Six brutal road trips over the course of eight games have taken their toll on the Trojans. Can rejuvenated Stanford ruin USC's long-awaited home stretch drive?
The USC Trojans (7-2, 3-2 in the Pac-10), ranked No. 9 in the BCS, No. 10 in the USA Today coaches' poll, and No. 11 by the Associated Press, return home this Saturday, November 14, to face the AP No. 25 Stanford Cardinal (6-3, 5-2) at 12:30 p.m. (PDT) in the school's annual Homecoming game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The game is televised nationally on FSN cable. It is the 88th meeting a series that dates to 1905, making Stanford the Trojans' longest-tenured rival. USC owns a 59-25-3 record against the Cardinal and has won six of the past seven meetings, including last season's 45-23 victory in Palo Alto. In the last Coliseum meeting, however, Stanford pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history, defeating then No. 2 USC, 24-23, in 2007.
A week ago, the Trojan defense bounced back with a solid performance in a 14-9 victory at Arizona State. Though the USC offense sputtered, Will Harris' 55-yard interception return for a score was one of four Sun Devil turnovers forced by the Trojans in USC's sixth (and final) road outing in its first nine contests. Meanwhile, the Cardinal improved to 5-0 at home with a 51-42 victory over then-No. 7 Oregon, as senior running back Toby Gerhart set a single-game rushing record with 223 yards. The win made Stanford bowl eligible for the first time since 2001.
Trojan Coach Pete Carroll is in his ninth season at USC (95-17, 62-12 in the Pac-10), having led the Trojans to seven consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Stanford headman Jim Harbaugh (44-24 in six college seasons, 15-18 at Stanford) is in his third season on the Farm. After taking over a troubled program, Harbaugh has led the Cardinal to improving records in each of his three seasons by creating a personality about the Stanford program that was severely lacking before his arrival. The Cardinal have become extremely tough at home, want to play a physical brand of ball control offense and feature an aggressive, attacking defense. The final step seems to be improving the team's inconsistent play on the road (1-3 this season, allowing nearly 30 points per game). Could that final step be taken against USC this weekend?
Stanford Offense Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach David Shaw must be thrilled with the growth shown by his group in 2009. The Cardinal have worked hard to establish a personality as a power running football team the past two seasons and nine games - and they've succeeded, ranking No. 15 nationally in rushing offense at 211 yards per game. However, it doesn't end there. The Cardinal are also in the national top 20 in pass efficiency (No. 11), scoring (No. 18, 34 ppg) and total offense (443 yards per game, No. 14). In fact, in the past three games, the Cardinal have gained more than 1,500 yards and scored more than 40 points per game. Much of the credit must go to redshirt freshman QB Andrew Luck, who has been stellar in replacing senior Tavita Pritchard as the starter this season. He's completing more than 58 percent of his passes with 11 TDs and just three picks. His strong arm is aided by great mobility, as he ranks as Stanford's second-leading rusher with a 5.2 per-carry average in 44 attempts.
Luck has also been benefited by the presence of Gerhart, who has been spectacular for the second consecutive season. The physical and deceptively fast senior broke his own school record for single season rushing, set in 2008, last Saturday and has 1,217 yards this season. He ranks second nationally with 16 TDs. Freshman Stepfan Taylor is his rarely used back up. Junior Owen Marecic is the consummate fullback - an excellent lead blocker and is very capable (but rarely used) as a pass receiver. He's also now starting on both sides of the ball, as he replaced injured middle linebacker Clinton Snyder as the starter against Oregon.
Stanford's receiving corps has also come into its own in 2009. The Cardinal passing attack truly looks downfield when going to its wideouts. Junior Ryan Whalen and sophomore Chris Owusu have combined for 73 catches, averaging 17.7 yards per grab, and eight TDs. They account for almost 90 percent of Stanford's catches by wide receivers. The tight end group - senior Jim Dray and juniors Coby Fleener and Konrad Reuland - has caught 25 passes total, with Dray scoring three times. Gerhart and Marecic are also used sparingly in the passing attack.
Though they start two redshirt freshmen, the Cardinal front five has been fantastic in 2009, paving the way for Gerhart and allowing just six sacks on the year. Senior RT Chris Marinelli is the leader. The two newbies, LT Jonathan Martin and RG David DeCastro have been impressive. LG Andrew Phillips and C Chase Beeler, both juniors, are both experienced - Phillips has started 20 games in his career and Beeler played in 2008 at left guard.
