Welcome to another edition of the Tenfold, where I unleash 10 things from my membrane ...
1. A STREETCAR NAMED STEPHEN
I can remember enough USC football that I’ll usually recognize when something happens that hasn’t happened in a long time. For instance, when Sam Darnold made his starting debut last September against Utah, he collected 250-plus passing yards and 40-plus rushing yards. I knew that was rare, and after a little research, found that it was. Only Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer had ever done that, and each did it just once in their college careers. So when I saw Stephen Carr galloping through the Western Michigan defense this past Saturday for his second touchdown of the game, I immediately wondered if he’d done something historical. And he did. Carr became the first USC true freshman to run for two touchdowns in a season opener since Charles White in 1976. (His 69 rushing yards were also the third-highest mark for a freshman since 1994, when Delon Washington tallied 109 yards. Ronald Jones II has the most with 86 yards in the 2015 season opener.)
Carr scored from a yard out midway through the fourth quarter before breaking off the 52-yarder a few minutes later that sealed the win. His scintillating debut is similar to White's, whose touchdown runs covered 6 and 79 yards. Interestingly, I’ve heard other longtime observers remark that their running styles bear a resemblance. While I’m too young to weigh in on the subject, a possible parallel that I foresee is with the 1978 backfield that featured two star running backs that were two years apart. It’s been about a decade since “Tailback U” has been applicable to the Trojans, and yet I think we’re going to hear it thrown around quite a bit this season. Someone now just needs to inform some of the staff to stop saying “RBU.”
2. SANDBAGGING OR STRUGGLING?
Many have speculated whether USC’s gameplan vs. Western Michigan was intentionally bland given the expectation that USC could win handily without showing all its cards while needing to play a different hand versus Stanford. I’ve wondered it myself. I asked Coach Clay Helton if there was any truth to this, and, while not addressing it directly, he noted his frustration with the fact USC didn’t come close to playing up to a championship standard in the opener. It would make sense that USC would be a bit vanilla on offense against Western Michigan. But I don’t think that theory has any merit when it comes to its defense. Playing a three-down front isn’t some big surprise that will catch Stanford off guard. (Stanford has replaced Oregon as the Pac-12 outlier, forcing its opponents to completely change their preparation while the rest of the conference is built on the spread and playing fast.)
What’s more important for the Trojans is to already be comfortable in the 3-4 (5-2) so that it’s effective against Stanford. In that respect, Western Michigan provided a golden opportunity, its offense practically begging for it, but USC still spent half its time in nickel because that’s is truly its base defense. Nickel is what Pendergast practices most, employs most and believes in most. As it concerns defending the run, the Trojans often got away with being in nickel last year because it boasted a 340-pound, 25-year-old mountain to clog up the middle. If there was one thing to learn from last week’s ominous season debut, it was that the whole defense, staff included, must adapt to life without Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. Quickly, too.
3. TOUGH TO TACKLE
Coach Clay Helton has had two offseasons at USC now, just like Steve Sarkisian did. They’ve essentially been the head coach of the Trojans for the same time. Sarkisian coached 18 games while Helton has coached USC’s last 23 (but that includes seven with the interim label). I bring all this up because tackling in practice has been maybe the biggest topic of discussion among the diehard fan base over the past week. And while there have been notable differences between Helton and Sark in how practices are orchestrated, the amount of tackling isn’t one of them.
Because I only see one team practice, I don’t have a good frame of reference for how this compares to USC’s Pac-12 brethren, much less nationally. But a West Coast analyst who sees the whole conference told me USC is in the middle of the pack. We can’t be definitive with what this correlates to, but it’s something to consider when looking at how USC has started in recent seasons, and how tackling has often been a weakness early on. Do they tackle enough in practice? I think it’s a question Helton has to re-examine, especially now that the roster is full and will be proportional — its still lacking true and redshirt seniors because of sanctions — within two years.
4. SPARE TIME
Clancy Pendergast’s second stint at USC has consisted of 14 games. The three opponents with the most time to prepare for his defense (Alabama, Penn State, Western Michigan) have scored an average of 44 points. Stanford, as you know, is coming off a bye and had such an easy first opponent that you wonder how much time it spent focusing on the Trojans this offseason. I remember each week of Pete Carroll’s training camps was geared toward a different September foe. Aside from Alabama's 52-6 beatdown in 2016, only one USC team over the past 40 years allowed more points in the season opener than the 31 the Trojans surrendered to WMU last week: Lane Kiffin’s inaugural 2010 squad. Hmm.
5. PLAYING THE ODDS
USC opened as a 5.5 favorite at home vs. Stanford and the line has slightly moved up since. Save for the 2015 Holiday Bowl that was compromised by reduced practices and a staff revamped on the fly, USC is unbeaten as the favorite under Helton and also hasn’t lost at home. It’s won the latter games by an average of 19 points. (This is in stark contrast to Sark, whose brief tenure included four losses as double-digit favorites, including three at home.) What’s different with this matchup, though, is I don’t imagine the Trojans see themselves as strong favorites because of how they played last week, and the manner in which Stanford has beaten them three times over the past two years. The Cardinal are in their head a bit, though some of that is probably tied to Christian McCaffrey. Thus, I think it’s imperative for USC to play well in the first half and prove to itself that things are indeed different with McCaffrey out of the picture.
