How to Beat USC

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 rivalry.

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 freshness.

David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.

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