when they do get a chance at Williams, they can’t miss tackles. Otherwise, Williams will extend plays with his feet and torch the Cardinal.
NM: USC. And unfortunately for the Cardinal, it is incredibly hard to compete with them. Jordan Addison was not even the receiver with the most yards in the Trojan’s last game against Rice; that honor belongs to Tahj Washington. In addition, USC has three competent receiving running backs, those being Travis Dye, Raleek Brown and former Stanford running back Austin Jones, who led the Cardinal in rushing attempts and was fourth in receiving yards last season. While Stanford has a fantastic secondary, it will be insurmountably difficult to handle USC’s receiving corp, which consists of many top tier transfers and is coached by wide receiver specialist head coach Lincoln Riley, who coached receivers such as Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech, and Hollywood Brown and Ceedee Lamb at Oklahoma. With stellar players and coaching, it will be a tough uphill battle for the Stanford secondary.
Tanner McKee appeared like a whole new player in his junior season campaign, accounting for 308 yards and two touchdowns. However, the USC defense intercepted Rice’s quarterback four times — and returned three of them for touchdowns. Who gets the best of who here?
KS: I like Stanford’s offense in this matchup. Stanford and Rice don’t have comparable levels of talent on the perimeter, and I don’t think the Trojans can keep up with Stanford’s passing game. USC also looked vulnerable against the run, so it’s a chance for Stanford to show they can once again have a balanced attack on offense. While the Trojans defense did have three pick-sixes, it looked pretty bad in the first half against a Rice team that only won four games last season. They’re now playing an NFL-caliber quarterback who won’t make the same type of mistakes.
NM: I do not see another four interception performance by the USC defense, however I see them giving McKee trouble. McKee has excellent pocket presence and is more calm and collected on the field than last year. Three pick-sixes is frankly insane, and that was against a quarterback nowhere near McKee’s or the receiving corps’ talent. It will be another tough battle, but McKee could feasibly edge out a win in this category.
With Saturday’s game still more than two weeks removed from the start of classes, it seems like there will be very few students in the home crowd. What impact will the atmosphere have on the game?
KS: With or without students, Stanford has never been the most terrifying home environment to play in. However, I expect there to be more USC fans in the stadium than Stanford fans, which won’t bode well for the Cardinal. With all the new pieces still trying to integrate, USC may find itself feeling more comfortable than it would in a true road environment. Hopefully more locals will show up to the game to support Stanford’s upset bid.
ZZ: I’d disagree with Kaushik. I was lucky enough to see Christian McCaffery’s heyday and the electric crowds that came with it. The most memorable things from those times were not the student section, but the support that the other fans from the area brought. While this USC game will certainly not attract the largest crowd, I think people will be eager to see Lincoln Riley’s team for their last visit at Stanford Stadium as a Pac-12 program. Plus, USC’s fanbase isn’t the most intimidating. I see the crowd playing a very neutral role in this one.
NM: After going to every single Stanford home game that I could since 2015, I can definitively say that the amount of USC fans in Palo Alto will impact the game. Similar to the makeup of the Big Game’s crowd last year, there will be more Trojan fans to cheer and stomp against the Cardinal. Fans are an underappreciated part of a football game, and it is important to note the effect they have on the outcome. Seeing USC fans doing that weird peace-sign-chop thing will impact Stanford on the field. Will it be the end-all-be-all? Absolutely not. It is more like the extra pinch of salt in the chicken soup — making it more flavorful, but it is not like the soup will be bad without it.
Stanford has won nine of the last 14 meetings versus USC. Can they continue their relatively recent success against the Trojans this weekend? What are your score predictions?
KS: USC 45, Stanford 35. While I think it will be close, ultimately, I don’t think the Cardinal will be able to keep up with USC’s high powered offense. However, I think it will be much closer than some people believe due to Tanner McKee’s play.
ZZ: USC 42, Stanford 24. The USC offense will struggle at first but find their rhythm and be hard to stop by the middle of the game. Stanford will put up a fight and show flashes of winning football, but with the talent USC brings (or should I say bought), the Trojans will outlast the Cardinal and begin to walk away with it towards the end of the third quarter.
JT: USC 38, Stanford 28. The Trojans have so much firepower on offense and I’m worried about Stanford’s ability to stop the run and get pressure on Williams. Stanford should have a fine offensive game on Saturday, but it won’t be enough to keep up with USC.
NM: USC 42, Stanford 31. The quality of transfers Riley brought in is unparalleled by any other transfer class in FBS history. I see Stanford putting a dent in the USC team, but it will be close to impossible to beat the Trojans. In addition, for USC’s playoff hopes to stay alive, they better win this game in a dominant fashion. But who knows, the last time the Cardinal played USC, the Trojans had to fire their head coach because of how well Stanford played. Maybe it will happen again. Who knows.