This Saturday, the No. 17 Trojans will head to Palo Alto to take on No. 10 Stanford for what will probably be the best matchup of the second week of college football this season. Both teams come off impressive season-opening victories, with USC soundly beating UNLV and Stanford pummeling a San Diego State team that handed Stanford a loss last year.
The new look USC squad with freshman quarterback JT Daniels manning the offense will square off with a Cardinal team led by preseason Heisman favorite Bryce Love at running back for what should be a thrilling game. Here’s how the two squads stack up against each other:
USC Offense vs. Stanford Defense
Last week’s matchup with a SDSU offense devoid of much firepower makes it hard to gauge the strength of the traditionally formidable Stanford defense. They performed well in that outing, holding the Aztecs to only 11 first downs and a meager 113 passing yards in the game, as well as racking up five sacks. Sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo impressed, breaking up two passes and making eight tackles, as did fifth-year linebacker Joey Alfieri, who also made eight tackles along with a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. Although the unit performed well, it lacks proven stars, having lost standouts like safety Justin Reid and cornerback Quinton Meeks to the NFL.
The new look secondary could provide Daniels with a lot of chances to make plays in the passing game, especially if receivers junior Michael Pittman and redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns bounce back to their normal forms. Both receivers had a rough game against UNLV, dropping multiple passes between them, a surprising performance considering their impressive play last season and throughout the offseason. If they can perform at the high level we’ve come to expect from them along with the production freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown showed he can produce, the revamped Stanford secondary could have trouble keeping up with the passing attack.
“They do a really good job with their pass rushers …. They make you get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands extremely quickly,” Helton said. “We’re going to have to run crisp routes against man coverage. We’re going to have to keep the quarterback upright and in protection. The quarterback can’t flinch. They won’t be open long.”
That’s largely dependent on the offensive line’s performance, though. Last Saturday was shaky at times for the line, even though it only allowed two sacks. If they aren’t rock solid, a Stanford pass rush that gathered six sacks last week could decimate the offense. Stanford’s run defense on the other hand does seem like a weakness, having given up 124 yards on the ground to SDSU’s lead back.
Another strong performance by the Trojan backfield (over 200 yards last week) could tilt the scales of this game heavily in USC’s favor. Don’t forget that sophomore running back Stephen Carr went off for 119 yards in last year’s early season matchup with the Cardinal while sharing touches with current NFL running back Ronald Jones. Look for Carr to be a featured player in the offensive game plan this week.
Stanford Offense vs. USC Defense
This Cardinal offense is going to be the first true test of the season for a USC defense with high expectations. Junior quarterback KJ Costello put on a show with 332 passing yards and four touchdowns, torching the SDSU secondary. Senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside posted a statline of 226 yards and three touchdowns last week.
“I think [Costello] does a phenomenal job with is, whether it’s the deep ball of a red zone fade, he leaves the ball in bounds — he lets his guys make plays,” head coach Clay Helton said. “You don’t see overthrows, you don’t see missed chances.”
Stanford’s starting receiver group has a significant size advantage on the USC secondary, with Arcega-Whiteside standing at 6-foot-3 and senior receiver Trenton Irwin at 6-foot-2, compared to USC corners senior Biggie Marshall and redshirt freshman Greg Johnson, both around six feet.
“We’ve gotta make sure that we’re not handsy and that we see the ball and play the ball,” Helton said. “We’re hooked to the man but we’ve got to play the ball at its highest point. Because … they’re taller than [us].”
Although the Stanford passing offense seems formidable, the USC pass defense should be solid, coming off a performance where they held UNLV to a meager 97 yards passing with five sacks on the day. Redshirt senior Ajene Harris, senior Marvell Tell and Marshall should hold down the secondary while the pass rush spearheaded by a now healthy senior linebacker Porter Gustin will look to make life difficult for Costello.
Stanford’s most frightening weapon, however, is Love, a Heisman finalist from last year who broke the elusive 2,000-yard rushing mark last season. Love is a dynamic playmaker with track-star speed, great receiving ability, and an knack for making defenders miss in the open field. He was actually bottled up well by the Aztecs last week, rushing for less than 30 yards. Still, he’s far and away the most potent weapon on the Stanford offense. USC’s rush defense gave up 308 yards against UNLV (although more than 100 yards of it came off of two trick plays), unable to stop quarterback Armani Rogers from taking off for over 80 yards on the ground.
However, for most of the night, they did a good job stymying the Rebels’ backs on the ground, something the stat sheet doesn’t initially seem to convey. Aside from the trick plays and the quarterback runs, the Rebels had about 115 rushing yards on the day. If they can limit explosive plays and frustrate Love, the Trojans should be in good shape.
Two well-rounded and high-powered offenses will face off against defenses that have yet to prove themselves as elite, and that’s going to put a lot of points on the board a vast majority of the time. Love will not be contained the way he was last week, and the Trojan defense is going to have a tough time stopping him and the passing attack led by Costello and Arcega-Whiteside. That being said, USC’s stable of talented backs and receivers under the direction of Daniels is going to be equally difficult for the Cardinal to handle. Look for this to be a high-stakes shootout, tight all the way to the end with a lot of points put on the board.