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O/NSO: Stanford edition

The Obvious: When the No. 6 USC Trojans (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) host the No. 14 Stanford Cardinal (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) on Saturday night (5:30 p.m. PT/8:30 p.m. ET) in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, there will be no excuses that the Men of Troy underestimated the opponent, weren’t up for the game, weren’t in the right alignments, or just didn’t execute physically and/or mentally on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Simply put, this weekend’s Pac-12 opener with the Cardinal is an early but major gut check for Clay Helton, his staff, and his team.

The Not So Obvious: Perception will meet reality this weekend in a very visible way, as the Trojans face one of the elite power programs not only in the Pac-12 but the country. Ready or not, Stanford will be the early season litmus test.  And as you may be well aware, Stanford has come into Los Angeles and beaten the Cardinal and Gold the last four of five games. Clearly, Stanford certainly won’t be intimated or in awe when they hit the Coliseum turf. The good news, however, for the Trojans is that most coaches agree that the biggest week-to-week advancement in improvement usually comes between the first and second games of the season. And remember, in last season’s 27-10 loss to the Cardinal, Trojans high-profile sophomore quarterback, Sam Darnold played sparingly.    

The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 5 1/2-point favorite to defeat Stanford.

The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO can hear the surprise by many that the Trojan are the favorites after last week’s disappointing performance against Western Michigan. As for Stanford, the Red and White’s whopping 62-7 victory over a vastly outmanned Rice team speaks for itself, but it was the way the Cardinal executed the game that was impressive. Stanford, the Trojans oldest current rival dating back to 1905, has won seven of the last nine meetings with Troy, including the last three games. And, to the pain of Trojans fans everywhere, this is the 10th anniversary of Stanford’s unbelievable 24-23 upset of the Men of Troy in the Coliseum after being a 41-point underdog.

The Obvious: Saturday’s game featuring the Trojans and Cardinal will be nationally televised on FOX (5:00 p.m. PT/8:00 p.m. ET).

The Not So Obvious: The FOX broadcasters for Saturday’s big game will be Gus Johnson (play-by-play), Joel Klatt (analysis), and Jenny Taft (sidelines).

The Obvious: Saturday’s Trojans game radio broadcast from the Coliseum will air live on ESPNLA 710 AM with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).

The Trojans ESPNLA 710 USC pregame show (1:30 p.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show will feature a variety of talent that includes Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, Dennis Thurman, Rachel Frain, and WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz.

The Not So Obvious: The Stanford broadcast can be heard on flagship station KNBR (680 AM) with Scott Reiss (play-by-play), Todd Husak (analyst) and John Platz (analyst). The game will also be broadcast on ESPN national radio with John Kestecher (play-by-play) and David Norrie (analyst).

Saturday’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (channel 84), online channel 84 and on the Tuneln Radio app.

The Obvious: Saturday’s Los Angeles weather calls for mostly sunny with a high of 82 degrees, low of 67 degrees, 57 percent humidity, and 0 percent precipitation.

The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether the Trojans were holding back last week against Western Michigan in preparation for Stanford, or what you saw is what you can expect against the Cardinal. We’ll see how Stanford attacks the Trojans without tailback Christian McCaffrey, who now draws a paycheck in the NFL. The Cardinal have a new threat in fast and quick junior tailback Bryce Love (13 yds. per carry)… As usual, the Stanford defense will give the Trojans all they can handle, and we’ll find out whether the Trojans offense can move the ball against the disciplined Cardinal… One thing is assured, this game will be survival of the fittest, the nastiest of the nastiest, the meanest of the mean, and which team is better coached…. We’ll see whether the Trojans have improved in areas of glaring weakness and question marks – namely alignments, tackling, and physicality. On the bright side, Stanford will find that the Trojans are not feeble Rice. Let’s face it, Rice football will never be confused with University of Southern California football… From a strategic point of view, we’ll find out whether the Trojans can win the time of possession – something they didn’t do against Western Michigan (34:33 to 25:20). TOP will probably decide the winner along with turnovers.

Offensively on Saturday, the Trojans will need to dominate the line of scrimmage, and we’ll see whether the Neil Callaway’s offensive line, which will be looking to clean up their blocking issues, will be able to do that in a consistent and physical nature against the rugged Stanford D-line led by senior DT Harrison Phillips and a proven set of experienced and talented linebackers led by senior Peter Kalambayi… Last week against Western Michigan, Callaway said his three interior offensive linemen were physical, but the tackles (LT Toa Lobendahn and RT Chuma Edoga) need to step up the physicality part of their game. Callaway has said from the beginning of training camp that he may not know the right combination of O-linemen until as far down the road as the seventh game… This will also be Stanford’s longest look at Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold, the unflappable one who has surprisingly not thrown a TD pass in 2017. Darnold saw spot time in last season’s 27-10 loss to Stanford in Palo Alto. One thing for sure, the Trojans O-line knows that given time, Darnold can do damage to the Cardinal defense… And in starting tailback Ronald Jones ll and sensational true freshman Stephen Carr, the Trojans have two of the great running back combinations in the country. This being the second game of the season, we’ll see whether the Trojans wide receiving corps will rise to the occasion in a potentially packed Coliseum with national TV game exposure, or will they continue to get big-eyed and drop catchable balls from Darnold? We’ll find out whether super talented true freshman WR Joseph Lewis lV finally gets his shot…While the Stanford secondary has some very talented players – perhaps the best in the conference – Darnold said this week that he thinks they have some holes that can be exploited.

