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November 15, 2013

USC vs. Stanford Game Preview

Game 11: 'When They Knock You Down, You're Gonna Get Back on Your Feet'

Stanford arrives fresh off its big win over Oregon. USC is playing its best football in at least two years. It's a big-time Homecoming battle at the Coliseum.

The USC Trojans (7-3, 4-2 Pac-12 South) host their annual Homecoming game this Saturday, November 16, at 5 p.m. PST against the Stanford Cardinal (8-1, 6-1 Pac-12 North) - ranked No. 5 by both the AP and USA Today polls and No. 4 by the BCS - in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national ABC broadcast television audience. It's the 92nd meeting between the schools (the teams first met in 1905, making Stanford the Trojans' longest-tenured rival) with USC holding a 59-29-3 edge. However, the Cardinal have won the past four meetings overall, as well as their past three trips to the Coliseum. The Trojans' last victory against Stanford was on the Farm in 2008 (45-23), and their last home win in the series was in 2005 (51-21).

A week ago, the Trojans rode a powerful rushing attack and some incredible special teams play to a 62-28 thumping of flailing California in Berkeley. Nelson Agholor returned a pair of punts 75 and 93 yards for touchdowns (tying Mike Garrett's school record for punt return TDs in a single game and breaking his single-game punt-return yardage record - both set at Cal in 1965), and Josh Shawreturned a blocked punt by Soma Vainuku 14 yards for another score. Tailback Javorious "Buck" Allen once again wowed, with rushing touchdowns of 43 and 79 yards, as well as a 57-yard score on a screen pass. Meanwhile, the Cardinal physically and emotionally decimated then-No. 2/3 Oregon in a not-remotely-that-close 26-20 victory in Palo Alto on Thursday, Nov. 7. It was Stanford's second-consecutive win over the Ducks (and third in the past five meetings), as running back Tyler Gaffney gained 157 yards in 45 carries - part of a gameplan that helped the Cardinal hold the ball for more than 42 of the game's 60 minutes.

Ed Orgeron, who was in his 11th season as a USC assistant (1998-2004; 2010-13) before becoming interim head coach on Sept. 29, spent three years as a head coach at Mississippi (2005-07), notching a 10-25 mark. He's 4-1 so far (4-0 in Pac-12 games) at USC. In Palo Alto, Stanford headman David Shaw (31-5, 22-3 Pac-12) is in third campaign leading the Cardinal after taking over for Jim Harbaugh. Shaw's steady but aggressive demeanor lives in the play of his no-frills, physical football team. The Cardinal know you know what they want to do on both offense and defense - and they really don't care. The attitude: stop it. It's an attitude that has completely changed the football dynamic, not only on the Farm, but across the conference - the Cardinal have gone from the Pac's bottom-feeder to its current marquee program in just seven years.

Stanford Offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren took over for Shaw, who served in the same role under Harbaugh. What hasn't changed much is Stanford's old-school belief in ball control using power running and play-action passing. Forget the fact that the Cardinal are the rare foe that lines up with a fullback and a tight end - Stanford often likes to use six, seven or even eight offensive linemen in some short-yardage sets. So while the Cardinal don't light up the scoreboard like some more "revolutionary" offenses (their 31.9 points per game rank 49th nationally), they will grind you down with a rushing attack that averages 205 yards per game (28th in the nation). Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan has become a solid game-manager and makes a big play right when you least expect it. He's completing 60.5 percent of his passes, with 13 TDs and just five picks. He's rarely pressured (Stanford's allowed just nine sacks in 2013) and is very capable on his feet - his 241 rushing yards rank second on the team.

When the Cardinal do throw, there are two clear leaders on the outside: juniors Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste. Montgomery's the speedy game-breaker, with 41 catches, averaging 15.6 yards per, and scoring five TDs. The 6-foot-4 Cajuste is a big target and averages a surprising 18 yards on 21 grabs, with four scores. Sophomore Kodi Whitfield (13 grabs, 12 yards per, one TD) is the only other Stanford wideout to reach double-digit catches so far in 2013. The Cardinal tight ends, who have been such a pass-catching force in recent years, have been utilized much more in blocking schemes in 2013.

It's Gaffney, though, who really carries the load for the Stanford offense. The senior is the nation's 12th-leading rusher, gaining 115.9 yards per game on the ground - and he does it with a no-nonsense, straightforward style. Seven times against Oregon a week ago, the Cardinal were faced with a third-down-and-two-or-less situation. Seven times they handed it to Gaffney. Seven times he followed his offensive line and fullback to a first down. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield, with 10 receptions, including one of his 14 total TDs coming through the air. Classmate Anthony Wilkerson will see time in Gaffney's stead, and averages about four yards per carry.

