On November 15, 2008, Pete Carrol and his sixth-ranked USC Trojans travelled north to Palo Alto and easily dispatched the Cardinal, 45-23. The Trojans exacted some measure of revenge for their defeat the previous year, a game in which Stanford, as forty-one-point underdogs, shocked the world and upset USC, 24-23. I imagine that as the Trojans savored that revenge game, they must've thought that order had been restored. They must have assumed that they'd go back to beating the Cardinal like a drum. They were wrong. USC hasn't beaten Stanford since then -- and they won't beat them this Saturday.
Stanford steamrolled the Trojans 55-21 the following year in the "What's Your Deal?" game, won back-to-back nailbiters in 2010 and '11, the latter game being the triple-overtime thriller in the Coliseum, and they pulled off another upset last season, topping the Trojans 21-14.
How significant is this streak? Consider this: there is no player on the Stanford roster who has ever lost to USC. (Conversely, Matt Barkley, undoubtedly one of the greatest players in USC history, never beat the Cardinal.) Should Stanford beat the Trojans this Saturday -- and remember, they will -- the string would extend to five straight for the Cardinal, the first such streak for Stanford in the 108-year history of the series. From 1958 to 1990, a span of thirty-three games, Stanford beat USC only three times. Times have certainly changed.
But enough history. What might we expect this weekend? When Lane Kiffin was put out of his misery in September, I think most people expected one of two things to happen. Either the Trojans would collapse into disarray, or their talent would rise together and right the ship. Certainly, the latter has happened.
Since the LAX firing and the elevation of Ed Orgeron to interim head coach, the Trojans have gone 4-1 with wins over Arizona, Utah (remember them?), Oregon State, and Cal, and a loss to Notre Dame. They've been playing much better, and at 7-3 they'd likely be ranked if there were a different logo on the sides of their helmets. (I still believe the national media views USC with a negative bias for some reason.)
The Trojan offense isn't overwhelming, but they're certainly strong defensively. Scholarship sanctions have thinned their ranks, but the defensive front seven is excellent, and it will be interesting to watch them battle with Stanford's offensive line. But I think the Tunnel Workers' Union will wear them down, impose their will, and eventually lead the Cardinal to a comfortable 31-13 win.
Since I might be a touch biased, I contacted Will Robinson, an editor at Conquest Chronicles, SB Nation's USC site, and he was kind enough to give us some incredibly thorough answers to my questions about the Trojans. So without further ado, I give you Mr. Robinson...
Go Mighty Card:
To be honest, I expected the Trojans to self destruct after Lane Kiffin was fired five games into the season. Instead, they've been a respectable 4-1 and seem to have righted the ship. What's the difference in the team under Ed Orgeron? How do fans feel about him and the current state of the program? Does he have a shot at retaining the job?
Firstly, I think my preview where USC was pitted to be the greatest team of the decade last year totally set the Trojans on their downward spiral. Sorry about that, USC fans.
Secondly, the biggest difference is probably that team just feels looser and that word that’s been thrown around a lot since late September: “fun.” The program was incredibly tense the last bit of Kiffin’s tenure as he created more trouble than he could deal with – closing practices, being coy with the quarterback battle, being unnecessarily mysterious regarding injuries. Nick Saban can do that because of his four national championships. It says something about the process one subscribes to. People tend to shut up and follow one’s lead at that point.
Fans love Coach O and are excited that USC has gotten back to the good ol’ days of 16 running backs and killer defense. It sounds clichéd, but he is truly a breath of fresh air from Kiffin, doing almost everything diametrically opposite (opening practices back up to media; talking injuries; allowing cookies and ice cream to increase morale, etc.). It’s no surprise many players have gone out their way in interviews or on social media to say something to the effect of, “It’s nice to have coach who actually loves you” -- as damning of an indictment of Kiffin as any. Don’t think Kiffin DIDN’T love his players, but given his aloofness, awkwardness and somewhat reclusive behavior, I doubt he expressed that well.
Does Coach O have a shot at retaining the job? Sure. Doubt the job is remotely his unless he plays in the Pac-12 title game. There are too many proven quantities out there – no matter how realistic – in the Kevin Sumlins and Chris Petersens of the college world that athletic director should gun for them first and foremost. As Chris Huston posted, an offensive innovator needs to come in and bring the offense into 2013. The current system is not the most efficient system. If I were to bet, I’d pick against Orgeron getting the full-time gig.
Over the past twelve years, the USC quarterback position has been filled by Carson Palmer, John Booty, Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart, and Matt Barkley, all of whom were selected in the NFL draft. Is the Cody Kessler, the current starter, living up to that legacy? What are his strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback? Can we expect to see him starting next year, or might he be pushed by Max Browne?
