The last visiting team to win at the Coliseum comes calling — but Stanford is likely to be trounced by a refocused Trojan team
The USC Trojans (4-0, 2-0 in the Pac-10), top ranked in the USA Today and Harris polls and No. 2 in the AP poll, kick off a two-game Pac-10 homestand Saturday, Oct. 6, against the Stanford Cardinal (1-3, 0-3) at 4 p.m. (PDT) in the Los Angeles Coliseum and before a national Versus cable network TV audience. USC is 58-24-3 against the Cardinal in a series that dates to 1905 (making Stanford USC's oldest rival). The Trojans have won the past five meetings, scoring nearly 44 points per game in those contests. However, the Cardinal was the last visitor to escape the Coliseum with a victory before the Trojans' current 35-game home winning streak, defeating USC, 21-16, on Sept. 29, 2001.
A week ago, USC escaped Seattle with a 27-24 victory against Washington. The Trojans outgained the Huskies, 460-190, but USC's 16 penalties, three turnovers and numerous other mental errors kept the game much closer than most expected. Meanwhile, Stanford saw a close game in the second quarter blow up once again, as Arizona State routed the Cardinal, 41-3, in Palo Alto.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his seventh season at USC (69-12, 44-7 Pac-10) having led the Trojans to five consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Stanford headman Jim Harbaugh (1-3 at Stanford, 30-9 overall, 0-3 Pac-10) is in his first season on the Farm, after serving as the head coach at Division I-AA San Diego, where the Toreros won I-AA mid-major national titles the past two seasons. After a four-game opening homestand, this is Harbaugh's first road contest as Cardinal coach.
Until an anemic performance against the Sun Devils, the Cardinal offense had improved decisively over its performance a year ago. After averaging just 232 total yards and less than 11 points per game in 2006, Stanford is notching 385 yards and 22 PPG in 2007. However, the Cardinal were held to –2 yards rushing by ASU, and on Sunday, senior quarterback T.C. Ostrander, who had built on his five starts to close the 2006 campaign by throwing for 1,065 yards in the first four games, suffered a seizure while eating lunch. The Cardinal will hold him out of this week's game for precautionary reasons, meaning sophomore Tavita Pritchard, who has thrown three passes in his college career, will get the start. At 6'4", Pritchard is mobile, but an otherwise unknown quantity.
At receiver, seniors Mark Bradford and Evan Moore went down with early injuries a year ago, but have stayed healthy so far in 2007 – and it's paid off. The speedy Bradford has 16 grabs (including one score), while the 6'7" Moore has 14 catches. Sophomore Richard Sherman, however, has become Stanford's go-to guy and deep threat, with 20 catches and two TDs. Sophomore tight ends Jim Dray and Ben Ladner have gotten a better workout in coordinator David Shaw's system. The pair has combined for 18 catches and two scores.
Starting RB Anthony Kimble, a junior, fell off what had been a solid start, by gaining just 19 yards against ASU. He's still averaging 4.9 per carry and about 72 yards per contest, with three TDs. He's also a pass-catching threat, with 10 grabs in four games. Sophomore Toby Gerhart has missed three of four games with an injury, but pounded San Jose State for 140 yards in just 12 carries. Freshman Jeremy Stewart has seen limited action in all four games. Fullbacks Owen Marecic and Josh Catron are used as blocking backs – Marecic has the only touch between the two this season, an eight-yard reception.
The Farm's front five has some solid experience and had done a much better job protecting Ostrander, until the Sun Devils racked up seven sacks a week ago. They've now allowed 15 sacks in four games. Center Tim Mattran was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all of 2006 and is the fourth Rimington Award watch-lister to face USC in 2007. Junior left tackle Allen Smith and classmate RG Alex Fletcher have each started 24 games on the Farm, but Smith has a torn left patellar tendon, and junior replacement Ben Muth has struggled. Sophomore RT Chris Marinelli is a budding star.
How do you allow an average of 35 points per game after four contests – when you shut out one of your opponents? Easy, just give up 45, 55 and 41 points in the other three games. To say the Cardinal defense has been Jekyll-and-mostly-Hyde would be an understatement. However, one must consider that the shutout was against San Jose State, one of the worst offenses in college football during this young 2007 season. Against UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State, the Cardinal allowed an average of more than 550 yards per contest. Quite simply, defensive coordinator Scott Shafer is bringing along a pretty green — and not overly talented — group.
The problems start up front, where Stanford has switched back to a traditional 4-3 look from the 3-4 they'd been playing in recent seasons. The Cardinal have allowed 242 yards per game on the ground to UCLA, Oregon and ASU. Junior end Pannel Egboh and sophomore nose tackle Ekom Udofia are the leaders here, with Udofia having the talent to blossom into a major star eventually. However, he's expected to sit this week with an ankle injury. Sophomore Levirt Griffin and senior Chris Horn had been splitting time at the other tackle spot, but both will start Saturday. Sophomore Erik Lorig mans the other end.
