by Garry Paskwietz
It’s time for Pac-12 Conference play and the Trojans waste no time in testing themselves by traveling to Palo Alto to face the Stanford Cardinal, who have won three of the last four conference titles.
It’s going to be another match-up with a tough, disciplined opponent, certainly one that is closer in style and performance to Alabama than to Utah State. And while the Trojans are feeling good about what transpired against the Aggies in the Coliseum on Saturday, things will definitely go back up a notch this weekend on the Farm.
The Cardinal continue to operate under the physical brand of football that was introduced by Jim Harbaugh, and which has carried on with David Shaw, and this year they feature one of the most productive players in the country in Christian McCaffrey, who set the NCAA record for all-purpose yardage last year and torched the Trojans for 461 yards in the conference title game.
“I think he’s the most unique player in college football,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “It’s his ball skills that set him apart. He’s the best running back they have and the best receiver they have, and they do a really good job of finding ways to get him involved.”
While McCaffrey will certainly be at the center of what they do offensively, the Cardinal also welcome back speedy Bryce Love in the backfield after he missed the season opener with an injury.
One of the wild cards for the Stanford offense could be at the quarterback spot. Kevin Hogan was a four-year starter who was a big key in the Cardinal victory over USC during the 2015 regular season, and his replacement is senior Ryan Burns, who has a lot of physical skills but not a ton of experience. Burns started off strong in the week 1 victory over Kansas State but struggled at times in the second half. There is also a good chance we will see back-up Keller Chryst at some point.
There are some good options at receiver for the Cardinal including Michael Rector, Trent Irwin, Francis Owusu and tight end Dalton Schultz.
The offensive line, a traditional position of strength for the team in recent years, will be breaking in three new starters, and one-time USC verbal Casey Tucker is at left tackle.
One of the most intriguing match-ups in this game will be the Trojan defensive line against the Stanford o-line, to see if the Trojans will be able to get pressure on Burns and slow the McCaffrey attack. USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has put together an encouraging start with a stronger-than-expected performance from the line, real good production from the linebackers and contributions across the board in the secondary, but McCaffrey brings about a whole different set of challenges. Darrell Rideaux offered up the thought last week on the Sunday Morning Cornerback podcast of using Adoree’ Jackson as a spy on McCaffrey as one of the few players on the field who can match the athleticism of the Stanford tailback. Whatever tricks he may have up his sleeve, the presence of Pendergast offers a lot of hope that the scheme he designs will be a good one.
Perhaps the best way to limit McCaffrey is to keep him off the field, and that’s where the stated goal of the USC offense comes in. Helton has said that he wants to be a ball control offense, and the more the Trojans can keep the ball on long drives, the less it is in the hands of McCaffrey. But will that happen?
The Trojans offensive line, expected to be a strength of the team, hasn’t been getting the desired push yet to be that dominant unit although there was progress on the ground last week against an overmatched Utah State front. There is more shuffling along the line with Nico Falah taking over for the injured Toa Lobendahn and Chad Wheeler settling back in at left tackle for the demoted Chuma Edoga (Wheeler was the likely starter when healthy anyways, so this move was a matter of time). The line will certainly need to step things up against a Stanford line that is led by Solomon Thomas, but the Cardinal will likely be without Harrison Phillips, who suffered a knee injury in the opener after missing the 2015 season with injury as well.
Stanford also has their usual group of productive linebackers led by OLB Peter Kalambayi and ILB Bobby Okereke.
It is the secondary that has a lot of people at Stanford excited with a lot of young and talented athletes. They are led by a veteran safety in Zach Hoffpauir, who bypassed major league baseball for a senior season of football.
It figures to be another rugged USC vs Stanford game that could be decided by how the Trojans match up with that physical style. The Cardinal know their identity and it’s one they are very comfortable with, and much like Alabama they simply aren’t going to make the kind of mistakes that beat themselves. USC knows the style well, it’s the foundation of the Trojan program past and it’s what Helton says he wants for the future. Saturday will bring another glimpse into where his Trojans stand for that vision.