Behind Enemy Lines: A Conversation with the Stanford Daily

The Trojans head up north to take on the No. 7 Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto on Saturday in their first conference game of the season.  

To preview the matchup, the Daily Trojan asked a few questions to Vihan Lakshman, a football beat writer at the Stanford Daily.

Daily Trojan: USC had no answer for Christian McCaffrey in the Pac-12 Championship Game last season. What are you predicting for McCaffrey on Saturday and how does USC slow him down?

Vihan Lakshman: Christian McCaffrey’s 461 all-purpose yard yards in the Pac-12 Championship Game was a performance for the ages, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect anyone to replicate that kind of performance, including Stanford’s version of Reggie Bush. Nevertheless, McCaffrey never runs out of gas and can do damage in so many different ways on the field that I expect him to put up great numbers. At this point in his career, I think it’s safe to pencil McCaffrey in for 200 all-purpose yards in any given matchup because of the sheer number of times he will have the ball in his hands. The return of dynamic running back Bryce Love and the attention he demands will also help McCaffrey.

For slowing down No. 5, I look at the blueprint laid out by three teams that had some degree of success against him last season: Northwestern, Washington State and Notre Dame. Each of those teams had defensive fronts that consistently broke into the backfield and swallowed McCaffrey before he ever got going. For all of his highlight-worthy plays, McCaffrey makes his money by patiently waiting for his blockers to open up holes before bursting for six or seven yards a carry. Defensive pressure up front neutralizes this ability. Moreover, pressure in the backfield can also rattle a quarterback, which can help slow McCaffrey down in the receiving game. Kevin Hogan was stellar in both of last year’s matchups with USC, contributing heavily to McCaffrey’s success, and the Trojans will have to bank on new quarterback Ryan Burns not quite maintaining Hogan’s same level of play in his second start. Slowing down McCaffrey is not an easy task, but if any team has the talent to make it happen, it’s USC.

DT: Do you see parallels between Stanford and USC’s quarterback situations? Ryan Burns and Max Browne are the respective starters, but their backups — Keller Chryst and Sam Darnold — are more mobile and have received playing time. How do you think Stanford will use its quarterbacks on Saturday?

V.L.: I think the parallels are there, but rather limited. Darnold, from what we have seen so far, looks much more mobile than Chryst, and the USC coaching staff seems to have several well-defined packages for their athletic redshirt freshman, particularly in the red zone. Darnold’s speed and ability to throw on the run allow him to complement Max Browne’s strengths and provide a change of pace for the Trojan offense. Burns and Chryst are very, very similar in skillset with just hairs of difference between them. David Shaw has said that Chryst will play against USC, and I expect that his role will be similar to the one he played against Kansas State where he came in on Stanford’s third offensive drive and led the Cardinal to a touchdown. Unlike Darnold, who’s more likely to take snaps in spot situations, Chryst will probably take over for an entire drive and run the offense as if no change had been made. Chryst’s role will largely depend on the flow of the game, but I see him as a lock to take over for one series, possibly two.

DT: What have you credited Stanford’s rise to national prominence over the past few years to?

V.L: The pillars of Stanford’s success in the past few years are the same as the ones at every elite program: talent and great coaching. What is remarkable is how the Cardinal built that platform in the first place. Stanford has mastered the art of selling the program to recruits, touting the school’s academics and rigorous admissions process as assets instead of hurdles. Shaw and company have also established a national recruiting presence with 29 states represented on the current roster (plus Canada and Austria), managing to find the driven, highly-talented players they covet who, most importantly, fit the program’s business-like culture.

Regarding coaching, Stanford has benefited tremendously from the presence of brilliant football minds and unprecedented stability. Without a leader as adept and, quite frankly, crazy as Jim Harbaugh, the Cardinal would have never gotten off the ground. Now, for all the criticism he’s received for his in-game coaching decisions over the years, David Shaw is an elite CEO managing the program with NFL coaching experience to draw on as well. Crucially, Shaw has also stayed on The Farm despite numerous opportunities to leave, bucking the trend of Stanford serving as a springboard for supposedly more prestigious coaching jobs. The stability at the top has trickled down. In the past three seasons, Stanford has lost just one assistant coach, Randy Hart, who retired after the 2015 Rose Bowl. That kind of continuity has been a major asset for the program, and it all starts at the top with Shaw and top-notch coordinators in Mike Bloomgren and Lance Anderson.

DT: How would you describe the relationship and perception of USC and the football team from the Stanford student body perspective?

V.L: People despise USC. The Trojans have a reputation on campus for braggadocious behavior and an obsession with Hollywood glitz that, whether rightly or wrongly, rub Stanford fans the wrong way. However, underneath the surface-level dislike, there’s a high level of respect for USC as a program that’s historically served as the standard-bearer for college football, especially on the West Coast. This combination of disdain and underlying respect, along with the riveting games between the two teams this decade, has stoked the flames of this rivalry to new heights. If you asked a Stanford student today whether a win against the Trojans would feel more satisfying than a victory over Cal, I have no doubt the answer would be “yes.”

DT: Do you see this game as a preview of a Pac-12 Championship re-match?

V.L.With so much football left to be played, it’s too hard to tell how the conference standings will ultimately shake out. I’m certainly not going into this game with the expectation that we’ll see Stanford and USC play again this season. There are just way too many other threats in the North and South that both teams will have to overcome. With that being said, both teams are extremely talented and could very well meet for another duel in Levi’s Stadium. As a fan of college football and rivalry games, I would very much enjoy such a rematch, but it’s way too early to tell if that’s in the cards.