Stanford Defense Co-defensive coordinators Ron Lynn and Andy Buh (who also serves as linebackers coach) continue to mold a defense that attacks from the get-go. Out of a 4-3 set, Stanford really gets after it, trying to pressure the quarterback from just about any spot in the front seven. However, the Cardinal defense is still trying to build its talent base to match what Stanford has put together on offense. The high-risk, high-reward strategy has notched 17 sacks, but just nine turnovers. Stanford's pass defense ranks No. 102 nationally, allowing more than 250 yards per game, and its rush defense allows nearly 139 yards per game. Stanford ranks in the bottom half of the national rankings in just about every measurement, but is growing and was crucial in slowing down Oregon's high-flying attack enough to allow the Cardinal to take an insurmountable 31-14 halftime edge last week.
Up front, senior nose tackle Ekom Udofia is the group's emotional leader. The designated run stuffer has 23 stops, but is helping mold a young group. The loss of defensive end Erik Lorig to a groin injury a few weeks back has been a blow, but redshirt freshman Chase Thomas has filled in admirably, with eight tackles for loss and three sacks. Sophomore Thomas Keiser leads the team with eight sacks from the other end spot. He's really been a great surprise this year. Junior Sione Fua starts at the other tackle spot.
Only strongside linebacker Will Powers, a senior, has started all nine games thus far. He's been solid, with three sacks and two fumble recoveries. Stanford suffered a huge loss when Snyder injured his knee during practice the week before the Oregon game. Not only was he the defense's vocal leader, but he also still leads the team with 61 tackles. In his place, Marecic and inexperienced junior Nick Macaluso played reasonably well against a difficult Oregon offense. On the weakside, hyped true freshman Shayne Skov took over the starting job from junior Chike Amajoyi in the Cardinal's seventh game. Amajoyi still spells him often and has 45 stops, while Skov, expected to become a playmaker, has 24.
Tough senior Bo McNally leads the Stanford secondary from his free safety spot. A big hitter in a small package, McNally is emblematic of the Cardinal defense - not a physical wonder, but an incredibly hard worker. He has 58 tackles, second on the team. Sophomore Delano Howell has been reasonably effective at strong safety, with 48 tackles and two of Stanford's three interceptions. Stanford has used a number of players at corner this year. Senior Richard Sherman, a former wideout, and sophomore Johnson Bademosi are expected to start. However, senior Kris Evans, redshirt freshman Quinn Evans, sophomore Michael Thomas and former starter Corey Gatewood are all likely to appear.
Stanford Special Teams Stanford leads the nation in kickoff returns, thanks to Owusu, who has returned three for scores already in 2009 and averages 36 yards per opportunity. He is a huge threat, and opened the Oregon game last week with a return inside the UO 20. Sherman is also a threat on the punt return unit, averaging more than 10 yards, including one score. Freshman Drew Terrell also sees time. Placekicker Nate Whitaker, a junior, is 11-of-16 on field goals and has plenty of range, drilling a 54-yarder and a 48-yarder. Sophomore punter David Green is averaging about 41 yards per boot.
USC Offensive Gameplan After weeks of concern about the Trojan defense, last weekend in Tempe it was as if the USC offense stood up as a group and raised their hands, asking, "What about us?!?" Penalties, mistakes and some interesting strategy combined with a solid Arizona State front seven to stifle the Trojan offense, as USC had just 112 yards passing - 75 on a spectacular catch and run by Damian Williams on the second play of the second half for the deciding points - and very rarely ventured into Sun Devil territory. Matt Barkley finally had a game befitting a true freshman quarterback, and the odd pairing of Joe McKnight and the now-clearly-underutilized Allen Bradford continued to confuse even the most astute onlooker.
With the Trojan defense facing a much more diverse and explosive attack than ASU's this weekend, it is imperative that the Trojan offense return to the growth pattern it displayed through the first three games of October. The Stanford defense is much less athletic than the Sun Devils' group, and has had a much tougher time against the run. The Trojans, even with their struggles last weekend, still put up solid numbers on the ground and Bradford seems to be just the kind of runner who could pound the Cardinal front seven all afternoon, given the chance. In its three road losses this season, Stanford has allowed 251 yards rushing to Wake Forest, 173 to Oregon State and 138 (on nearly 10 yards per carry) to Arizona. The Cardinal offense has been a great ball control group, holding the ball for an average of nearly 33 minutes per game (seventh nationally), allowing their questionable defense to stay fresh. A ball control attack from USC this weekend - which, of course depends on third-down effectiveness, something that has eluded the Trojans so far in 2009 - would keep Stanford's electric offense off the field and wear down a Stanford defense that isn't deep and isn't used to being on the field for extended periods.
