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USC Football: Keys to a Trojan Victory over #14 Stanford Cardinal

Big adjustments will be needed by Darnold & Co. in USC’s biggest matchup of the season

Western Michigan v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Many folks expected this game against #14 Stanford to be #6 USC’s first big test—however the reality came in the form of the Western Michigan Broncos’ seemingly exploiting the Trojans as they squeezed out a not-so-close 49-31 victory on their opening game.

The Cardinal have ha the Trojan’s number for the better part of the 21st century and the writing is on the wall for USC in Saturday’s huge matchup. Not only is early Pac-12 supremacy at stake, but whoever comes out on top gets a huge claim in the College Football Playoff picture in only the second week of the season.

This game can easily see each team win, but here’s what the Trojans need to do to extinguish early exaggerations of this team being a bust.

Darnold got his feet wet— It’ time for a cannonball

Hey, did you hear Sam Darnold is already considered bust? No, really—the dude threw his first two-interception game in which he had ZERO passing TDs. That’s wrap for ‘em, and the Trojans’ playoff hopes.

Alright seriously, I’m not concerned for Darnold and neither should you. Last Saturday was only his ELEVENTH career start and not many things went his way leading up to it.

The biggest question all offseason long was what kind of chemistry Darnold was going to have with his crop of receivers now that Juju Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers and DaQuan Hamilton are gone?

We got our answer and it wasn’t pretty.

Even though Darnold completed almost 70 percent of his passes, most of those completions were short passes to Deontay Burnett and Steven Mitchell Jr. in which they worked hard to gain the yards after the catch.

Darnold didn’t seem confident slinging it downfield and a lot of that has to do with his lack of chemistry with his receiving squad—also evident in the amount drops the receivers had.

To negate Stanford’s clock-eating offense, Darnold is going to have to progress through his reads and have enough faith to move down the ball downfield to spark the offense with big plays. This Trojan team has a lot of firepower, but it’s up to Darnold to ignite the fuse.

GO ROJO GO

Ronald Jones II is an absolute baller—but us Trojan faithfuls already knew that.

After finishing his first 1000-yard rushing season last year, (he had 987 yards as a true freshman…but whatever) Jones lit up the Broncos for 159 yards on the ground for three touchdowns. Equally impressive was his 8.8 yards per carry average, something he made look quite easy.

With Darnold not quite yet finding his groove, RoJo is going to have to set the tone early. The Stanford defense is one of the better defenses the Trojans will play this season, so Jones getting the ball early an often will make Darnold’s job easier.

Keeping the secondary honest and closer to line of scrimmage will be instrumental for Darnold to get easier looks and potentially less pressure. We also saw the offensive line get a boost from Jones as the big guys up front blocked hard for him and consistently showed that same tenacity late in the game on pass-blocking. For this offense to be the best it could be, Jones needs to keep on rolling.

Stopping the “Love”

Stanford’s Bryce Love vanquished all memories of Cardinal great Christian McCaffrey following his 180-yard opening performance against Rice. It’s almost a perfect storm brewing for the Cardinal offense as the clearly tackling-inept Trojan defense is going to allow Jones to run for 1000 yards in one game…

Well ok, everything in that graph was an exaggeration with the exception of USC’s poor tackling. It was really painful to watch, but it was shades of last season. The Trojan’s defense isn’t very good, but with seven starters returning to D, we hoped those issues weren’t going to continue.

Western Michigan as a whole carried the ball 48 times for 283 yards on this defense and did it mostly with two undersized running backs. In this 5-2 defense, the linebackers need to explode to line on running plays to attack their assigned gap. USC was successful in penetrating the holes, but ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT TACKLE.

We can take solace however in knowing that the second half of the game was different with defensive captain and starting linebacker Cameron Smith playing his football of the season following his first-half suspension.

Even though he played two quarters, he still finished with six tackles and defense was noticeable different, reducing the overall success of WMU’s running attack.

In order for the Trojans to have a chance, they’re going to have to limit Love’s success on the ground and force Keller Chryst to throw into Iman Marshall’s secondary. Making them through will take the Cardinals out of their slow, clock-controlling pace and play right into the Trojan’s hands.

There’s many other factors to consider, and this rivalry—outside of super lucky UCLA, is as intense as it gets for the Trojans. There’ll be a lot of physicality in this one as both teams have a lot riding on this game and personally, I expect an instant classic.