Another year, another unnecessarily close conference road opener. Oh well, what are you gonna do?
It's hard to control the weather and two offensive linemen going out on one play. What is easier to control is the 16 penalties and three turnovers. However, Pete Carroll was right on the money at his press conference. Winning football games is hard, especially on the road.
The other teams have good players and coaches, and they are trying to win. Fans can make things tougher, as can the weather. You can't control everything that happens, and it's very, very rare that a team plays their A or B every game in a season. The players aren't programmable robots. When you're ranked as high as SC is, especially in the month of September, winning is all the matters. The Trojans did that, and move on to face a team that was stuggling even before they got some bad news this weekend. Here's a look at Stanford.
Stanford Offense vs. USC Defense
The Cardinal have made some improvement so far this season offensively. Their production is up 12 points per game and over 150 yards, which is good even when you consider the changes in the clock rules. Jim Harbaugh has mixed things up a little more than previous coaches Walt Harris and Buddy Teevens did. He has also scaled back the West Coast Offense that he likes to run so that it is somewhat usable at the college level, which is something that Harris did not do.
The Cardinal are a multiple formation team. They will line up in the eye for a series, and then spread you out with three wide. They use H-backs a lot, and they like to put them and the wide receivers in motion. The most important thing that they have done this season is to take their shots at the intermediate and long passing games.
In the past few years, they fell in the trap of throwing the ball almost exclusively on three step drops because they feared their poor offensive line. Harbaugh has decided that you can't win that way, and he's right. As a result, the receivers are more productive, and Stanford is actually a threat offensively, which is a huge improvement over last year.
Richard Sherman has been the team's catalyst at the WR position. He may be the fastest guy on the team, and he has averaged 17 yards per catch. The familiar Evan Moore and Mark Bradford have also been factors this season now that they are healthy. The Cardinal use the tight ends and the screen game liberally as well. They try to keep opponents off balance.
That's a good thing, because even though they are a far better running team than they were last year, they are still pretty poor at it. Anthony Kimble has some talent in the backfield, and the Cardinal run mostly outside zone plays with him. He has the speed to get to the corner. However, losing banger Toby Gerhart with a knee injury hurt, and that leaves the Cardinal without a guy who can get the tough yards between the tackles, especially with the way that they block. Kimble is a guy that can hurt you if given the opportunity.
The Trojans did not give him the chance last year, as he rushed for 22 yards on 15 carries. Since the Cardinal average fewer yards per carry than any team in the conference, I wouldn't expect him to get many good looks this weekend either.
That's most because of the offensive line. They are still not good even though they have four upperclassmen on the group, and the sophomore started five games last season. The pass protection has been really poor. The Cardinal have given up more sacks than anyone in the conference, and they've only played four games. This is the weakpoint of the entire team, and it's not a good weakness to have.
To compound the weakness, the Cardinal lost senior QB TC Ostrander on Sunday when he suffered a seizure. He is being held out for precautoinary reasons, and sophomore Tavita Pritchard will make his first start. I don't know much about Pritchard because he has barely played. He has only thrown three passes in his career, and he was not a heavily recruited player. Early in his career he was moved to wide receiver because he has good athleticism, but they moved him back to QB after Trent Edwards went down to injury.
They will have to scale back the playbook even more, and I don't anticipate Harbaugh trying to instally the read option in one week as a certain coach in South Bend did. After all, since Harbaugh has played and this is not his first head coaching job, he probably knows that you can't execute such an offense with so little practice time. So expect the Cardinal to run their regular offense for the most part, with a running wrinkle for Pritchard thrown in here or there.
Stanford Defense vs. USC Offense
The Cardinal have completely revamped thei approach defensively. Before this season, they ran a passive 3-4 defense which was of the read and react variety. This year, they do nothing but attack. They show blitz on nearly every play and, well, they blitz on almost every play. They mostly run the 4-3, but they will go to three man fronts on a lot of passing downs.
They are not afraid to put linebackers right on the line when they think a pass is coming, and their backers crash hard when they read run. Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer came to the conclusion that Stanford did not have the talent to remain passive, so they have to force the action.
And they do, in spades. Stanford will use any kind of blitz imaginable. I've seen plays where they sent backers, stunted, and dropped defensive linemen all on the same play. They aim to confuse the quarterback and the offense line, because that's the only way that they can succeed. They have had some success with 12 sacks in four games. To compare, they only had 14 all of last season.
By bringing up two or three backers in passing situations, sending some and ropping the others, dropping back ends and tackles, and even stunting defensive linemen behind backers blitzing in the A gap, the Cardinal try to use their opponents to use their minds as well as their bodies. They also vary corner depth, and will occasionally play bump and run, although they prefer to play halfway.
Stanford has some guys who have put up numbers this season. Strong safety Bo McNally leads the team in tackles, and was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week a couple of games ago. Clinton Snyder already has three and a half sacks, and has been a big part of blitz packages from his Sam backer spot. Pat Maynor has made some plays as well as the Mike. But the backers have no speed, and the defensive front has little talent or depth. Former Trojan recruit Ekom Udofia will not play with a sprained ankle.
Unfortunately for Stanford, the scheme has changed, but the results have remained the same. The Cardinal give up over 35 points 450 yards per game. Their run defense is the conference worst. Their style of defense can make for some frustrating spurts for opponents, as it did for ASU, who gave up six sacks and had eight drives of six or fewer plays.
It can also give up the kind of big plays that demoralize a team. Despite not getting in a rhythm all game, ASU scored 41 points, partly because of three Stanford turnover. However, the Sun Devils had a lot of big plays, including a 62 yard TD pass and a 72 yard TD run. In fact, Stanford has give up 16 plays of 20+ yards in three Pac-10 games, and most have those have been for more than 50 yards. Ouch!
This will not be a close game unless the Trojans have 200 yards in penalties and turn the ball over five times. The Cardinal are better offensively, but they still don't run the ball or protect the passer, and they will have to keep things simple for a first time starter behind a bad offensive line. Good luck with that.
On ther other side of the ball, we should see some big catch and run plays from the Trojans, and don't be surprised if it's Fred Davis and Stanley Havili stealing the show again, as the Steve Sarkisian cashes in on all those blitzes.
The Cardinal try to keep their safeties back to be safe, but that still leaves a big hole in the intermediate middle of the field where those backers would be if they're not blitzing. I expect this to be a passing game, and for Booty to have a big day. Also, don't be surprised if Mark Sanchez gets to throw a lot of passes. The Trojans will put this one away early and cruise to an easy victory.