A vintage Stanford-USC program cover
Stanford is shooting for an unprecedented fifth straight win over USC. A victory at the Los Angeles Coliseum this Saturday would essentially guarantee the Cardinal a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, but the Trojans are hungry to prevent that from happening. Here is the formula to victory.
The stakes seem to grow with each installment of the Stanford-USC
The great 2007 upset was just the beginning. In retrospect, that
game was about the birth of the current Cardinal dynasty. The
following year featured Pete Carroll's only collegiate revenge
against Jim Harbaugh, while 2009's "What's Your Deal?" moment marked
the shift of the California balance of power. Andrew Luck's virtuoso
performances against the Trojans in 2010 and 2011 solidified the
Farm Boys' first two BCS bowl bids, while the Cardinal's 2012 upset
of USC dashed Matt Barkley's national title hopes and announced that
Stanford football was around to stay in the brave new post-Toby Gerhart, post-Jim Harbaugh, post-Luck world.
Stanford has owned the rivalry the past four years, but the 2013
version has all the ingredients to be the most intense yet. It will
likely determine just how monumental the Cardinal's win over Oregon
really was. That triumph will lose a whole lot of its luster if
Stanford is unable to carry success over into the Coliseum. Doing so
won't be easy: USC is itching to thrust itself back into national
glory following a torturous four-year stretch. The Trojans have rid
themselves of Lane Kiffin, and there's a strong feeling of
confidence emanating from Ed Orgeron's program.
Stanford center Conor McFadden understands the danger that the
ravenous USC program presents.
"This is a game where they want to put themselves back on the map,"
he said. "There's nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal."
Here's the formula for a Stanford victory:
Remain True to Offensive Identity
Recently, Stanford's offense has alternated between bad week and
good week. The Cardinal's strategy of attack resembled a formless
blob against Utah (only 16 Tyler Gaffney carries) before it woke up
courtesy the power run against UCLA (36 Gaffney rushes, 419 yards of
total offense). Then came another disappointing week of wandering
direction at Oregon State, a mess that required an epic bailout from
the Stanford defense. That set the table for the ultimate offensive
resurgence against Oregon: The Farm Boys solved their identity
crisis by pounding the rock an astounding 66 times against the
Ducks. Thirteen well-timed passing strikes were enough to keep the
opposing defense loose.
"That was a tone-setting game," McFadden said. "I really think that
was a really important game moving forward because we imposed our
will. And that's what we're looking to do this week against USC."
Stanford must make the ground-and-pound commitment stick for
consecutive weeks this time. Like most (if not all) Pac-12
opponents, the Trojans are better suited to chase spread teams from
sideline-to-sideline than they are to defend against the Cardinal's
style of brutal power run. The Farm Boys will again own a physical
advantage in this contest. That's a constant every week. And because
of that, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren has emphasized that
Stanford's own execution of its identity is a much bigger key than
whatever the Trojans can potentially counter with.
"It's all about us," McFadden said. "It's something coach Bloomgren
has really instilled. We can be playing the '86 Bears, but we truly
believe that as an offense, if we execute, if we go out on every
single play and we play that perfect game, that we can beat any team
in the country."
Continue to Increase Hogan's Comfort Level
Still, David Shaw has admitted that it will likely be necessary
for Stanford to complement its rushing attack with some more
passing. Last week's 5:1 run-to-pass ratio worked, but it's very
likely that USC is spending the entire week gearing up for a heavy
dose of Gaffney. The Trojans' front seven features physical trucks
George Uko, Devon Kennard, and Leonard Williams -- three players who
have combined for 26 tackles for loss -- and that's part of the
reason that they own the Pac-12's second-best rushing defense
(behind only Stanford). The Cardinal may have to expand its
playaction passing game to maintain last Thursday's impressive 66
percent third down conversion rate.
They must do so while keeping Hogan in his comfort zone, which
always includes plenty of chances for him to run on his own. That's
where No. 8 rumbles for first downs and throws most decisively.
Devon Cajuste is nearing a return to full health, while Michael Rector and Kodi Whitfield have both proven to be dangerous threats
to complement Ty Montgomery. Contributions from at least two of
these players will be important. Don't forget Ryan Hewitt, either.
He lined up in the slot to haul in a short Hogan pass against Oregon
and may again be a factor in the passing game. At the end of the
day, though, the Cardinal must make sure that whatever they do
through the air is merely a healthy complement to their bread and
butter on the ground.
Stop the Run to Neutralize Talented Receivers
USC's pro style attack is predicated on setting up the
playaction pass to explosive wide receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor by establishing the run. The Trojans, in fact, have run the
ball 70 percent of the time on first down ever since Orgeron took
over as head coach. If Stanford can stop the ground attack in the
same way they did last year versus USC (the Trojans finished with
only 26 yards on 28 carries), they'll have essentially destroyed the
foundation of Troy's offensive plan.
Under such a scenario, safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards will
be able to focus more on covering Lee and Agholor than on respecting
playaction fakes. The Cardinal's vaunted pass rush will be able to
unleash hell against a suspect USC line that crumbled against them
last year (they've surrendered 23 sacks already this year).
Quarterback Cody Kessler isn't particularly mobile, either, and
that's a big reason why USC has converted only about 31 percent of
its third downs this season. If Stanford stops the run, they'll
almost certainly stymie the Trojans.
Injury Situation Good
Stanford is enjoying its best health in weeks entering this
middle part of November. Cajuste (knee) had an excellent practice
Wednesday, while Jordan Williamson (leg muscle strain) is also
progressing, though Conrad Ukropina is still expected to handle kick
off duties at USC. Shaw said that nearly half of the Cardinal's
roster was battling regular season wear-and-tear a few weeks ago,
but now the recent mini-bye week has infused the team with
David Lombardi is the Stanford
Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com
and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
Are you fully subscribed to The
Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on
all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our
award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in
Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com