At the same time, Stanford is allowing nearly 290 yards passing in four road games so far in 2009. The middle of the field is available all day against the Cardinal defense, as their linebackers struggle to drop into pass coverage, and are often used as blitzers (but haven't had much success there either). The return of Anthony McCoy to the USC lineup should help, even if he's not 100 percent. Stanley Havili could also have a big day - both are crucial as the Trojans will be without Williams due to a high ankle sprain. Ronald Johnson must have a step-up performance and lead a thinning wideout corps.
USC Defensive Gameplan A week ago, I listed three items for the Trojans to focus on against Arizona State: know your assignment; play your assignment; and tackle the ball carrier. After allowing nine points and forcing four turnovers, while holding ASU to 81 yards rushing, one could say they focused well. Harris and Chris Galippo made big plays, and Shane Horton bounced back big from a horrific performance at Oregon. Jurrell Casey continued his monster year at defensive tackle, and, overall, the Trojan defense regained a measure of swagger.
They better bring that swagger and an even sharper focus against a Stanford team that is eons better than the Sun Devils on offense. There are two keys. First things first: gang tackle Gerhart. USC's defensive line must get penetration early and often and force Gerhart to change tracks before he starts rolling downhill. Then, it will be on the linebackers and defensive backs to run to the ball. Gerhart is an absolute load, and if you thought USC was having trouble tackling Oregon's runners a couple weeks ago, you'll be amazed at how difficult Gerhart can be if USC tackles poorly on Saturday.
The second goal for USC is to pressure Luck without letting him roam free. Luck is mobile, and the Stanford offensive line has done a masterful job protecting him - but let's get it straight, he's no Jeremiah Masoli with his legs. The Cardinal favor deep QB drops and intermediate and deep passing routes - they absolutely killed Oregon with play-action passes. In recent years, those types of offenses have struggled against the USC pass rush. The Trojans need to mix blitz looks and can't afford to play too soft of a zone, as Luck is as accurate a thrower as the Cardinal have had in some time.
The Pick No matter how ugly, the Trojans did recover from the Oregon debacle well enough to win a conference game on the road - and unless you're facing Washington State the past couple years, that's nothing to sneeze at in the very deep Pac-10. Now, after a brutal stretch that saw USC play six of its last eight games away from the Coliseum - including a pair of 2,000-mile trips to play ranked foes - the Trojans must truly feel thankful to celebrate Homecoming as the first of three home games to close out the schedule. Between the Trojans' November record under Carroll and their unbelievable home mark since 2002, USC has to feel good (despite a series of difficult injuries to key players) coming into Saturday.
And they better feel good - and be prepared. While this Stanford team has shown Jekyll-and-Hyde qualities in their differences from home to road, the Cardinal are rolling right now. This is a team feeling its oats after hammering Oregon, knows it can beat USC here after the shocker in 2007, and plays with attitude on both sides of the ball. And it's not as if Stanford has been bombed in those road losses - as a matter of fact, they led Wake Forest by 14 and Arizona by 15 before fading.
This looks like a good, old-fashioned Pac-10 shootout. However, it also looks like it's on USC to make it one. I fully expect the Cardinal to have a solid offensive day and put up points on a USC defense that is still learning on the job and has suffered some tough injuries in the front seven of late. Can the Trojan offense keep up? Well, Stanford's defense is the least effective USC has seen since the Notre Dame game, but the Trojans cannot afford to slow themselves with penalties and turnovers. The good news is that Stanford's defense has not created turnovers very well. I fully expect a bounce-back performance from Barkley as he regains his two favorite safety nets in McCoy and Havili. If the Trojan offensive brain trust works out those play calling kinks (reminder to staff: Bradford is No. 21, he should be on the field most of the time, not standing next to you), USC should not only be able to keep up, but will ride what should be a vibrant Homecoming crowd to an exciting and important victory.
USC 37, Stanford 30
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.