Game 3: 'Workin' for the Weekend …'
Can the Trojans put an end to Stanford's late game heroics that have marked the teams' recent battles during the traditional Bay Area Weekender?
The USC Trojans (2-0), ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press and No. 3 by the USA Today coaches' poll, make their annual pilgrimage to the San Francisco Bay Area to kick off the Pac-12 schedule against the Stanford Cardinal (2-0, No. 21 AP/No. 16 USA Today). The game is set for 4:30 p.m. (PDT) on Saturday, Sept. 15 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., and in front of a national FOX television audience. The 91st meeting between the two schools in USC's oldest rivalry (dating to 1905) will kick off with Troy holding a 59-28-3 edge. However, Stanford has won four of the past five meetings, including a 56-48 triple-OT victory last October in the Coliseum and a 37-35 nail biter in the last Bay Area meeting in 2010.
A week ago, the Trojans traveled to the New York metro area and survived an odd atmosphere, strange weather and a pesky Syracuse offense to topple the Orange 42-29. Matt Barkley put up one of the oddest stat lines - 187 yards passing, 6 TDs - you'll ever see from a quarterback, but the Trojans were never seriously threatened by more than the thunderstorms that forced a 70-minute delay during halftime. Meanwhile, Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes, the young man tasked with replacing Cardinal legend Andrew Luck, threw for 275 yards and three scores in a 50-13 victory over Duke on the Farm.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (27-13 career collegiate head coaching record; 20-7 at USC) is in his third season at USC. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Meanwhile, Stanford headman David Shaw is in his second season at the helm of the Cardinal. He sports 13-2 mark since taking over for Jim Harbaugh (now the leader of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers), yet still faces a number of questions from pundits due to the Harbaugh/Luck combo that build Stanford into a recent powerhouse. Shaw was the offensive coordinator and running backs coach under Harbaugh, and he has stuck with the same physical brand of football that redefined the Cardinal program.
Offensive coordinator/QB coach Pep Hamilton obviously faces one of the toughest tasks in college football in 2012 - replacing not only the physical talents of Luck, but also his unbelievable capacity as a leader and on-field coach. Fortunately, the Cardinal's pro-style scheme that emphasizes a physical rushing attack takes some of the heat off of Hamilton and Nunes, a junior who beat out Brett Nottingham for the starting job. Nunes struggled mightily against San Jose State in the opener, throwing for just 125 yards, but improved nicely against Duke, as the Cardinal allowed him to look downfield more. He has NFL size at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and has thus far been confined to pocket passing. It will be interesting to see how he grows into the position throughout 2012, but there's no doubt he faces his toughest test yet this Saturday.
Similarly, the Cardinal came into the new season looking to replace their starting receivers of a season ago, Chris Owusu and Griff Whalen. Senior speedster Drew Terrell has two scores among his six receptions thus far, while sophomore Ty Montgomery leads Stanford with seven catches (averaging 12.4 yards per grab). Stanford, though, remains excellent at tight end, where redshirt juniors Zach Ertz (six receptions) and Levine Toilolo (four grabs, including a TD) have picked up right where they left off in 2011.
Senior Stepfan Taylor is a beast at running back for the Cardinal - and, to be honest, the real key to Stanford's 2012 offensive fortunes. He ranks third on Stanford's career lists for career rushing yards, rushing TDs and 100-yard rushing games. Not only is he averaging 4.6 yards on his 40 carries thus far (with 2 TDs), he is also an excellent pass catcher (five receptions in 2012). He's also carrying more of the load than ever before this year, as junior Anthony Wilkerson has been limited to just seven carries in two games. Fullback Ryan Hewitt, a redshirt junior, an outstanding blocker and a solid receiver, appears ready to make his 2012 debut after missing the first two games with an injury.
Stanford also suffered two huge losses on the offensive line after 2011, as both Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro headed to the NFL. However, the Cardinal also scored what many considered to be one of the best offensive line recruiting classes in recent history. This is a solid group, led by senior center and team captain Sam Schwartzstein. Redshirt sophomore David Yankey, who started at left guard in 2011, has so far started at left tackle in 2012, but is versatile. Which is good news, because freshman Andrus Peat is coming on at the tackle spot, seeing his first game action last week. At LG, you'll see junior Khalil Wilkes or Yankey (if Peat sees action), while redshirt junior Kevin Danser is trying to fill DeCastro's shoes. Redshirt sophomore Cameron Fleming was a freshman All-American a season ago and returns at right tackle.
After splitting duties with the departed Jason Tarver a season ago, Derek Mason has taken the defensive coordinator reins in 2012. Still operating out of an attacking 3-4 scheme that mixes looks and moves around quite a bit pre-snap, the Cardinal have allowed just 49 rushing yards per game in the season's first two weeks and have notched five sacks. Stanford will bring pressure from just about anywhere and likes to try to confuse the opponent's offensive line and quarterback. However, the Cardinal have allowed 290 passing yards per game this season, and opposing quarterbacks are completing more than 67 percent of their throws. Stanford has been opportunistic, though, forcing six turnovers (four INTs) in two games.
