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November 13, 2008

Game 10: The Weekender

USC and its fans head to the Bay Area once again, this time with revenge in mind for Stanford.

The consensus No. 6 USC Trojans (8-1, 6-1 in the Pac-10) make their final trip outside of Southern California in the 2008 regular season this Saturday, November 15, to face the Stanford Cardinal (5-5, 4-3) at 4 p.m. (PDT) at Stanford Stadium and in front of a Versus network national cable TV audience. This is the 87th meeting between USC and Stanford in a series dating to 1905 (the Cardinal are the Trojans' oldest rival) with Troy holding a 58-25-3 edge. A season ago, Stanford recorded one of the most stunning upsets in college football history, beating the 41-point favorite Trojans, 24-23. In the previous meeting on the Farm, in 2006, USC pounded the Cardinal 42-0, in what was - at the time - the Trojans' fifth consecutive win over Stanford.

A week ago, the Trojan defense added another notch to its belt of domination in 2008, silencing the California Golden Bears, 17-3, at the Coliseum. USC's defensive performance in 2008 - should it be sustained through the final three games - would have to be considered one of the most impressive in modern college football history. The Trojans are now allowing just 206 yards and fewer than seven points per game. Meanwhile, the Cardinal's hopes of clinching a bowl bid just two seasons after finishing 1-11 were dashed with six seconds to play, as Oregon rallied for a closing touchdown in a 35-28 win in rainy Eugene. The Cardinal had rallied from an early 17-3 deficit to take a 28-27 lead with just over two minutes left in the game.

Trojan Coach Pete Carroll will coach is 100th game for USC on Saturday. He is in his eighth season (84-15, 55-10 in the Pac-10) having led the Trojans to six consecutive Pac-10 crowns, 11-win seasons, BCS bowl appearances and top-4 national finishes, including two national championships. Meanwhile, Stanford headman Jim Harbaugh (9-13 at Stanford, 7-9 Pac-10, and 39-19 overall as a head coach) is in his second season in Palo Alto. Harbaugh announced his intentions to turn the Stanford program around quickly a season ago, going a surprising 4-8, including wins over USC and rival Cal. Now, he has the Cardinal on the precipice of their first bowl appearance since 2001. He's done it with a smashmouth rushing attack on offense and a high-risk, high-reward attacking style of defense that leads the conference in sacks, but is susceptible to big plays.

Stanford Offense
Offensive coordinator David Shaw's unit has become a run-first, run-second and run-it-again attack in 2008. The Cardinal are averaging 207 yards per game on the ground, second in the Pac-10 and 17th in the nation. A year ago, Stanford averaged just 111 yards rushing. The Cardinal are also incredibly efficient in the red zone, scoring on 33 of 35 opportunities, good for fourth nationally. However, while Shaw and Harbaugh have definitely played toward their strength by running the ball early and often, one could make the case that Stanford has had to step up their rushing attack because it just doesn't have a reliable passer. Junior Tavita Pritchard has improved his completion percentage from a season ago (to nearly 60 percent in 2008), but has thrown as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns. Stanford's 134.9 yards passing per game is last in the Pac-10 and a big reason the Cardinal rank just sixth in total offense in the conference. Sophomore Alex Loukas has seen time in eight games behind Pritchard - most extensively in the past four weeks - but is more of a running threat, averaging 5.5 yards in 30 carries, but completing just four-of-13 passes.

A big part of the Cardinal's struggles on offense is the lack of a reliable deep threat or an experienced, physical presence. The loss of Richard Sherman to a knee injury in September really hurts. In his stead, 6'2" sophomore Ryan Whalen has become Stanford's leading receiver, with 34 grabs. However, he has just one TD and averages less than 12 yards per catch. Classmate Doug Baldwin is the only other wideout with more than Sherman's eight catches - he has 18, including three scores. He is a big play threat, with six plays of more than 35 yards in 2008 - but only two of those came on receptions. He is a threat on reverses. At tight end, junior Jim Dray is a big-time blocker, but both of his catches this season have gone for TDs. Senior Austin Gunder and freshman Coby Fleener have combined for 23 grabs from the TE spot.

The big numbers have come from the Stanford rushing attack, which has accounted for 23 of the team's 33 touchdowns. Junior Toby Gerhart has become a physical force in 2008, rushing for 932 yards and 13 TDs so far. He's on track to record Stanford's first 1,000-yard season since Tommy Vardell in 1991, and has hit the 100-yard mark in six games. He's also caught nine passes, but his day was cut short a week ago in Oregon by a strained right hamstring. He's questionable for Saturday. If he can't go, senior Anthony Kimble is a solid backup. Kimble has 650 yards and five scores in 2008, and notched 106 yards at Oregon in Gerhart's stead. He's had three 100-yard outings in 2008, and also has 11 pass receptions. Fullbacks Owen Marecic and Josh Catron do not have a carry this year, but are solid lead blockers and catch a pass from time to time.

