The game with Stanford last year still hangs over Los Angeles like a dark cloud. It likely cost the Trojans a shot at a national title against Ohio State, because one loss to Oregon in mid season would not have been enough to keep USC out. This time around, the Trojans are hanging by a thread in the national title hunt, as well as the Pac-10 championship chase. They cannot afford another loss. The Cardinal are a far better team than they were last season, and the Trojans have not exactly lit it up on the road in conference. Will this be a revenge game beatdown, or are we in for another grinder of a game as we saw against Arizona and Cal? Here's a look at the matchup.
Stanford Offense vs. USC Defense
Although they are not an explosive offensive team, the Cardinal have improved substantially over last season. Their running game is second best in the Pac-10 behind Oregon's, which means that they have been able to move away from the passing game, which has struggled. In 2007, their running game was vanilla with straight I sets and zone running. They didn't have the confidence in their offensive line or quarterbacks to do much else. This season, they've opened it up quite a bit.
The I sets and the inside zone plays are still the bread and butter of the offense, and most of the improvement has just come from better execution up front. But they've integrated some new stuff as well. They will run the ball out of the shotgun, including some zone read. They will even run triple or speed option out of the I, something that we rarely see in college football any more, and definitely not in the Pac-10. QB Tavita Pritchard is not a bad athlete, and he can execute the running plays some. Still, what Stanford has done this season is incorporate back-up quarterback Alex Loukas, an excellent runner, into their zone read and I sets. One play they like to run with him is a fake inside zone run where he just follows the back into the hole after the fake.
Another reason the Stanford running game has vastly improved is the emergence of Toby Gerhart at tailback. He's the Pac-10's answer to John Riggins: a big, strong kid who you have to gang tackle to get down. One thing to watch: Gerhart has been a little dinged up the past couple of weeks. He is complemented nicely by Anthony Kimble, a cutback guy who is a slasher. He doesn't have tremendous speed, but he is shifty. These two guys and two QBs get all of the carries.
The passing game continues to be a work in progress. Pritchard is nothing special as a passer. He is reasonably accurate, but he is not a gunslinger, and he has not been able to do much in the way of deep throwing. Part of that is a lack of speed at wide receiver, where sophomore Ryan Whalen is the leading receiver with 34 catches. Doug Baldwin is considered the deep threat, but he only has 18 catches. Stanford throws the ball sporadically to Kimble and tight end [/db]Austin Gunder[/db].
The Cardinal in general are a short passing team. They don't even throw the intermediate routes very often, although I suspect that they will throw more than normal against the Trojans. But they are not efficient at all. They are last in the conference in pass offense, and have thrown more INTs (11) than TDs (9). As a result, they have run the ball almost twice as many times as they have passed. It's hard to imagine Stanford having much success against a dominant USC defense with set of strengths and weaknesses. That would lead me to believe that if the Cardinal were to have a chance, it would have to be a low scoring game. I doubt very seriously that they can get to 24 points this season against the Trojans.
Stanford Defense vs. USC Offense
Here's where it gets interesting. The Cardinal by nature are a gambling team on defense. They are not quite as bold as they were last season, but they blitz more than any team in the conference, and more than any team on the schedule with the possible exception of Notre Dame. Last week against Oregon, they backed off that strategy because Oregon wants you to blitz against their spread option offense, because it creates favorable one on one matchups that can be exploited in the running game. It will be interesting to see if the Cardinal back off some from the blitzing against USC. The conventional wisdom on defending the Trojans is to play two or three deep, keep everything in front of you, and force the Trojans to execute long 10-12 play drives. Oregon State, Arizona, and Cal all used this strategy with some success, allowing the Trojans to self destruct with penalties, turnovers, and impatient playcalling and reads.
The thing is that Stanford did not play the Trojans that way last year. They rushed five guys on nearly every play, and it wound up netting them a win. They surrendered almost 460 yards, but were able to stay in the game because five Trojan turnovers killed drives and gave Stanford opportunities that they wouldn't have normally had. Couple that with the collapse of the Trojan defense in the fourth quarter, and you had an upset.
The Cardinal like to confuse teams with their pre-snap looks and overwhelm them by flooding sides with blitzers. They play a lot of games with their linebackers, putting them on the line and then sending some or all of them. They will employ the zone blitz, although they prefer just straight blitzing. They also like to blitz on the weak side with the outside backer and a corner or safety lined up next to him. They stunt in about any way you can, including LB/DL stunts. They rotate defensive linemen to keep people fresh.
Sam backer Pat Maynor and safety Bo McNally are their stars. Those guys always seem to be around the ball. McNally especially has been a playmaker. Defensive end Tom Keiser has been their designated pass rusher, leading the team with six sacks. Stanford leads the Pac-10 in sacks.
Behind the pressure, Stanford plays their corners off the line and their safeties deep. This scheme can leave huge holes in the middle of the field. Fred Davis really hurt the Cardinal last season. In the game last year though, Stanford played their corners on the line a lot. The result was that they surrendered some big plays, but they also broke up some passes and ended up with some INTs.
So here's the central question in this game: will the Cardinal play the scheme that they did last year which led to a win, or will they yield to the conventional wisdom of the conference and play it safe? They did the latter last week against Oregon, and it was the difference between giving up 35 points in a tight game and getting hammered last season to the tune of 55 points. In my opinion, if they roll the dice as they did last year, a beating will ensue. This season, Stanford is not facing a team with a banged up offensive line, no Stafon Johnson, an underachieving wide receiver corps, and a QB with a broken thumb. If they do a lot of blitzing, the Trojans will litter them with intermediate throws and bombs, and you'll see a blowout.
I think Jim Harbaugh knows that. If the Cardinal are anything, they are well coached. They are still undertalented, yet have managed to be competitive in almost every outing, and are a game above .500 in conference play. I think Stanford will do more blitzing than we normally see, but I also think that they will temper that with more zone defense, forcing the Trojans to play to their weaknesses: patience, high execution level, consistent efficiency. I think we're going to see more penalties, because we've seen them all year. I think those will kill some drives, and I suspect the game will be one of hiccups for the Trojan offense: some big plays surrounded by some ugly drives and punts. Stanford will do the same thing that Cal tried to do, keep the Trojans off the field by running down the play clock and sticking with the running game and high percentage, short passing.
The problem for the Cardinal is that without another high turnover game for USC, they don't have the horses on offense to keep things close. Stanford is in the bottom half of the conference in scoring and total offense. USC has played three other teams in the bottom half: Arizona State, Washington State, and Washington. They have combined for zero points. WSU tried to minimize their passing game and stick on the ground with some option offense. That didn't work out so well. Stanford is a much better team than WSU on offense, but they're not much better than ASU, and the Trojans blanked them as well.
Let's face facts. Only one team has had any success against the Trojans this season on offense: Oregon State, and only for one half. The Trojans other eight opponents have averaged four points per game. I just can't see Stanford doing what Cal, Arizona, Oregon, and Arizona State could not. It will likely be another ugly offensive game, but another beautiful defensive game.