I had a dream about this game two nights ago. The Cardinal had just scored late in the game to pull within a touchdown of victory, but Coach Shaw eschewed the onside kick, choosing instead to trust that his defense could get the ball back for him.
Matt Barkley and the Trojans needed only one first down to essentially ice the game, but when they found themselves stuck in a third and long, they were forced to pass. Barkley dropped back and was almost immediately hammered by Chase Thomas from the blind side. The ball popped up out of his hands, and Matt Masafilo plucked it out of the air like low-hanging fruit. Masafilo easily rumbled twenty yards into the end zone, and the Cardinal came away with the victory.
Even in my sleep, I was fired up.
Saturday's game could easily develop into a high-scoring, back-and-forth affair. What we know is that the Stanford offense is difficult to stop. Depending upon what the defense is giving -- or what the coaching staff wants to exploit -- this unit can dominate either through the air (336 yards and four touchdowns from Andrew Luck two weeks ago) or on the ground (a school-record 446 yards rushing last week).
Statistically speaking, this is the best defense Stanford has seen yet, and USC's defensive line is the best front four on the Cardinal's schedule. They currently rank 11th in the nation against the run, allowing an average of just 3.38 yards per carry and only 91.14 yards per game. The flip side of all that, of course, is that the pass defense isn't so scary. The Trojans have just 13 quarterback sacks, which is good for 70th in the nation. They sit at #104 out of 120 FBS teams, surrendering 265.1 yards passing per game and a total of ten touchdowns. Putting all that together, the Trojan defense -- which some are claiming will expose Andrew Luck, ranks 43rd in the nation. Even so, I expect the Stanford offense to be able to move the ball well. Perhaps they'll punt two or three times instead of the usual one.
The biggest concern in this game is the obviously the USC offense. You probably know about Matt Barkley. Were it nor for Andrew Luck, the recent ascendancy of the Oregon Ducks, and the NCAA sanctions leveled agaisnt USC, Barkley would likely have been the next in a long line of Trojan quarterbacks who were the best players in the conference and led their teams Rose Bowls and BCS championship games. Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and Mark Sanchez all received stacks of positive press and a trophy case full of awards (including two Heisman Trophies), but Barkley's first three years at USC have been played in relative anonymity, and it's really not fair.
Barkley's good. If you just look at his numbers, he's been almost as good as Luck this year. Luck far outdistances him in passer rating, but Barkley leads in yardage and is close in completion percentage. Luck's 20:3 touchdown to interception ratio is otherworldly, but Barkley sits at 19:4, which is in the same orbit.
The main advantage that Barkley has over Luck is his playmaking wide receivers, and this is clearly the biggest concern facing the Cardinal defense. Stanford fans will remember sophomore Robert Woods, who torched the Cardinal for 12 receptions, 224 yards, and three touchdowns last year. (His season totals last year were 65, 792, and six, meaning the Cardinal kind of made his season.)
This year Woods has reached another level and become far and away the best wide receiver in the conference. He set a Trojan record with seventeen receptions in the season opener against Minnesota, and exploded again a few weeks later with 14 catches for 255 yards and two touchdowns against Arizona. Last year the USC plan was to get the ball to him in space, usually on desgined screen passes, and let him make the Stanford defenders miss. This worked well. It could be argued that the outcome of Saturday's game will be determined by how well the Stanford coaching staff game plans to defend Woods.
One reason for Woods's big numbers, though, is that Tailback U has fallen on hard times. (Astute fans might remember that blue chip recruit running back recruit Amir Carlisle decommitted from the Cardinal last February and jumped to the Trojans, at least in part because there was less competition for him at USC.) The Trojans have run for just a bit more than a thousand yards (compared to the Cardinal's 1536), and their backfield has been a revolving door.
Current lead rusher Marc Tyler was suspended early in the season, and their back of the future, Dillon Baxter, was dismissed from the team this week. The Trojans have a solid offensive line, but they lack the talent behind that line to scare opposing defenses.
So while there's a possibility that the strong Trojan offense could get going and this game could develop into a nightmare for the Cardinal, I don't think it will. I expect that things will develop similarly to how they've gone thus far, with the Cardinal stuck in a close game for a while before steamrolling in the second half.
Stanford 41, USC 21.