If Khaled Holmes is unavailable, how will a young offensive line handle Stanford's aggressive front-seven? (Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE)
Biggest upset, possibly ever. Blowouts. "What's your deal?" Funny clock operation. Game-winning field goals. Late game drives. Triple overtimes.
The USC/Stanford matchup has been the most compelling series in college football the last five years. I dare anyone to dispute that. You couldn't ask for much more drama than the series has had in recent years.
Throughout this intriguing five-year period, it has been Stanford with the upper hand. The Cardinal have won four of the five games, including three straight.
With each new year, come new storylines. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll and their contentious egos have left the series. Gone are No. 1 pick Andrew Luck and offensive line stalwarts David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin from the Cardinal. USC has lost its own share of NFL talent with offensive tackles being drafted in the first round each of the last three years, including No. 4 pick Matt Kalil.
This year college football's national storylines have shifted from the Luck-led Cardinal to Matt Barkley and the high-powered arsenal of USC. But what are the top storylines leading up to the USC-Stanford matchup?
Here are five burning questions to watch as USC takes on Stanford at Stanford Stadium on the Farm.
1. How will the USC offensive line hold up if center Khaled Holmes isn't available?
There has not been much discussion about the importance of Khaled Holmes' injury after he exited the Syracuse game when his right leg was rolled up while blocking in the fourth quarter. Last week, I declared that Holmes would be one of USC's top five offensive players. But he's definitely the second-most irreplaceable part of the offense behind Barkley. The All-American and Rimington Award (top center) candidate makes any call that Barkley doesn't at the line of scrimmage and his veteran leadership would be vital against a Stanford front seven that disguises blitzes well. If Holmes doesn't go, redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi will be called on to play his first significant minutes as a Trojan.
2. What kind of pressure can Stanford's front-seven put on Matt Barkley?
If Holmes is indeed out, USC's offensive line will feature a freshman and two sophomores. And if USC keeps the tight ends to help out, well...Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble are both sophomores as well. That's a lot of youth.
Barkley can exploit the Cardinal secondary, if he has time, but Stanford's front-seven is one of the best the Trojans will face this season. Linebacker Shayne Skov was able to shake the rust last week against Duke after missing 51 weeks with a knee injury and a one-game suspension and should be geared up for this game. He is a proficient deception artist, hiding blitzes until the last second and timing snap counts to create havoc.
Of course, blitzing Barkley isn't the smartest thing to do. He has become one the best in the country at recognizing the blitz and taking advantage of the holes vacated. According to ESPN Stats & Information, "Barkley has thrown 37 touchdowns and three interceptions against blitzes since the start of his sophomore season."
3. What happens if the Trojans are trailing by two at the end of the game?
There was a big hullabaloo this week about the Daily News' Scott Wolf being suspended and then re-instated by USC, but the report that Wolf got in trouble was important news for this weekend. Sniper kicker Andre Heidari is out for at least a couple weeks.
The last two years, the USC/Stanford game has come down to the wire. Last week, coach Lane Kiffin opted to go for it on fourth down twice in the first half while in reasonable field goal range. What happens if USC is on the 25-yard line and trailing by two points? Does Kiffin give redshirt sophomore walk-on Craig McMahon a chance to win the game?
4. Can the Stanford running game get on track against a stacked box?
Stanford has some inexperience on the offensive line after having to replace stud linemen DeCastro (first round pick) and Martin (second round). Stepfan Taylor (how can you not pronounce that "step...fan" when you see it?) has only averaged 92.5 yards (10 below his 2011 average) on the ground against San Jose State and Duke. Both teams stacked the box and dared Luck's successor, Josh Nunes, to beat them with vertical passes. Expect to see something similar from USC. I wouldn't be surprised to see Nickell Robey on an island with the safety on his side sliding down to help defend against the Cardinal's power run game.
As was mentioned a few times in our Q&A with Rule of Tree's Scott Allen, Taylor will be happy to see fullback Ryan Hewitt back in front of him after Hewitt missed the first two games with a sprained ankle. Stanford hopes Hewitt can get the rushing game going, which would help the Cardinal's red zone efficiency. The Cardinal only scored touchdowns on three of six red zone visits against Duke.
5. How does Stanford attack the Trojan secondary?
If the Trojans put eight or even nine in the box to stop the physical rushing attack, how does Stanford attempt to capitalize? Will David Shaw put trust in Nunes to sling the ball around the yard? The Cardinal opened it up a little against Duke, but they've surely been using a bland playbook thus far.
Stanford has options. Tight ends Zach Ertz (6-foot-6) and Levine Toilolo (6-foot-8) present matchup problems for the much shorter USC linebackers. The No. 2 cornerback position has been a concern thus far for the Trojans. And if the defensive line depth is shallow again this week (Wes Horton and J.R. Tavai both left the Syracuse game), the Cardinal could wear the big boys down in the second half.
USC-Stanford kicks off at 4:30 p.m. PT and will be televised live on FOX and FOX Deportes. You can also catch the game on 710 ESPN .
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