Defensively, we’ll find out whether the Trojans front 7 can withstand the physical prowess of Stanford’s traditionally strong future NFL offensive line. The return of Trojans junior inside linebacker and All-America candidate Cameron Smith, who sat out the first half of the Western Michigan game for a targeting call in the Rose Bowl, will be valuable addition. Cam is the unquestioned linchpin of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s defense… After Western Michigan gave the Trojans defensive front 7 all they could handle, we’ll see whether Clancy Pendergast, D-line coach Kenechi Udeze, and linebacker coach Johnny Nansen can coordinate their efforts to create a more forceful, aggressive, and mistake-free front 7… While the Stanford ground attack will try to dictate tempo and dominate time of possession, don’t dismiss the Cardinal passing game. We’ll see whether the Trojans can mount a strong pass rush against senior quarterback Keller Chryst (14 of 24, 58.3%, 253 yds., 2 TDs in 2017/7-0 as a starter overall) and at the same time neutralize explosive tailback Bryce Love…The Cardinal also continue to effectively use a true fullback in their power offense, and they continue their attack with talented tight ends like true freshman sensation Colby Parkinson and sophomore Kaden Smith. With Love running the ball and Chryst throwing to talented tight ends and sure-handed receivers like junior Trent Irwin and another freshman prodigy, Connor Wedington, the Trojans secondary will be tested severely.

The Trojans special teams could play a major role on Saturday. We know that true freshman placekicker Chase McGrath can kick extra points with ease, but what we don’t know – since no field goal attempts were tried against Western Michigan – is whether Chase is ready for a major primetime field goal performance…We know that walk-on junior punter Reid Budrovich punted with acumen (50.0 avg.) against Western Michigan, but we’ll find out whether both McGrath and Budrovich can handle the biggest games of their young careers… Speaking of John Baxter’s special teams in its entirety, the ST unit will need to refrain from killer penalties and undisciplined play again the robotic Stanford special teams…Stanford’s special teams placekicker is sophomore Jet Toner, who is said to have all-conference ability and who could play a vital role in Saturday’s final outcome. FYI, against Rice, Toner was 8-for-8 on PATs and converted both of his field goal attempts (34 and 40 yards). The Cardinal return junior punter Jake Bailey, who has been through the gridiron wars.

The Obvious: Clay Helton is in his second season as head coach of the USC Trojans, and he is looking for his first win against Stanford as a head coach.

The Not So Obvious: In regard to Stanford, Helton says, “You know offensively they always bring their run game to the park. That’s what you’ve got to stop right off the bat. It’s an area of improvement that we must do from Game 1 to Game 2. I’m very impressed with both (Bryce) Love and (Cameron) Scarlett, what they were able to do against Rice. They provide a great dynamic, one being a true speed back, very hard to get on the ground with Love, tremendous out of the backfield. And then Scarlett kind of being a little bit of the power runner in-between the tackles. Quarterback-wise, it’s really good to see Keller Chryst back healthy. He’s a kid that we recruited out of high school out of Palo Alto.

“Defensively, a very experienced, older bunch. All juniors and seniors coming back off this football team. They’ve always had the heart of the defense be where their strengths are, and that’s the nose, the MIKE and the free safety, and you look up and there’s Harrison Phillips, who’s a terrific football player, Sean Barton, the MIKE, and (Brandon) Simmons at safety. And then they’ve always had that great edge player, and there’s No. 34 (Peter Kalambayi) coming off the edge, which for six years now it seems like he’s been there. Peter has done an unbelievable job of providing pass rush for them.”

The Obvious: Guiding Stanford is seven-year head coach David Shaw, who is the nephew of former Trojans All-American corner (1964-66) and assistant coach (1980-86) Nate Shaw.

The Not So Obvious: Looking at the Trojans, coach Shaw says, We’re under no illusions about what we did in our first game and what we’re going to need to do in our second game. I don’t believe there’s any false confidence on our team. We know how good USC is. It’s one of those games where you can’t ever take your foot off the gas pedal. That’s what makes any exciting rivalry.” In terms of Trojans QB Sam Darnold’s ability to make big plays out of broken plays and find roaming receivers, Shaw says, “It’s something that’s innate to a certain degree, but I know (head coach) Clay Helton and his staff have really cultivated it.” Shaw is on record saying in the preseason that he believes Sam Darnold is the best college QB in America.

The Obvious: This will be Sam Darnold’s first start against Stanford, and the Heisman hopeful has spent time dissecting the Stanford defense on film.