Part of the credit for the emergence of Stanford's rushing attack has to go to a maturing and improving offensive line, led by senior center Alex Fletcher, an awards candidate who returned to the spot after earning second-team all-conference kudos as a guard in 2007. The group has also limited sacks, allowing just 16 through 10 games. Flanking Fletcher are sophomores Chase Beeler and Andrew Phillips, at left and right guard respectively. Both have missed a game or two to injury, but are healthy for Saturday. Junior RT Chris Marinelli has performed well, and even served a utility role, filling in at both guard spots when injuries arose. Senior Ben Muth has started every game at left tackle in 2008. Sophomore Bert McBride and junior Matt Kopa provide the most experienced depth at all spots.

Stanford Defense
Much like the offense, Stanford's defense, led by co-coordinators Andy Buh and Ron Lynn, has also improved in the rushing facet. The Cardinal are fifth in the Pac-10, allowing 126.6 yards per game on the ground, a big step in the right direction (they were ninth a season ago in departed Scott Shafer's 3-4 alignment). Stanford's defense has also been extremely opportunistic in recent weeks, posting a +8 turnover margin in the past two games (after the Cardinal were -9 through eight games). Against the pass, however, it's been a different story. While the Cardinal are tied for the conference lead with 30 sacks, showing their love for pressuring quarterbacks from all over the field, that high-risk plan has left the Stanford secondary open to attack. The Cardinal pass defense has allowed nearly 250 yards per game in the air, ranking last in the conference and No. 113 nationally. They've allowed more than 345 yards in the air three times, and have notched only six interceptions.

Up front, the Cardinal's 4-3 is led by senior defensive end Pannel Egboh and junior counterpart Erik Lorig. Lorig has 33 stops, including three sacks, while Egboh has 25 including 3.5 for loss. Redshirt freshman Tom Keiser and junior Tom McAndrew have been revelations in the end rotation. Keiser has six sacks and McAndrew three in reserve duty. In the middle, another rotation featuring senior nose tackle Ekom Udofia, junior nose tackle Brian Bulcke, sophomore tackle Sione Fua and redshirt freshman tackle Matt Masifilo has performed decently. Udofia is the vocal leader and has 23 tackles, while Bulcke leads the interior linemen with three sacks.

Stanford's real defensive leaders are senior weakside linebacker Pat Maynor and junior strongsider Clinton Snyder. Maynor leads the Cardinal with 64 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and four sacks. His size (6'2", 225) belies his physicality. Snyder, meanwhile has 50 stops, three sacks and three forced fumbles. The one issue here has been so-so play from the MLB spot. Sophomores Chike Amajoyi and Nick Macaluso have shared time - Macaluso has battled injuries all season. Amajoyi has 39 tackles, while Macaluso has 20 in just six games.

Part of having a struggling pass defense means that your secondary is going to record a lot of tackles - and with its current starting foursome ranked among its top six tacklers, Stanford is no different. Junior cornerback Kris Evans has 61 tackles and two interceptions, while his counterpart on the left side, senior Wopamo Osaisai, has 57 stops and 7 pass break-ups. Junior strong safety Bo McNally is having a solid season, tying Evans for second on the team with 61 tackles and adding three interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Redshirt freshman Sean Wiser took over starting free safety duties from Taylor Skaufel in game five and hasn't let go - he has 44 tackles as he learns on the job. Freshman Michael Thomas, a natural corner, sees plenty of time in nickel situations and has 36 tackles and a pick.

Stanford Special Teams
Senior placekicker Aaron Zagory has made 12-of-14 field goals and 32-of-33 PATs, and hasn't missed from closer than 42 yards. Zagory also took over kickoff duties from freshman Travis Golia midway through the season., but has just one touchback in 30 kickoffs. Redshirt freshman punter David Green averages 40.5 yards per boot, but Stanford's 37.8 net yards per punt leads the conference, as only 11 of his 41 punts have been returned. Baldwin is a threat as a punt returner, with two returns of more than 35 yards. He averages just less than 10 yards per. On kickoffs, freshman receiver Chris Owusu is averaging 23.5 yards per, while freshman running back Delano Howell averages over 26 yards.

USC Offensive Gameplan
Quarterback Mark Sanchez must have spent a good portion of last Saturday evening's game confused about what exactly the Trojan offense was trying to accomplish vs. California. After doubtlessly hearing all week from Steve Sarkisian, USC's offensive coordinator, that he must remain patient against an interception-happy Golden Bear defense, who could blame Sanchez if he felt he was getting mixed messages as the evening unfolded. After all, it appeared that Sanchez was perfectly capable of executing a patient, workmanlike game - until, repeatedly, the Trojans' play calling got needlessly greedy and in the way. USC's rushing attack battered the Bears for 173 rushing yards, yet was left by the wayside, time and again, as a series of apparently ill-advised passing plays helped hamstring one USC drive after another.

