The Trojans begin Pac-12 play this weekend as they travel to Palo Alto take on the Stanford Cardinal.
We did a Q&A with SB Nation's Scott Allen over at Rule Of Tree. Here are their answers to our questions.
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1. Stanford has been underwhelming thus far into the season. Andrew Luck is gone and it's breaking in five new starters on offense, so the Cardinal are in a bit of a transition phase. Where do you see this team at the end of the season when it's all said and done? Where do they stand in the Pac-12?
That'll depend a lot on the maturation of Josh Nunes, but I predicted 9 wins during the offseason and I'm sticking to that for now. I can't see the Cardinal beating the Ducks in Eugene and Stanford will probably lose at least one other conference game this season (perhaps as early as this weekend), so I'm thinking a second-place finish in the Pac-12 North. Stanford won't be as good as last year, but I don't think they'll take as big a step back as many predicted at the beginning of the season, and even more pundits did after the Cardinal's uninspiring performance in Week 1. Getting obliterated by the Trojans on Saturday could alter my opinion, but the Stanford defense is quite good and should carry the Cardinal against most opponents while the offense gets up to speed behind Nunes.
2. Stepfan Taylor is one of the few returners on offense for Stanford. Outside of him, who are a couple other players on offense that could give the Trojans fits?
Tight ends Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz. Coby Fleener is now playing on Sundays, but Toilolo and Ertz give Nunes two big, athletic and experienced targets who are difficult to defend. Toilolo was relatively quiet in last year's game, while Ertz was injured on the opening kickoff and did not return. Another guy to watch for is Ryan Hewitt, who missed the first two games with an ankle injury. He's a good blocker and a threat in the short-passing game who should provide an immediate boost to the Cardinal offense.
3. The USC secondary hasn't been sterling thus far, particularly the No. 2 corner position. How can Josh Nunes and Stanford's pass-catchers pick apart Monte Kiffin's Tampa-2, particularly not on Nickell Robey's side? What kind of plays/routes can dissect the Trojan D?
I imagine Nickell Robey will be matched up against Ty Montgomery, which could mean Nunes will look for the smaller but speedy Drew Terrell often. Nunes threw quite a few fade routes to Toilolo against Duke. Stanford also likes to get the ball into Montgomery's hands around the line of scrimmage and let him try to make the first man miss. Ertz has had the most success on deeper routes in the middle of the field. That's where I expect the Cardinal to have the most success on Saturday.
4. USC has smaller but quicker linebackers and a thin, but well-performing, defensive line. Stanford had two offensive linemen selected in the top-45 picks of last year's NFL draft (DeCastro and Martin). How have their replacements fared so far, and what kind of schemes will they employ to negate 'SC's speedy backers?
From a protection standpoint, Stanford's new starters along the offensive line have fared pretty well. While Nunes has been pressured at times, he's only been sacked twice. (Granted, Stanford hasn't faced a front-seven like USC's through two weeks.) The running game is off to a slow start statistically, but the Blue Devils stacked the box last week to force Nunes to beat them through the air and it's to be expected that an offensive line breaking in two new starters will take some time to jell. I mentioned Hewitt's return to the lineup earlier; he could be relied on to provide an extra layer of protection in the backfield if the Cardinal offensive line gets bullied by the Trojans. I expect a lot of jumbo offensive sets from Stanford, as it tries to get Stepfan Taylor rolling.
5. Prediction on the game? Does Stanford have a shot at pulling the upset considering USC's performances the first two weeks of the season?
Another way to phrase the question would be to ask if Stanford has a shot at pulling the upset considering its own performances the first two weeks of the season. After the San Jose State game, I would've said no. After watching part of the Syracuse-USC game and then Stanford's blowout of Duke, I think the Cardinal has a shot at home. I think we're in for yet another close game and the unabashed homer in me says Stanford prevails, 35-31.
Kickoff is at 4:30 p.m. and will be televised nationally on Fox.