Andrew Luck (pictured) and the Cardinal are heavy favorites to knock off the Trojans for a third time in four years.
After going 8-5 in 2009 and dropping 50-plus points on USC in the Coliseum, Stanford fans have decided to band together and enter the college football blogosphere at last. Yes, our brothers in snobbery, have recently launched two new blogs dedicated to Cardinal football, SB Nation's very own Rule of Tree and Go Mighty Card. Now, we have another partner or two, to help get those underfunded UC blogs to stop their incessant chatter about "The 'Furd" and U$C." But I digress, here's their take on Saturday's primetime matchup between California's two premier academic institutions.
Q: The Cardinal are coming off a tough run loss at Oregon, and as a result, is there any chance Jim Harbaugh's bunch are still hungover from their Saturday night in Autzen?
Rule of Tree: Perhaps if Washington State were coming to town, but I don't see it happening against USC. Harbaugh said that the team's first practice after the Oregon loss was the best Monday practice he's seen since he's been at Stanford. The Cardinal wasted some opportunities in the red zone and was worn out by the Ducks' frenetic tempo, but should be recharged and ready to go on Saturday. It's not hard for Stanford to get up for USC, no matter how far the Trojans have fallen from the ranks of the nation's elite.
Go Mighty Card: Even though last Saturday's matchup was definitely the biggest game in the past decade for Stanford Football, and even though the Cardinal coughed up a 21-3 first quarter lead, I don't think it will be hard for the team to bounce back this weekend against the Trojans. There was a small thing that impressed me about Stanford last Saturday afternoon. When they were building that 21-3 lead, they acted as if it had been expected. Sure, there were smiles on the bench after each turnover and touchdown, but I was struck by how centered the team seemed. I think this is Harbaugh's strength as a coach. As emotional as he is, he has somehow convinced his team to play in control and to expect good things to happen. I don't think that he pitches particular games on the schedule as statement games, and that attitude is reflected in his team's play. They are confident and ready, and I expect they'll bring that same attitude to the field on Saturday evening against the Trojans.
Q: The Pac-10 touted both QBs Jake Locker and Andrew Luck as preseason Heisman candidates, and last week, the Trojan defense struggled immensely against Locker. Will Luck experience the same success Locker enjoyed against 'SC?
ROT: I think Luck will have a bounce-back game after matching his interception total from last season with two picks in each of his last two games. USC's secondary has obviously had its issues and I think the Cardinal will look to exploit that. The only real question is who Luck will be throwing to. Ryan Whalen has missed the last two games with a dislocated elbow, and while it's likely that he'll play, the status of Stanford's deep threat, Chris Owusu, is in doubt. Owusu took a hit to the head in the second half against Oregon and did not return. Luck could look for tight end Coby Fleener, who has touchdown grabs in three of his last four games, more often than usual.
GMC: Unfortunately for Trojan fans, I think he will. The USC coaching staff has no doubt studied the film from last year's game, so they know that even though Luck threw for a modest 144 yards and two touchdowns, he actually did more damage with his legs than his arm. He ran seven times for 61 yards, but the timing of those scrambles and designed runs was back-breaking for the Trojans. Four of his runs were good for first downs (two of those coming on third down), and one was a touchdown. Luck is clearly better this year than last, but he's struggled a bit against the three top teams on the schedule so far. He never found much of a rhythm against either UCLA or Notre Dame, and even though he passed for well over 300 yards against Oregon last week, he threw two interceptions, one of which essentially ended any hopes for a Cardinal comeback. The biggest problem Luck might have this weekend will be his depleted receiving corps. The two starting wide receivers, Chris Owusu and Ryan Whalen, are both dinged up. Owusu was just showing signs of recovery from the knee injury that kept him out of the first two games when he was knocked out of the Oregon game with a vicious (but clean) shot to the head in the third quarter. He didn't return. Ryan Whalen suffered what looked to be a hyper-extended elbow during the Notre Dame game, and he didn't play last weekend. Because of Jim Harbaugh's ridiculously secretive attitude towards releasing injury information, we won't know whether or not those two will be available until we see them -- or don't see them -- on Saturday night.