6. FIRST THINGS FIRST
For those wondering, it’s not a hard rule that USC plays Stanford in September. But it’s something we should expect most years. The two have met in the opening month of the season for the past four years and five of the past six. There are three primary reasons for it: The conference has two more teams than it did from 1978-2010; the four California teams, despite being in different divisions, have to play each every year; and USC and Stanford both play Notre Dame every year. (Like USC, Stanford is now in a pattern of hosting Notre Dame in November and playing in South Bend in October.)
All these stipulations leave little room for finagling from Pac-12 schedulers. USC and Stanford have met outside of September twice since Utah and Colorado joined the conference (2011, 2013). But that was likely the product of scheduled nonconference games that predated the Pac-12’s formation. In 2011, Arizona played Louisiana Lafayette the same November week Stanford hosted Notre Dame. And when USC played at Notre Dame in mid-October of 2013, Colorado played Charleston Southern. The real reason this is even being discussed in USC circles is because Stanford has won seven of the past nine meetings, which is unprecedented in the 112-year history between the schools.
7. UNDERCLASSMAN TO WATCH
Sam Darnold is coming off what he’s calling the worst start of his career. And yet the more I study it I come away more impressed with how he played. That he completed 70 percent of his passes for nearly 300 yards with only one reliable target is outstanding. The glass-half-full outlook would be this output speaks to the passing game potentially having a really high floor and will assuredly improve with more time. But progress is not linear. Stanford is said to have one of its best secondaries in years and should pose a greater challenge to Darnold and the USC receivers. We already know the impact he has when he’s at his best. (I’m still convinced USC would have beaten Stanford last September had Darnold started from Day 1.) I expect Darnold to play really well Saturday. I just think it’s going to take one of his best games for the Trojans to win.
8. UPPERCLASSMAN TO WATCH
Much has been made of linebacker Cam Smith missing the first half of the season opener and the domino effect it had on the defense. While there’s no denying he makes the Trojans better, I don’t think it was night and day when he was in the game (the defense allowed two scoring drives in each half). More affecting was how the Trojans spent all this time preparing for three different offenses, 80 percent of which Pendergast said Western Michigan didn’t run, and yet, as colleague Zach Helfand shrewdly unearthed, they didn’t practice for “12” personnel, which is a basic package (and one they’ll get a healthy dose of vs. Stanford). The way Pendergast aligns this defense, the linebackers as a whole are the most important unit. Smith, of course, spearheads that group and will need to have one of his best games if the Trojans are to win.
9. QUOTE OF THE WEEK
I got two this week and they’re from Jake Olson. Our interview struck me because while his life has been so unique and brought upon unique challenges, it’s given him great perspective and made him a wise young man. He also clearly loves being a football player and being on the USC football team.
What did it mean for the snap to be perfect?
JO: “Anything I do in life, one of my biggest fears is just not performing the way I know how to. It’s not like I was going out there praying that it would be a good snap. I know how to deliver a good snap. I do it out here (in practice). If it was bad I would have been really mad at myself just because I know how to deliver a good snap. I’m just glad I executed and just trusted my technique and got it back there.”
Did you ever reach a point during his two years on the team where you doubted or wondered, should I be on the team, do I want to stay on it?
JO: “I think every player goes through that a little bit. Some practices get long, especially as a special teams player. Some periods you’re not doing anything and you’re kind of standing around. I think more so of just, it gets in my head, like, I wish I could play something, I wish I could be a free safety and hitting people, I wish I could be a tight end, going over the middle and catching balls. But at the end of the day I remind myself, that’s just not being grateful for the things I do have. I’m so grateful to be out here as a long snapper, and the opportunities I do have. To kind of focus on that would just kind of be disrespectful to people giving me the opportunity, just a shame for myself to not focus on the things that I do have.”
Coming into the season I saw Stanford as USC’s toughest matchup of the regular season — that is, I thought beating the Cardinal would require more from the Trojans than any other opponent. Still, I intended to pick USC because of the huge disparity between their quarterbacks, the expectation that USC will have a better season, and the location. (While Stanford isn’t daunted by playing at the Coliseum and doesn’t necessarily seem to benefit from playing at home, the truth is USC hasn’t consistently beaten quality opponents on the road since Carroll was in charge.) I would feel even more confident in USC’s chances if I knew what tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe could give. He hasn’t looked right since straining his hip flexor on June 22. Two-and-a-half months later, he’s still not 100 percent.
We know how important Stanford’s tight ends are to its offense. I think Imatorbhebhe alone is just as big of an X factor. USC desperately needs his playmaking in the passing game, and it would open things up for other receivers while also keep defenses honest against the run. This is going to be a game of limited possessions and USC will have to make the most of its trips to the red zone, where Imatorbhebhe might be their best weapon. Another key to this game is how USC deals with Stanford’s physicality and how well it can diagnose what the Cardinal are doing on offense. (I’m told Stanford is as multiple as ever.) We saw how much trouble the Trojans had a week ago with both of those things. Can they clean all this up in one week?
My gut says no. Stanford 30, USC 27.