Replacing team leader Michael Okwo from a year ago has been a tough task for the Farm's linebacker group. Sophomore Fred Campbell, who earned the starting MLB spot in camp, had to retire from football after suffering a neck injury in the Cardinal's second game. Redshirt freshman Nick Macaluso took over and has been a little overwhelmed so far. Sophomore Clinton Snyder is the lone returning starter on the strong side and is fourth on the team with 23 tackles, but leads the team with 3.5 sacks. Junior Pat Maynor is Stanford's second leading tackler (31) from the weakside, and has notched double-figure tackles against both Oregon and UCLA.
The Stanford secondary has posted results similar to the rush defense. Take out the SJSU game and the Cardinal have allowed an average of 309 passing yards per contest. Also, they have notched only two interceptions in 2007. Sophomore free safety Bo McNally has been impressive, leading the team with 40 tackles. Junior Wopamo Osaisai and senior Nick Sanchez have decent experience at corner, but neither are what you'd call playmakers. Sophomore Austin Yancy is learning on the job at strong safety. Senior CB Tim Sims and freshman safety Taylor Skaufel also see time, with Sims serving in nickel situations.
Stanford Special Teams
Senior Derek Belch has taken over the placekicking duties on top of the kickoffs he handled a year ago. The results have been generally solid, as he's made 6-of-9 FG chances, including a 50- and a 52-yarder. He has only one touchback in 18 kickoffs, and the Cardinal give up nearly 25 yards per kick return. Senior punter Jay Ottovegio averages nearly 42 yards per boot, but the Cardinal give up nine yards per return. Sophomore Chris Hobbs handles punt returns but hasn't been much of a threat. And Kimble has been average on kickoff returns.
USC Offensive Gameplan
Turnovers, penalties, dropped balls and other mistakes thwarted what could have been another impressive performance by the USC offense in Seattle. Still, the Trojans gained a very balanced 460 yards and showed some explosiveness with big plays in both the passing and running games. As long as USC clears up its penalty issues – something Carroll-coached teams have always done well – and plays with more focus, this offense will be tough for anyone to stop. With Stanford's struggles against Pac-10 offenses, the Trojans and John David Booty should be able to exploit the Cardinal's blitzing defense.
Stanford's defense has a blitz-at-all-costs mentality under the new regime and the Cardinal have done a better job getting to the quarterback so far this year. They also use various zone blitz packages in an attempt to confuse quarterbacks and offensive linemen. That confusion aspect hasn't worked so well, as the Cardinal – even with improved pressure – have just two interceptions. With center Kristofer O'Dowd and guard Chilo Rachal out with knee injuries for the next few weeks, it will be on replacements Matt Spanos and Zack Heberer to communicate well against the Cardinal pressure. If they do, the middle of the field has been wide open against the gambling Stanford defense – and USC's playmakers could have a huge day with catch-and-run plays.
Patrick Turner has regained his leadership role with back-to-back solid performances. It will be interesting to see if Fred Davis, Stanley Havili and, perhaps, Vidal Hazelton have big performances on Saturday. With C.J. Gable out for the season with groin surgery and Stafon Johnson doubtful for Saturday because of a bruised foot, expect to see Joe McKnight, Hershel Dennis, Allen Bradford and Desmond Reed, who played well at UW, to all get a shot behind Chauncey Washington.
USC Defensive Gameplan
With all the hemming and hawing about the offensive miscues a week ago, the defense's solid performance (save a couple of ill-timed – and questionable – penalties) was lost in the shuffle. Washington's Jake Locker was contained both on the ground and in the air as the Huskies didn't break the 200-total-yard barrier. Linebackers Rey Maualuga and Thomas Williams, defensive end Lawrence Jackson and cornerback Terrell Thomas all contributed mightily to the cause.
Against the Cardinal, it's unlikely that viewers will see much more offensive success for a USC opponent. Even if Ostrander was capable of playing, the Cardinal's questionable running attack and inconsistent offensive line would have made things difficult for Harbaugh against the Trojans. With the totally untested Pritchard under center, the Cardinal offense might be hard pressed to gain more than 150 yards. They are simply outmanned across the field, and their scheme is not one that would normally give the Trojans problems.
Expect USC to force a number of turnovers in this one – perhaps turning around the Trojans' disappointing turnover ratio numbers so far. With cornerback Shareece Wright apparently out and cornerback Cary Harris still questionable, the Cardinal's only hopes lie with their passing attack. But Pritchard is likely to be harassed and hammered from the very first snap – making it pretty hard to get the ball to his solid group of receivers.
The Trojans enter the softest part of their remaining schedule still looking over their shoulders at the scare they gave themselves in Seattle. Needless to say, Carroll will likely be using some lessons learned against UW for much of the rest of the year.
This week, the freshness of the scare (and, perhaps, the loss of the top ranking in the AP poll) should serve as solid motivators for the Trojans. While the much of the media is playing up the comments Harbaugh has made about Carroll and the Trojans since taking the Stanford job, it's doubtful that USC needs those for motivation. However, don't be shocked if Carroll tries to prove a small point by letting his defense loose on the Cardinal offense for deep into the second half.
The keys to this game are for USC to limit its own mental mistakes and get the passing attack back on track after an up-and-down performance. If USC plays a clean, crisp game on offense, the battle should be over by halftime. USC 52, Stanford 0.
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for seven years. He is the editor-in-chief of a monthly trade magazine in the television advertising industry and is a graduate of the USC School of Journalism (1994). He has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org.