Stanford's offensive line continues to be one of college football's leading position groups. This crew features an impressive combination of talent, experience and depth. The 2013 fivesome - sophomore LT Andrus Peat and seniors David Yankey (LG), Khalil Wilkes (C), Kevin Danser (RG) and Cameron Fleming (RT) - started the season with three honors candidates, and has likely improved since then. Sophomores Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett are both capable and often see time in the Cardinal's extra-linemen sets.

Stanford Defense
Defensive coordinator Derek Mason appears to be in the process of making himself a lot of money as a head coach in the near future. In his fourth year at Stanford, the Cardinal's senior-laden defense has been perhaps its most fearsome during the school's football rebirth. While they don't force a lot of turnovers (just 13 in nine games), the Stanford defense is rarely out of position and is brutal at the line of scrimmage (30 sacks, fourth nationally; 98.7 rushing yards allowed per game, ninth nationally; 70 tackles for loss, 10th nationally). The Cardinal also rank in the national top 20 in total defense (348.8 yards per game), scoring defense (19.4 points allowed per game) and red-zone defense.

Stanford's 3-4 set lost a key player when defensive end Ben Gardner went down with a season-ending injury at Oregon State on Oct. 26. He had 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in seven-plus games. However, his loss coincided with the return of senior Henry Anderson, who took his place against Oregon - his first appearance since suffering a knee injury at Army on Sept. 14. He had five stops against the Ducks. Fellow seniors Josh Mauro (DE) and David Parry (DT) are both experienced starters and solid run stuffers. Mauro has four sacks among his 40 tackles, while Parry has 18 stops.

It is at linebacker, though, where the Cardinal's defensive star power truly resides. Senior inside linebackers Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley are Stanford's leading tacklers. Skov (72 stops, nine for loss, 3.5 sacks) is the flashier of the pair, but Tarpley (66 tackles, five for loss, INT, forced fumble) always seems to be in position. On the outside, senior Trent Murphy's 10 sacks rank third nationally. He's as good a pass rusher as you'll see in the Pac-12. On the other side, junior James Vaughters had perhaps his best game against Oregon (four tackles, one sack). Junior Kevin Anderson and senior Blake Lueders have teamed up for three sacks in back-up roles outside.

If there's a weak link on the Stanford defense, it is in the secondary. The Cardinal has allowed 250 passing yards per game and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 63.3 percent of their passes. Sophomore cornerback Alex Carter (43 tackles, 1 INT) is the defense's youngest starter. Across the way, junior Wayne Lyons has been solid, with 48 tackles (four for loss). And senior Usua Amanam not only plays the boundary, but has performed well at the nickel spot (35 tackles). But it's the safeties - senior free safety Ed Reynolds and junior strong safety Jordan Richards - that have been the key for this group. Reynolds has 58 tackles, while Richards has 46 stops and a team-leading three interceptions.

Stanford Special Teams
Senior Jordan Williamson handles the placekicking duties. He's made 27-of-28 PATs and 13-of-17 field goals - including converting 10-of-11 attempts shorter than 40 yards. He also has 20 touchbacks in 41 kickoffs. Senior Ben Rhyne is averaging 41.5 yards per punt, forcing 10 fair catches and dropping 14 inside the 20. Montgomery is the nation's leading kickoff returner, averaging more than 33 yards per opportunity. He has scored twice (99 yards vs. Washington and 100 yards at Utah). Whitfield handles punt returns and averages a modest 4.9 yards per try.

USC Offensive Gameplan
USC's offensive output the past two weeks against Oregon State and California has been strikingly balanced. The Trojans gained 489 total yards, 242 rushing, in Corvallis. A week later, USC notched 499 total yards, 256 rushing, in Strawberry Canyon. Trojan tailbacks Allen, Silas Redd and Ty Isaac accounted for nine touchdowns (seven rushing, two receiving), and Cody Kessler completed 31-of-38 passes for 417 yards and three scores, while throwing just one interception. USC's ability to maintain balance (while also showing off previously untapped big-play capability) is the blueprint Orgeron and Clay Helton had in mind when they took over following USC's ugly loss at Arizona State.

The emergence of Allen has been something to behold, but the return to health of USC's receiving corps - giving Kessler more targets and keeping defenses from loading up the box against the Trojan rushing attack - has been just as big. If Xavier Grimble is able to play Saturday and Randall Telfer makes his expected return, this will be the healthiest the group has been since early September.

