Game 6: If You're Going to San Francisco, You're Gonna Meet Some Gentle People There
Unfortunately for northward-bound Trojan fans, those 'gentle people' suit up for the USC defense. Can the Trojans outscore Stanford and pull the upset?
The USC Trojans (4-1, 1-1 Pac-10) open make their annual trek to the San Francisco Bay Area on Saturday, October 9 to face the Stanford Cardinal (4-1, 1-1) - ranked No. 16 by the Associated Press and No. 18 in the USA Today coaches poll - at 5 p.m. (PDT) in the Palo Alto's Stanford Stadium in front of a regional ABC television audience. It is the 89th meeting between the two schools in USC's oldest rivalry (dating to 1905), with Troy holding a 59-26-3 edge. The Trojans have won six of the past eight meetings, but the Cardinal trounced USC, 55-21, in Los Angeles (the Cardinal's second consecutive win at the Coliseum and the most points ever scored against the Trojans). In its last trip to Palo Alto, the Trojans downed the Cardinal, 45-23, in 2008.
A week ago, the Trojans suffered their second consecutive loss to Washington on a last-minute Erik Folk field goal, as the Huskies pulled off a 32-31 victory. Senior tailback Allen Bradford rushed for 223 yards and two scores, but the Trojans could muster only a field goal in the fourth quarter on two trips to the UW red zone. USC's defense was torched by Husky quarterback Jake Locker, as Washington rolled up more than 500 total yards. Meanwhile, then-No. 9 Stanford rushed to a 21-3 lead at No. 4 Oregon before succumbing to the Ducks' lightning fast offensive attack, 52-31. While Stanford's offense notched an impressive 518 total yards, the Cardinal defense gave up 626 yards to Oregon, including 388 on the ground.
Trojan Coach Lane Kiffin (11-7 career collegiate head coaching record; 4-1 at USC) is in his first season at USC, after serving as the head coach at Tennessee in 2009. He also coached the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08, after spending the preceding six seasons as an assistant at USC. Stanford headman Jim Harbaugh is in his fourth season on the Farm (21-21, 14-15 in Pac-10 games), and he may be the hottest coaching prospect in the country at the end of this season - college or pro. Harbaugh has taken what was a destitute program upon his arrival in 2007 and turned Stanford into a tough, physical, disciplined football program with a 2010 squad that is capable of competing with any team in the nation.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator/RB coach David Shaw spent much of the past three seasons instilling a tough, run-first offensive attitude on the Farm, thanks to bruising running back Toby Gerhart. Now, with sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck as the leader of the offense, Stanford has become much more of a balanced, but high-flying attack. The Cardinal are averaging nearly 470 yards of total offense (255 passing) through the first five games and scoring a breathtaking 44.6 points per game.
And Luck deserves much of the credit. In his third year at Stanford, Luck has become a hot NFL prospect, completing nearly 63 percent of his passes for 1,253 yards, 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The 6'4", 235-pounder is also the Cardinal's second-leading rusher, with 202 yards and two scores (he averages more than eight yards per carry). Agile and with a rocket arm, Luck could quickly make Trojan fans forget just how great Locker looked a week ago.
Luck has no shortage of targets, as six Stanford players have at least 10 catches (and a seventh has nine). Two of his favorite targets - big-play junior Chris Owusu and expert possession receiver Ryan Whalen, a senior - are expected back from injuries this week. Owusu was knocked out of the Oregon game with a concussion, while Whalen has missed the past two games with an elbow injury. Senior Doug Baldwin is Stanford's leading receiver with 15 catches, while junior wideout Griff Whalen has chipped in with 12. Tight ends Konrad Reuland (10 catches) and Coby Fleener (nine grabs) have been stellar as blockers and receivers.
Sophomore Stepfan Taylor has proved a credible replacement to Gerhart. He's coming off a pair of 100-yard efforts, and is averaging 75 yards per game at five yards per carry. He also has 14 catches out of the backfield, averaging 13 yards per. Behind him is speedy redshirt freshman Usua Amanam and bulkier sophomore Tyler Gaffney. Locker Senior fullback Owen Marecic is one of Harbaugh's favorites, a tough blocker and also a starter at inside linebacker. A captain, he scored on both sides of the ball at Notre Dame on Sept. 25, with a rushing TD and an interception return for a score.
A huge factor in the Cardinal's success has been an experienced offensive line that plays nasty football - and has allowed just two sacks. LT Jonathan Martin, who as a redshirt sophomore is the relative baby of the group, is already a Lombardi Award candidate. Three fifth-year seniors - left guard Andrew Phillips, center Chase Beeler and right tackle Derek Hall - are very solid, with Beeler an Outland Trophy and Rimington Award candidate. Right guard David DeCastro, a redshirt sophomore, has made 18 straight starts.
Harbaugh recruited NFL veteran coach Vic Fangio away from his brother John, head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, to become Stanford's defensive coordinator this season. With 24 years of NFL experience (the past four with the Ravens), the hire looked great through four games - until the Cardinal ran into Oregon. Still, Stanford is much improved on defense, allowing just 330 yards per game (167 rushing) and 21 points per game - even with Oregon's stellar effort mixed in.
Playing out of a 3-4 set, the Cardinal have solid experience up front, led by senior nose tackle Sione Fua, a captain. His 10 stops include two sacks. Ends Matt Masifilo, a junior, and Brian Bulcke, a fifth-year senior, have combined for 25 stops. Masifilo has fought back from a series of injuries in 2009 to become a key player this season. Redshirt freshman Josh Mauro has also seen time at end.