The Not So Obvious: Sam told the O/NSO, “It’s the same thing as always. They been running the same defense for years. They’re just disciplined and never screw anything up and they keep everything in front of them, and they’re never going to allow big plays it seems like. However, like any defense, there are holes. So we are going to try and attack those things and attack where we think they’re vulnerable just like any offense should.”

The Obvious: Stanford’s standout outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi knows Sam Darnold presents a big challenge.

The Not So Obvious: Kalambayi says, “He (Darnold) seems like a true gunslinger. If you don’t contain him in the pocket, he can really hurt you.”

The Obvious: The 2017 Trojans offense averages 49.0 points per game while the Stanford defense allows 7.0 points per outing.

The Obvious: Tee Martin is the Trojans offensive coordinator.

The Not So Obvious: Assessing the Stanford defense, Martin says, “They’re a really good group of guys that really understand their scheme, played a lot of football, and have been there a really long time. They have size, they have speed, they have everything. We’re going to have to execute on offense to score points. It’s going to be a challenge. They play really good team defense. We’ve been playing against some of the same guys for four years.”

The Not So Obvious: The 2017 Stanford offense averages 62.0 points per game while the Trojans defense allows 31.0 points per game.

The Obvious: Clancy Pendergast is the Trojans defensive coordinator.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the Stanford’s power offense, a concerned Pendergast said, “Obviously, their physicality and they consistently run the ball and they do a very good job of blocking upfront. The running back (Bryce Love) is real patient and the tight end catches a lot of balls. They’re pretty well rounded. They’re very consistent and systematically they’ve got a system that has been in place for a while and their players know it, and they do a real good job of coaching. To neutralize their physicality of their offense line, we have to match their intensity regardless of who were playing. That’s kind of our goal every week.”

The Obvious: Last week, the Trojans defense dearly missed starting junior inside linebacker Cameron Smith in the first half against Western Michigan.

The Not So Obvious: Assessing the Stanford offense from a player’s prospective and the challenge of playing the Cardinal, Smith said, “It’s basic Stanford and they never seem to drop off. This is my favorite game and leading up to it. It’s an honor to play them. It’s my own rivalry in my head. It’s something for me to go out and prove. We still have a salty feeling from last year and from the (2015) Pac-12 Championship thing and the first game we played them. It’s something I look forward to the of every season. Their O-line is great again, they have a great running back, and they always do things right, so it’s going to be a fun one. (To deal with the physicality of the Stanford offensive line) it all starts with the week’s preparation and being really intense and physical and a lot of it is being mentally in the right place and knowing our assignments and alignments and where we’re supposed to end up. That’s how you beat somebody that’s physical. You just line up and tackle. We have to start fast on first down and get them in second-and-long and play from there. Stanford is smart kids and they play to the whistle.”

The Obvious: The Trojans starting quarterback is sophomore Sam Darnold (6-4, 220), whose family background includes his late grandfather, Dick Hammer, who played on the Trojans lone Final Four basketball team and was a member of the USA’s 1964 Olympic volleyball team.

The Not So Obvious: The Stanford quarterback is senior Keller Chryst (6-5, 234) who attended Palo Alto High. Chryst’s father, George, coaches the tight ends for the Denver Broncos and played college football and baseball at Princeton. His mother, Shelley, played volleyball and basketball at Wyoming, as well as playing in the WPVA professional volleyball circuit. His uncle, Paul, is the head football coach at the University of Wisconsin.

The Obvious: The Trojans have two of the most explosive runners in the country in junior tailback Ronald Jones ll from Texas and true freshman Stephen Carr, a local SoCal product.

The Not So Obvious: Stanford tailback Bryce Love hails from Wake Forrest, North Carolina, and whose father played football and ran track at South Carolina and whose uncle played football at North Carolina.

The Obvious: The Trojans have seven players from Northern California.

The Not So Obvious: Those seven Trojans from Bay Area schools include TE Tyler Petite (Campolindo HS), CB Isaiah Langley (Football Hill HS), P Chris Tilbey (San Francisco CC), CB Je’Quari Godfrey (Bishop O’Dowd HS), OT Jalen McKenzie (Clayton Valley HS), TE Erik Krommenhoek, and OG-OT Alijah Vera-Tucker (Bishop O’Dowd).

The Obvious: Connor Murphy is a sophomore Trojan outside linebacker of whom must is expected in the future.

The Not So Obvious: Connor’s brother, Trent, was a consensus All-America linebacker at Stanford (2010-13).

The Obvious: Stanford has a safety named Frank Buncom.

The Not So Obvious: Frank is the grandson of former USC LT Frank Buncom (1960-61).

The Obvious: The Trojans once had two brothers that coached at USC named Norv Turner (1976-84) and Ron Turner (1985-87).

The Not So Obvious: Stanford tight ends coach Morgan Turner is related to the Turner brothers. Ron Turner is his father and Norv, his uncle

The Obvious: And finally, the Trojans will again have game promotions during all home games.

The Not So Obvious: Among the promotions for the Stanford game will be the celebration of “Joint Forces Day” and recognition of Troy’s three-time defending national champion women beach volleyball team.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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