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Opponent preview: Stanford Cardinal

USC hosts the No. 23 Stanford Cardinal on Saturday night, in a game that has become the annual kickoff to Pac-12 play for both programs. Both the Trojans and Cardinal are off to 1-0 starts, as USC took down Fresno State 31-23, while Stanford beat Northwestern 17-7.

USC offense vs Stanford defense

USC offenseStanford defense
31 PPGScoring7 PPG
447 YPGTotal yards210 YPG
272 YPGPassing yards117 YPG
175 YPGRushing yards93 YPG

Stanford starters

Defensive line

DE #51 Jovan Swann
DT #57 Michael Williams
DE #34 Thomas Booker


OLB #52 Casey Toohill
ILB #2 Curtis Robinson
ILB #25 Andrew Pryts
OLB #10 Jordan Fox

Defensive backs

CB #11 Paulson Adebo
SS #21 Kendall Williamson
FS #3 Malik Antoine
CB #22 Obi Eboh

Stanford lines up in a traditional 3-4 defense, though it will be interesting to see if they make any personnel adjustment to match up against USC’s Air Raid. The Cardinal front seven doesn’t appear to be the dominating force that it has been in other years, and they could be down an important player as defensive end Thomas Booker is questionable for the game due to injury. Still, there are playmakers at all four linebacker spots who could make life difficult on a true freshman quarterback making his first start, as they are equally adept at dropping into coverage or bringing pressure via blitz. Against Northwestern, that quartet had 18 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception, and a fumble recovered for a touchdown. Using those linebackers, Stanford has the ability to give multiple looks on defense, which means the USC offensive line will need to be buttoned up with its pre-snap reads on every play.

As for throwing the ball, Kedon Slovis will need to be aware of cornerback Paulson Adebo at all times. He is a true shutdown corner and is tremendous in his coverage ability. If Slovis challenges him much, it’s likely that Adebo will wind up with the ball in his hands at some point. He had five tackles, two pass deflections, and an interception while allowing just one completion against Northwestern. He led college football last season with 24 passes defended, including four interceptions.

Stanford held Northwestern to just seven points, and while the Wildcats don’t present the same type of challenge that USC does (even with Slovis making his first start), it showed that Stanford will bring the same kind of tough, disciplined defense to this game that will make USC’s run game an important factor, as Stanford will likely force Slovis to beat them with his arm.

The Cardinal allowed just 210 total yards against Northwestern, with just 93 coming on the ground. The Trojans showed some life in the running game against Fresno State, but will it be there when Stanford knows it’s coming? Over the past few seasons, we’ve seen USC rise to the physical challenge that Stanford constantly presents, and that will again need to be the case this weekend.

Under defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, Stanford is 13-4 when facing a quarterback with fewer than seven career starts.

USC defense vs Stanford offense

USC defenseStanford offense
23 PPGScoring17 PPG
462 YPGTotal yards365 YPG
256 YPGPassing yards233 YPG
206 YPGRushing yards132 YPG

Stanford starters


#3 KJ Costello
#15 Davis Mills

Running back

#22 Cameron Scarlett
#28 Dorian Maddox


#34 Houston Heimuli

Wide receiver

#5 Connor Wedington
#4 Michael Wilson
#13 Simi Fehoko
#9 Osiris St. Brown

Tight end

#84 Colby Parkinson
#88 Tucker Fisk
#80 Scooter Harrington

Offensive line

LT #75 Walker Rouse
LG #78 Henry Hattis
C #51 Drew Dalman
RG #74 Devery Hamilton
RT #79 Foster Sarell

The biggest question for the Cardinal is whether starting quarterback KJ Costello will be available Saturday, as he was knocked out of the Northwestern game after taking a shot to his head while sliding. If he can’t go, Davis Mills will get the call. He was just 7-for-14 for 81 yards against Northwestern, as Stanford took to the ground to try to run out the clock in the second half.

Stanford will definitely be without standout left tackle Walker Little, who will miss at least the next handful of games for the Cardinal. He is Stanford’s best offensive lineman, and arguably the best lineman in the Pac-12, so replacing him with true freshman Walter Rouse is definitely something the USC defensive line will need to exploit. The Cardinal could also be without offensive guard Dylan Powell, who is listed as doubtful for the game after not playing against Northwestern.

The Cardinal took a huge step backward in the running game last season, but showed signs of life there last week. Cameron Scarlett led the charge with 97 yards on 22 carries, but Stanford only averaged 3.4 yards per carry as a team against a good Northwestern run defense.

That will likely be a focus against USC, but this is no longer a team that simply wants to line up with nine offensive linemen and power through you. There is a reliance on the short passing game at times, so USC defensive backs will need to do well to bring down some talented receivers in Wedington, Wilson, and others, with the ball in their hands. Tight end Colby Parkinson is a mismatch for just about any defender, though USC did a great job against talented Fresno State tight end Jared Rice, limiting him to just 11 yards on three catches.

While Stanford has some weapons, particularly if Costello is healthy and playing, this is an offense with which the USC defense should be able to hang. The Cardinal were a little sloppy against Northwestern, committing five holding penalties and two turnovers.

Wedington, Wilson, and Parkinson each caught at least four passes against Northwestern, with Wedington leading the team with seven receptions for 69 yards. Stanford certainly saw how Fresno State was able to gain the edge on quick hitting runs to the outside, and Wedington could be a guy the Cardinal use in that capacity.

Ultimately, while Stanford isn’t the pure power team that they were for much of this decade, this is still one of those big men games where both teams will want to make sure they hold the edge at the line of scrimmage.

Special Teams

33.6 YPRKick return20.5 YPR
3 YPRPunt return-0.5 YPR
1-1Field goals1-2
37 YPPPunting32.6 YPP

USC had two huge kickoff returns against Fresno State, including a 101-yard touchdown. But that ability could be negated by Stanford’s Jet Toner, who usually does not give opponents an opportunity to return kickoffs.

Toner is also a tremendous field goal kicker, though he did miss one against Northwestern.

Stanford punter Ryan Sanborn is talented, but a true freshman. Against Northwestern, he had a little bit of everything, forcing a fair catch at the 10-yard line, hitting a touchback when asked to punt from the plus-34 yard line, knocking one out of bounds for just a 27-yard punt, and allowing a 20-yard return on a 39-yard punt.

While USC punter Ben Griffiths is capable of some long-range punts, the USC coaches seem content with his 37-yard average that resulted in zero return yards for Fresno State. It will be interesting to see what he is asked to do against Stanford, in a game that could come down to field position.

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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