After three seasons of various personnel at every offensive position, many of the issues the Trojan offense has faced (and they've been kicked around ad nauseum by many surrounding the program) since the end of the Leinart-Bush era remain the same. It doesn't seem to matter if the quarterback is a perceived game-manager type, like John David Booty, or a gunslinger, as many have called Sanchez. It doesn't seem to matter if USC is experienced at receiver and running back - or green. It doesn't seem to matter if USC has a veteran offensive line, or if it's a young group. When the personnel changes, and the hiccups remain the same, there's only one place to look - coaching.

That said, Sarkisian is USC's offensive coordinator - and it appears he will remain so until he finds a head coaching position elsewhere. And, while there have been consistency issues in USC's offense - in personnel packages, play selection, in-game adjustments and the like - there are games where Sarkisian shows his growth as a gameplanner and playcaller. However, with the track record being what it is in recent seasons, the questionable decisions become magnified every week he doesn't have a "growth" game.

This week, against a Stanford defense that does everything it can to get after the quarterback - but doesn't have a ton of athleticism in pass coverage from its linebackers and depends its secondary to do the nearly impossible - the Trojans' penchant for opening the game with its passing attack should pay dividends. The four interceptions by Stanford against USC a season ago - thanks to Booty remaining in the game and throwing with a broken finger - would be two-thirds of their total in 2008. Stanford's secondary most often plays a loose cover-two, trying to keep from giving up big plays, but suffers breakdowns thanks to the blitzing it does. The Trojan offensive line will need to be on its game in pass protection. That's not to say USC can't have a nice night on the ground - the Cardinal gave up more than 300 rushing yards to Oregon last week, and 233 earlier in the season to TCU. But don't expect USC to stick by the running game too much - based on recent history and the Cardinal's struggles against the pass.

USC Defensive Gameplan
The story on the defensive side of the ball for the Trojans is completely different. Many have heard the nation-leading statistics. But there are a couple of notes that are, perhaps, even more unreal: USC has allowed one touchdown at home this season (against Oregon on Oct. 4); and USC has allowed only two second-half touchdowns in 2008 (on drives of two yards - Oregon State - and 15 yards - Arizona - thanks to turnovers). In the offense-happy 21st century, those numbers are simply hard to believe. And it continued a week ago, as a Cal team that was averaging 36 points and 171 rushing yards per game left the Coliseum with three points and 27 rushing yards.

This weekend, the Trojans will face an interesting test, rarely seen in the Pac-10 - a team focused on a power-rushing attack. In fact, Stanford's offense reminds one most of a traditional Big Ten offense, with a pair of solid running backs (one physical, one quick) and a game manager at quarterback. The problem for the Cardinal here, then, is two-fold: one, we've seen what USC has done with Big-Ten style offenses in recent seasons (Iowa, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State); and, two, Stanford's passing attack is even weaker than those exhibited by those recent Big Ten opponents.

Lost in the talk about Stanford's stunning upset a year ago is the fact that the Cardinal offense did absolutely nothing against the USC defense until the final two drives, after Booty had already thrown three of his four picks. Sure, the Stanford offense is improved in 2008 and Pritchard has plenty of experience under his belt that he didn't have a year ago. However, the defense USC put on the field last October pales in comparison to the group that's out there right now. I expect the Trojans to absolutely bottle up Gerhart and Kimble (don't be surprised if the Cardinal insert Loukas, hoping to have some success similar to what Ohio State enjoyed on a limited basis earlier this season with Terrelle Pryor). And Pritchard, who is still not overly efficient, is likely to struggle without a presence like Sherman to put any pressure on the USC secondary.

The Pick
By all rights, this game simply should not be close. Of course, that's what everyone said in 2007, as well. I, for one, not only picked a big USC win a year ago, but a spread-covering 52-point victory. And I was not alone. So, the knee-jerk reaction here is, really, to look for ways for Stanford to - if not pull off another upset - at least keep this one surprisingly close.

Of course, the obvious answer there would involve the inconsistent USC offense. After all, it was the Trojan offense - and a number of the decisions made by the USC coaching staff about the offense - that earned more than its share of the blame for Stanford's upset win a year ago. And, with recent outings at Oregon State and Arizona - as well as last week's game - trust me, the urge to pick this game as "USC 7, Stanford 3," has crossed my mind more than once.

However, thanks to last season's debacle, Carroll should have no problem getting his troops emotionally ready for this game - another problem that has festered at times in recent seasons. Add to that a risk-taking Stanford defense that opens itself up to those big play opportunities that Sanchez (and Sarkisian) love, and you get another bounce-back performance in what has truly become an up-and-down season for USC's offense. Finally, toss in a Cardinal offense that plays right into USC's biggest defensive strengths (even if Gerhart is 100 percent), and - again - it looks like the Trojans should win big.

USC 38, Stanford 6

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for eight 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 thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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