Redshirt junior end Ben Gardner is a leader on the line and a Lombardi Award candidate, with nine tackles so far in 2012, including a sack. He is joined by senior nose guard Terrence Stephens, who forced the game-ending fumble in the Coliseum a season ago, and redshirt sophomore end Henry Anderson.
As usual, Stanford's linebackers are key playmakers - and this is a talented, experienced group. Senior outside backer Chase Thomas (11 tackles, three for a loss) and junior outsider Trent Murphy (two tackles for loss) have continued their solid play as a duo. The return of Shayne Skov from a season-ending knee injury a year ago (and a one-game suspension to start the season following some legal issues) to one inside spot has Stanford fans excited. And, with redshirt junior Jarek Lancaster (12 stops) filling in well in Skov's absence, he's become a key rotation player for the group. James Vaughters starts at the other inside spot.
The Cardinal is a little less experienced in the secondary, but a group that has given up a lot of yards so far has also been very active on the turnover front. Junior free safety Ed Reynolds leads the nation with three picks in two games, while sophomore strong safety Jordan Richards has 11 tackles to go with his interception last week vs. Duke. At corner, juniors Barry Browning and Terrence Brown have struggled a bit (Brown is among team leaders with 11 tackles). But the real revelation in this group has been senior nickel back Usua Amanam, who leads Stanford with 13 tackles and two sacks.
Stanford Special Teams
Sophomore placekicker Jordan Williamson has bounced back nicely from a disastrous performance in the Fiesta Bowl. He's five-of-six so far on field goal attempts, including a 46-yarder and game-winning 20-yarder against San Jose State. He also handles kickoff duties. Senior punter Daniel Zychlinski is averaging 42 yards per boot. Wideout Terrell has been fantastic on punt returns so far, averaging more than 22 yards, including a 76-yard TD vs. Duke. Montgomery was Stanford's lead returner a year ago, but has been splitting time with Alex Carter so far in 2012.
USC Offensive Gameplan
USC was able to get its rushing attack going in an otherwise odd and disjointed performance in the Meadowlands against Syracuse. Not only did Silas Redd knock out 107 yards on the ground in front of a slew of family and friends from Connecticut, but the Trojans also put the reverse in upcoming opponents' minds, with both Marqise Lee and Robert Woods looking impressive running with the football. Still, any Trojan fan has to hope that USC's conservative passing attack was about preserving some concepts for the upcoming Pac-12 race rather than a sign of things to come, especially with Khaled Holmes' late-game injury putting the offensive line in question for now.
With Abe Markowitz and redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi splitting reps at guard and center this week, there is some concern that Barkley could face a lot of pressure from Stanford's active front seven. It is imperative that whoever gets the nod at center and Barkley be on the same page with protections and reads to keep the quarterback out of harm's way. A great way to do that would be for Redd and Curtis McNeal to produce early and often against what has been an impressive run defense early in 2012.
Still, Lee and Woods should have a distinct physical advantage over the Stanford secondary. USC's passing attack has been rather successful against the Cardinal in each of the past two heartbreaking defeats, and there's no reason - based on early results or personnel - that anyone should believe that this game will be any different. One more thing to look for: with Stanford's linebackers attacking at the line of scrimmage, is this finally the week we see USC's tight ends get more looks from Barkley?
USC Defensive Gameplan
USC's young defensive line continued to grow against Syracuse, with Morgan Breslin continuing a rapid ascent toward stardom. Dion Bailey was, as usual, in the right place at the right time, notching a pair of interceptions. But the struggles of the USC secondary continued, as Syracuse was able to top 300 yards passing against the Trojans.
Will Anthony Brown, Torin Harris or Kevon Seymour be able to up their game at the corner opposite Nickell Robey and help the front seven? Facing a Stanford team that operates out of more traditional sets and utilizes the tight end so well, expect to see USC in its base 4-3 defense plenty on Saturday. Additional defensive backs will likely be called upon less often in this game than in USC's first two matchups.
Does that favor the Trojans? I believe so. USC's linebackers will be crucial in this game, both against Taylor in the run game and against the Stanford tight ends - and the Trojan linebackers may very well be the best part of USC's defense. With Nunes still working out the kinks like every new starter would at this point, expect the Trojans to key on Taylor and try to force the Stanford quarterback into difficult third-down situations.
The annual Bay Area Weekender is one of the great traditions that come with being a Trojan. USC fans traverse the state to assemble in San Francisco for a weekend of food, beverage and fun. What's been less fun, recently, is the trek south on Saturday to Palo Alto.
This Stanford team - though missing Luck and other key offensive parts - is a solid and proud group that has grown accustomed to winning football games. They will not go down easily in the face of adversity, and will give the Trojans their stiffest test of 2012 so far.
However, this USC team has had its eye on this game since last October's heartbreaker in the Coliseum. I expect a focused, intense and physical performance from the Trojans on Saturday. USC was a play away from beating Luck-led teams in both 2010 and 2011. Without Luck on Saturday, the Cardinal won't be able to keep up and force another last-minute decision.
USC 38, Stanford 27
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 12 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)