Stanford used to be considered an easy conference game for the Trojans (USC leads the all time series 59-32). But when Jim Harbaugh coached the Cardinal to a jaw-dropping upset over No. 2 USC back in 2007, the matchup shifted into a full-fledged rivalry. Since that fateful afternoon in the Coliseum, Stanford has won seven of its last 10 games against USC, including its current three-game winning streak.
“They seem to never drop off,” junior linebacker Cam Smith said. “This is my favorite game every year leading up to it … We still have a salty feeling from last year.”
In order for the Trojans to capture their first win over Stanford since 2014, Smith and the defense will need to be much more effective at containing the run. In last year’s game, Stanford was anchored by a 172-yard rushing performance by Christian McCaffrey en route to a 27-10 victory. This year, there appears to be little drop off in the team’s ground and pound attack despite losing McCaffrey to the NFL – in the Cardinal’s opener, star running back Bryce Love raced for 180 yards.
After being overshadowed as the backup last season, Love enters this campaign as the feature back who inherits an experienced offensive line. The team also returns Keller Chryst at quarterback, whose efficiency balances out the team’s offensive game plan.
“Love is a kid with tremendous explosion,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I don’t know his actual time, but he has to be a 4.40 [40-yard dash time] kid. He’s not a 220-pound back, but he runs extremely strong.”
Slowing down Love and the Cardinal will be a major challenge for the Trojans, as USC’s run defense looked less than promising in week one. Against Western Michigan, USC gave up 263 rushing yards, and the Broncos dominated time of possession by nearly 10 minutes. On the bright side for USC, junior linebacker Cam Smith can play the entire game unlike last week, when he was serving a first half suspension stemming from a targeting penalty in the Rose Bowl.
When Smith entered the game on Saturday, the Trojan front seven came alive and started finding penetration, as all four of the Trojan’s tackles for loss came in the second half, with Smith notching two of them. Perhaps most importantly, the team captain brought leadership to a struggling defensive unit.
“There’s so much experience that Cam brings to the table,” Helton said. “He’s kind of like [redshirt sophomore quarterback] Sam [Darnold] on the other side of the ball. He’s kind of that quarterback of the defense that gets everybody lined up and makes plays.”
Like the run defense, the passing attack is another aspect of USC’s game that will need to be improved upon from week one. Junior slot receiver Deontay Burnett hauled in seven catches for 142 yards, continuing where he left off from his remarkable performance in the Rose Bowl. However, outside of Burnett, Darnold’s other targets struggled to get open. Junior Jalen Greene was thrown to multiple times, including on a deep 50-50 ball that got intercepted, but finished with just one catch for 11 yards. Sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe entered the season as one of Darnold’s most trusted pass catchers, but he was limited against the Broncos due to a nagging hip injury. He also caught one pass on the day.
Given that talented sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. is still about a week away from returning from an ankle injury, USC will look for other fresh faces to emerge at the receiver position. Redshirt freshmen Velus Jones and Tyler Vaughns both caught passes on Saturday but have yet to make an impact, while true freshman Joseph Lewis IV should be in store for more playing time after a solid week of practice. All three could be called upon in big moments against a stellar Cardinal secondary.
“We challenged them today,” Helton said. “This is going to be one of those games, it always is, where you have to make to make the tough catches. They have a very experienced, older [secondary] group that are all juniors and seniors. This is not going to be a game where you’re wide open.”
Unlike in the passing game, where Darnold’s two-interception performance drew plenty of raised eyebrows throughout the sports world, the Trojans’ running game elicited universal acclaim. Junior Ronald Jones and true freshman Stephen Carr both looked like they were shot out of canons as they combined for 228 yards and five touchdowns. Their cause received another boost on Thursday, as Helton announced that offensive tackle Chuma Edoga should be good to go against Stanford after suffering a knee bruise in last week’s game.
After Wednesday’s practice, Smith said that he had “something to prove,” against the visiting No. 14 Stanford Cardinal. On Saturday, he and his teammates will get that chance.