And it's imperative that USC's receivers are healthy this week. In Stanford's two toughest games - its three-point home win over Washington and its only loss at Utah - the opposition completed 68.3 percent of its passes for 584 yards and four TDs. But the other key for the Huskies and the Utes was balance. Aside from its numbers against run-only Army, the Stanford defense had its biggest struggles against the run in those same games against UW and Utah. The two teams combined for 320 rushing yards and averaged four yards per carry. In other words, they stuck with the run no matter how tough the sledding, and reaped the benefits of a looser Stanford secondary, hitting for some crucial big plays. That's the idea this week for the Trojans - run the ball often enough and effectively enough to keep the Cardinal pass rush off of Kessler, and try to make some hay downfield with Agholor and Marqise Lee on play-action. One other thing to keep track of: the Trojans have been fast starters in 2013, especially of late - but Stanford's allowed just one first-quarter touchdown in nine games. Can the Trojans put one (or two) on the Cardinal early and knock them off balance?

USC Defensive Gameplan
Though Cal was eventually able to roll up 483 yards against the USC defense last Saturday, much of that came after the outcome was decided and the Trojans were as deep into their limited bench as they could get. USC held the Bears to 14 points well into the third quarter, and did enough to frustrate and disrupt the Cal passing attack. And, once again, they did it with a number of key players missing because of injury, including defensive end Leonard Williams, who rested a shoulder injury.

The past few weeks, USC has faced just about every breed of newfangled, high-speed pass happy offense. But Saturday, that all changes - and the Trojans seem rather excited at the opportunity. Why shouldn't they be? The two times USC has faced similar pro-style offenses as Stanford in 2013, they held Boston College and Notre Dame to 21 total points. Now, obviously, Stanford has more talent across the offensive line, an established personality as a team, and the confidence that comes with the amount of winning that's happened on the Farm in recent seasons. Stanford is not going to change who they are - but neither is this Trojan defense, and that should make for a bruising matchup.

The keys for USC are simple: contain Gaffney on early downs, keeping Stanford out of too many third-and-short opportunities (remember their success in such situations against Oregon last week); keep an eye on Montgomery in passing situations (he's Stanford's biggest outside threat, by a long way); and don't lose track of Hogan as a runner. It's crucial to neutralize the Stanford fullbacks as blockers, as Gaffney really follows in their footsteps in a big way. Additionally, USC hasn't seen a capable running quarterback in recent weeks - Hogan can hurt USC with his feet if they don't account for him in apparent passing situations. With the Trojans playing around 14 or 15 total defensive players in recent close games vs. Utah and Oregon State, that small group could wear down quickly if they don't get off the field early. If Stanford is picking up a lot of third downs in the first half, things could get very tough on the Trojan defense in the second half.

The Pick
Before the season, I was not a believer that Stanford was going to be able to continue it's recent BCS-bowl level of success. While the Cardinal D was clearly going to be stout, it was hard to find enough playmakers on the offensive side to believe the Cardinal could score consistently enough to avoid a some upset losses. Through nine games - outside of a messy loss in Salt Lake City - I've been wrong, and Shaw and a group of Stanford athletes who've bought into his program deserve all the credit.

However, Stanford's story coming into this matchup is nowhere near as astounding as the Trojans'. USC's unlikely turnaround in recent weeks has been something to behold, with Orgeron instilling a Pete Carroll-like swagger in his group, and players continually taking advantage of new opportunities. The team fought through apparently crippling injuries at midseason and has, for the most part, come out the other side playing with joy, passion and style. Just four weeks ago, following a disheartening loss at Notre Dame, it was nearly impossible to imagine these Trojans entering this game with much of a chance at all.

Yes, Stanford's won four straight over USC, but the last three were by a field goal at the gun, by a touchdown in triple OT and by a touchdown in regulation last season. The teams' styles lend themselves to close games when they face each other. Orgeron is right when he says it's going to come down to line play on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately for USC, the biggest question mark in that equation is the Trojan offensive line. But if that group can hold its own against Stanford's fierce front seven, USC has more than a puncher's chance. Yes, the Cardinal are - and should be - favored. I picked USC to win this one before the season began and - though I wouldn't be surprised in any way to see the Cardinal wear the Trojans down - I'm going to roll the dice on another standout performance from Allen, a big play from Lee and a massive "Fight On" effort from the Trojan defense.

USC 23, Stanford 17

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 13 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@me.com or followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)


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