With the 3-4 set, Stanford's linebackers have been counted upon to become playmakers, and they haven't disappointed, as the starters have notched eight of the Cardinal's 14 sacks and 12 of the team's 26 tackles for loss. Outside backers Chase Thomas, a redshirt sophomore, and Thomas Keiser, a junior, are converted defensive ends. Thomas is second on the team with 23 stops and leads Stanford with 3.5 sacks, while Keiser has 19 and 2.5 respectively. Inside, the aforementioned Marecic has 22 tackles to go with that pick-six at Notre Dame, while sophomore Shayne Skov has built upon an excellent freshman campaign with 21 stops and two sacks. Three reserves - insiders Max Bergen and Chike Amajoyi and outsider Alex Debniak - have combined for 40 tackles as part of the rotation. Linebacker may be Stanford's deepest position.
Experience is a factor in the secondary, as three juniors and a fifth-year senior start, while a pair of seniors are key reserves. Junior strong safety Delano Howell is Stanford's leading tackler with 27, and he also has an interception and fumble recovery. Junior free safety Michael Thomas, the least experienced of the group, has 20 stops. The safeties are backed up by seniors Austin Yancy and Taylor Skaufel - Skaufel has 21 tackles and appears often in nickel situations. At corner, junior Johnson Bademosi has 19 tackles, but just one pass break-up, while senior Richard Sherman has 15 stops, a pick and five pass break-ups.
Stanford Special Teams
Senior placekicker Nate Whitaker, a former walk-on, is nine-of-nine on field goals this year, making him a Groza Award candidate. He made five field goals at Notre Dame, and also handles kickoffs. Sophomore punter Daniel Zychlinski is a new starter, but is averaging more than 44 yards per attempt. Owusu is a huge threat as a kickoff returner - but it remains to be seen if he'll be used coming off the concussion. If he can't go, Amanam has shown plenty of ability as well. Baldwin handles punt returns, and is averaging about five yards per opportunity.
USC Offensive Gameplan
Amazingly enough, with all of the talk of Stanford's high-powered offense, the Trojan offense is actually averaging more total yards (471), as well as nearly 36 points per game. The issue, however, is consistency. Penalties and - at times - an interesting mix of plays have derailed more than one Trojan drive. This was never more apparent than a week ago, when USC put up 484 total yards, but mustered just 10 second-half points, failing on multiple chances to put the game out of reach before Washington won it at the gun.
Bradford seems to have set himself apart as USC's top tailback with his performances against Minnesota and Washington. Still, the coaching staff opted for a too-quick-hitting pass attempt on third-and-four inside the Washington 25-yard-line in the final minutes last week, leading to a missed field goal and, eventually, defeat. With Stanford struggling against the run last week and featuring just three down linemen, you'd think Bradford would be the physical first choice this week for the Trojan running game. At the same time, with the struggles of USC's kicking game, every situation seems to be a four-down situation once the Trojans get inside the Cardinal 35-yard line. Will USC actually play it this way?
Still, the improved Cardinal defense loves to put pressure on the line of scrimmage and use their outside linebackers as blitzers. Don't be surprised to see Stanford load up the box in an effort to take away USC's running game. This will leave them susceptible against Matt Barkley and the Trojan passing attack. Can USC capitalize on this opportunity? If they do, it will be because of a better mix of plays, fewer penalties and a solid performance from the veteran offensive line.
USC Defensive Gameplan
Last week in this space, I wrote: "On the other hand, this weekend is a clear test for the USC defense." Um, fail? Once again, the Trojan defense looked soft, confused and - as the game went on -- uninspired. I don't need to recap the (horrific) numbers once again, but suffice it to say, Washington's until-then middling offense owned the Trojan defense.
Last week's performance has Monte Kiffin and his group squarely on the hot seat with USC fans and college football pundits alike. People are wondering if the elder Kiffin's style isn't a fit, if he's too old to adjust, and if USC's personnel will ever live up to the multi-star hype many received coming out of high school. Outside of Jurrell Casey, T.J. McDonald and Shareece Wright, no Trojan defender has played consistently well this season.
So, what's the gameplan for Stanford? Well, with a group this beaten down, you have to start with the basics - fly to the ball and hit someone. USC's tackling has been so suspect, there is no reason for even the coaches to get more in-depth. Know your role, get to the football and finish the tackle. The first time the Trojan defense does that consistently for 60 minutes this season will be the first.
As Kiffin and Harbaugh - the two most quotable Pac-10 coaches - meet for the first time, the Trojans face a "prove-it" game on defense against one of the hottest offenses in America. Harbaugh, 2-1 against Pete Carroll in the past three years, seems to own a decisive advantage this weekend, as his defense - though rolled up by Oregon - has played reasonably well otherwise.
Don't get me wrong: USC can score enough to compete in this game. Will they? It is imperative for the Trojans to keep up early on. Stanford leads the Pac-10 in time of possession, and it loves to wear teams down. Should USC try to control clock, or should it try to score as much as possible in order to make up for its questionable (to be kind) defense? I, for one, say score as quickly and as often as possible. If the Cardinal jumps out to an early edge, this will be a very long night for the thousands of Trojan fans making the annual Weekender trip.
No matter whether the Trojans hang in early, though, it appears that the Cardinal is simply the stronger team in 2010. Expect Luck to have a big night, and Taylor and the Cardinal rushing attack to finish things off in the second half. USC will put up points - but not nearly enough to make up for the defensive troubles facing the Kiffins and staff.
Stanford 42, USC 26
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 10 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.