For the first time in years, Stanford is the favorite to beat USC. Sure, the Cardinal overcame the greatest odds in football history to beat USC in the Coliseum in 2007, and Stanford thumped the Trojans in Los Angeles last year. But USC hasn’t been double-digit underdogs–the lines move, but it looks like the spread will be about 10 points at game time–since before the turn of the millennium. That spread came in September 1998, before Pete Carroll took over in Heritage Hall, when USC was set to play at Florida State. All this is to preface the following: USC finds itself in an unfamiliar, and probably uncomfortable, position.
The Trojans are also coming off their first loss of the season, a 32-31 defeat in the Coliseum to the hands of Jake Locker’s Washington Huskies. But the 2010 Trojans are not the USC of old, which would occasionally drop a game or two and still look dominant most of the time. Lane Kiffin’s USC v. 1.0 hasn’t played good defense and looks susceptible to giving up tons of points to the offensive juggernauts of the PAC-10 (i.e. Oregon, Stanford, and Arizona). Against Washington, the USC defense allowed 536 yards of total offense, a 50% 3rd down conversion rate, and forced only one turnover. And although Washington isn’t one of the conference’s weaker offenses, it isn’t as productive as Stanford’s. Washington’s average of 28 points scored per game pales in comparison to the Card’s nearly 45 points per contest, so USC’s defense will have its hands full.
But why the sudden defensive problems in SoCal? For one, Lane’s father, Monte Kiffin, has installed a new defensive scheme in Troy, and the players clearly haven’t become comfortable with it yet. USC also prohibits hitting in practice, due to the NCAA sanctions that keep the Trojans from the customary number of football scholarships. Though Kiffin and his staff may prevent injuries and subsequent depth problems by keeping tackling off the practice field, the USC defense has looked like a unit that, well, doesn’t practice tackling. If missed tackles were a recorded statistic, USC would almost surely lead the conference (though Washington State can never be left out when it comes to playing poorly). And against Stanford, that’s the sort of weakness that could give USC serious problems. Stanford takes pride in its physical, bruising offensive approach, and a USC defense that’s thin and rusty on tackling will face a lot of troubles in trying to stall the Cardinal offense. Following this week’s game, expect USC players to share many of Trojan CB Nickell Robey’s thoughts from after the Hawaii game:
On the other hand, USC’s offense has played very well thus far, and at times it’s looked almost exceptionable. Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley has completed 66% of his passes and has thrown for 12 touchdowns and 4 picks (for perspective: that’s one fewer touchdown and the same number of interceptions as the number that Stanford QB Andrew Luck has accumulated this season. Barkley also trails Luck in passing yards by just over 100 yards). But Barkley is not alone. Among its blue-chip offensive players, USC features senior wideout Ronald Johnson as a prime target for its young signal-caller. Johnson has great speed, big-play capability, and 5 receiving touchdowns to his name so far in 2010. Keep in mind that 3 of Johnson’s touchdowns came in USC’s Week 1 victory at Hawaii, but no Stanford receiver has caught more than 3 touchdown passes so far. And senior running back Allen Bradford looks to be getting hot for the Trojans. Though he’s no LaMichael James (who is?) Bradford is averaging 100 yards rushing per game, and he lit Washington up for 223 rushing yards and two touchdowns last week. Though Bradford won’t replicate that performance on Saturday on the Farm, he’s a weapon that the Stanford defense will need to keep a close a brutal eye on. Plus, don’t snooze on dynamic USC fullback Stanley Havili. Havili is one of the most athletic fullbacks in America, and he holds the USC school record for most career receptions by a fullback. The guy runs like a halfback and has some serious hops, too.
We’ve told you about the Stanford team a million times, but here are some notable facts to remember come game day. Andrew Luck should be able to exploit a USC secondary that has looked confused and sloppy at several points this season. USC has a remarkably athletic defense, but it hasn’t gelled as a cohesive unit so far. Luck has the tools and intelligence to break them down and throw for well over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Who he’ll throw to is a bit of a lingering question, though. Chris Owusu will almost certainly be out after suffering a hit to the head in the second half last week against Oregon. Ryan Whalen, however, could return to the lineup. Whalen warmed up on the field in Eugene last week, so he could be ready to play on Saturday after missing two games with a dislocated elbow. However, considering Jim Harbaugh’s frustratingly fervent refusal to publish injury reports, we–and every other media outlet–won’t be sure of Whalen’s status until the Stanford first team offense trots onto the field.
And then there’s the completely statistics-free, human angle of this game to consider: Stanford hates USC. Actually, scratch that: Stanford hates USC like it hates no other team in the country (yes, even Cal). If USC’s dominance of the conference for much of the previous decade hadn’t been reason enough for the Card to hate the other cardinal-donning California football team, this exchange (which followed last year’s Stanford-USC meeting) certainly amped up the vitriol:
So Harbaugh will give his offense the green light to run up the score if possible, and a shaky Trojan defense suggests that Stanford will be able to score a lot of points. Both teams are coming off devastating losses, and both want to win. But USC cannot play in a bowl game, does not have a legitimate chance to compete for the AP National Championship, and may be poised for a motivational deficit. Stanford, on the other hand, needs to win on Saturday to remain high in the national rankings and secure its place in the conversation of the PAC-10’s best teams. But if Harbaugh runs up the score on SC, Lane Kiffin probably won’t ask, “What’s your deal?”. This is Lane Kiffin, ladies and gentlemen. When this man gets angry, expect voodoo, insanity, and unequivocal bizarreness.
Verdict: Stanford beats USC, 52-34
Willys DeVoll is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Daily Axe, a Stanford sports site.