Well, not particularly. USC supporters all felt pretty good about each of those guys when they were taking snaps at the Coliseum. Kessler hasn’t earned that confidence and trust. To that end, the Trojans did take the field a couple of weeks ago with four walk-on wideouts on the game roster and one healthy scholarship tight end. So it’s not like he’s throwing to a deep corps now. The last three weeks have been solid, completing 59-of-70 passes for 647 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception. He’s becoming a sound decision maker with (seemingly) nice short-yard accuracy. The deep ball isn’t too bad, but it hasn’t been dialed up too frequently. His glaring weakness is his pocket awareness. Watch as he gets rocked without reading the blindside pressure. It happens more often that it should.
Whoever comes in (even Orgeron) will want to see what the team has. No guaranteed starters, especially at QB. Browne was highly touted coming in, and now he’s redshirting. He has to get a fair shake at the starting job. It would be irresponsible not to examine all of a team’s options.
I don't think anyone could have predicted that Marqise Lee would be averaging less than 70 yards a game, even considering his injury issues. How healthy is he now? What has the chemistry been like between him and Kessler?
It’s odd that USC’s top wideouts from the one year end up dinged up the next year (see: Woods, Robert in 2012). Can’t say he’s completely right at the moment. He didn’t get too much burn against Cal last week, perhaps to rest up for this game, only played for 10-15 snaps. He still looks good from time to time, but his left knee must still bother him. The chemistry has been OK between Kessler and Lee, but there’s been more with Nelson Agholor, as he’s played more. Lee expects to have a bigger role this weekend.
The Stanford defense is notoriously stingy against the rush, but the Trojans have had some success running the ball recently. How do you see that matchup playing out?
That’s been the offense’s lifeblood. They’ve had success from converted linebackers (Tre Madden) to recently minted 18-year-olds (Justin Davis) running the rock. Madden is dinged up, but Davis is done for the year with an ankle injury. Next in line are Javorius “Buck” Allen and former 5-star recruit Ty Isaac. Allen’s shunning from the line-up was another Kiffin misfire. The last two games, he’s rushed 22 times for 268 yards and 5 scores as well as catching 5 balls for 98 yards and another touchdown. He’s been amazing. I expect relative success – something to the tune of 150 yards for all tailbacks.
There was a theory that Stanford was successful against Monte Kiffin's NFL-style defense because David Shaw had spent so much time in the NFL and simply knew how to attack Kiffin's various schemes. How has the defense changed since the elder Kiffin's departure?
Not true, because in three years, more teams were successful against that defense than not. Another issue was that last season featured less hitting in practice, so the D was slower, despite having tons and tons of talent. That talent has shown through in Clancy Pendergast’s system. Though the corners have been suspect throughout the year, they’re forced to play more man on the outside. Pendergast boasts a “52” scheme, switching between standing outside linebackers Devon Kennard and Anthony Sarao up or having them on the line. It’s a perverted 3-4 system in that there are typically three down linemen (starring sophomore sensation Leonard Williams) and four backers in some capacity./It’s a lot more aggressive and run-stifling. Though Arizona State eviscerated the unit back in September, at its current level of production, it’s truly one of the country’s elite defenses.
While the Stanford front seven is probably the best in the conference, the Trojans aren't far behind. Who are the stars of this group, and how can we expect to see them handle the Stanford running game? Do you expect lack of depth to be an issue at all?
It’s the aforementioned Williams, first and foremost. He’s been the best player on defense all year, breaking into the backfield and disrupting rushes and harassing opposing quarterbacks. Devon Kennard is a close No. 2. After missing 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle, he’s come back stronger than ever as a fifth-year senior. After being shifted around, he’s settled into the hybrid stand-up/hand-in-the-dirt pass rusher and excelling. Other pass rushing maven Morgan Breslin is out for the year, and J.R. Tavai has stepped in well and has been a revelation after getting his first real playing time this season. They should have a good time hampering the Cardinal’s running attack, although it hasn’t faced an offensive line of Stanford’s caliber yet. Hayes Pullard still does great things in the middle, now paired with Anthony Sarao. The latter split time with Lamar Dawson, but the Kentucky man is out for the year. Sarao’s looked sharp sometimes, but it’s mostly Pullard in the middle. The real concern lies in the secondary, and that’s what Shaw should exploit if the front-seven gets good push early on.
Depth is always an issue, but the coaches have made a point of pulling guys early if a game is out of reach. like last week against the Golden Bears; the second-string defense allowed the 14 second-half points. No team has been as physical as Stanford will be, so more rotations should happen up front. There are some solid back-ups front, but the inexperience won’t help. I can’t emphasize this enough: The secondary will decide this game for USC. It has a budding star in Su’a Cravens and a solid starter and last week’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week in Josh Shaw, but Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour have had more bad moments than good.
Finally, give me your predicted final score and an idea of how you expect the game to play out.
I’m cautiously optimistic about this game, given all the Coach O goodness that’s happened. But picking against the monster up north is a hard sell. I’ll take the Cardinal in another epic GameDay match, 23-21. Don’t feel good about that score. At all.