Q: Most 'SC fans remember Toby Gerhart terrorizing the Trojan front seven, but in this year's edition of the "What's Your Deal" Bowl, there won't be a player of Gerhart's caliber lining up in the backfield. Still, though, which Cardinal running back posses the biggest threat?
ROT: No, there won't be, which is sad. Stepfan Taylor has emerged as Stanford's feature back, topping 100 yards in each of the last two games. Taylor had a 44-yard touchdown run against Oregon, but didn't see much action in the second half. Taylor is more of a grinder than a big-play threat, and he has a knack for picking up yards after contact. It will be important for Taylor to start strong to set up play-action, as I imagine the Trojans have focused most of their energies this week on slowing the Stanford passing attack.
GMC: There are two ways you can produce an effective running attack. You can hand the ball to an other-worldly athlete like Reggie Bush, or you can use a committee of running backs behind a dominant offensive line. Stanford goes with the latter, and there hasn't been a significant drop off in the team rushing numbers from last year to this. Stepfan Taylor has emerged as the lead running back, but he's averaged less than a hundred yards per game. Beyond Taylor, though, we'll likely see a lot from Usua Amanam and true freshman Anthony Wilkerson.
Q: What's one matchup that you're confident the Cardinal can exploit?
ROT: Would saying the kicking game be too much of a cop out? Cardinal kicker Nate Whitaker has yet to miss. No, I'll say the matchup between Stanford's TBD receivers and USC's secondary. I think it will be another long day for Monte Kiffin.
GMC: All of that leads nicely into this question. I think Andrew Luck will have a good game, but the matchup that the Cardinal will win -- and should win every Saturday -- is their offensive line versus their opponent's defensive line. If the game starts to go in Stanford's direction, it will be because their offensive line is asserting its will and leading long, clock-chewing drives up and down the field. Luck is good enough to move the ball when the running game is bottled up, but when it's working he's almost impossible to stop. If the running game is rolling, Luck will be able to take shots down field when they're available, and it'll be a long night for the Trojans.
Q: When UW beat Lane Kiffin and company last Saturday night, the Huskies celebrated like, well, 'SC was still good. If Stanford beats USC for a 3rd time in 4 years, will it still carry the same significance, or has this become just another game?
ROT: A win Saturday wouldn't generate as much euphoria as the upset in 2007 or even carry as much significance as the win last season, but this definitely isn't just another game. Part of that is because of the recent history between the teams, including the feud between Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, but it's rooted in the fact that the Trojans have beat up on the Cardinal more often than not since the series began in1905. Stanford fans realize that the Trojans aren't the same team that dominated the Pac-10 for the past decade, but I think some are relishing the chance to be the bully rather than the bullied for a change. The students are certainly excited.
GMC: Stanford is a ten-point favorite and by all accounts the better team, but USC is still USC. Even without all the talk we'll likely hear about last year's game and the two-point conversion attempt and the "What's your deal?" meeting at midfield, this would still be an important game. USC is still one of the marquee programs in the nation, so teams will always be excited to play them and even more excited to beat them. And by the way -- USC is still good. They might not be running roughshod over the conference en route to a national championship the way they routinely did a few years ago, but they're still 4-1. And they're still USC.
Q: What's your prediction for Saturday?
ROT: I think Matt Barkley has some success moving the ball against Stanford and USC manages to keep things interesting for a half before the Trojans defense shows its true colors. I think Harbaugh might have a few surprises in store for Kiffin--perhaps a gadgety two-point conversion play?--and the Cardinal eventually pulls away in a high-scoring affair.
GMC: I don't think the Cardinal will be feeling sorry for themselves after the Oregon game, I think they'll be angry and looking to take it out on someone. Supporting this, Jim Harbaugh said this week that the team had the best Monday practice he's seen since his arrival on the Farm. Also, the Cardinal should enjoy significant crowd support for the first time this season, as this will be their first home game with students in the stands. I expect a win. Stanford 38, USC 21