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Key Stanford players to watch in USC’s first conference game of the season.

As USC and Stanford both open up conference play, two of the three top PAC-12 teams will face off in a game that will affect perceptions on both rankings and the PAC-12 as a whole.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

USC’s road test at the farm will likely be its greatest test this season outside of the Notre Dame game late in the season. Here are Stanford’s players to watch; stopping and limiting the impact of these players will define USC’s greatest conference challenge this year.

1. KJ Costello

KJ Costello is a polarizing figure. On one hand, his physical profile is similar to a slimmer Josh Allen (6-foot-6 and 220 pounds to Josh Allen’s 6-foot-55, 237 pounds). He can lean on a solid run game and has a legitimate number one receiver in JJ Arcega-Whiteside, yet last season he only completed 58.8 percent of his passes, for a mediocre 7.46 yards per attempt. In contrast, Sam Darnold averaged 8.4 and 8.6 yards per attempt at his last two years at USC respectively. Though 7.46 yards per attempt is respectable, it’s underwhelming for a school like Stanford, who consistently plays against lesser competition.

What Costello does have, however, is poise leadership within the Stanford locker room. In last year’s PAC-12 Championship Game, he played with grit despite being hurt, and orchestrated an offense that put 28 points on the board.

This year, Costello will look to improve his accuracy. So far against San Diego State, he’s shown improvement, especially when throwing to Arcega-Whiteside. In this play, he shows pocket presence, stepping up to avoid the rush and delivering a bomb to Arcega-Whiteside.

For the first time in his career last week, Costello didn’t have Bryce Love to lean on, and he delivered. The USC defense will need to limit Costello’s aerial attack if it hopes to win at the farm.

2. JJ Arcega-Whiteside

Arcega-Whiteside was dominant in week one, posting six receptions for 226 yards and three touchdowns. As a big wide receiver (6-foot-3 and 225 pounds), he was utilized as more of a possession receiver last season, with just 781 yards to show for 48 catches. The difference against San Diego State was that Arcega-Whiteside was consistently able to get behind the defense and make big plays deep. If he can continue his production against this talented USC secondary, this game may spiral out of control early.

When Costello was given time to throw, Arcega-Whiteside got behind the defense, beautifully high-pointed the ball, and had the awareness and balance to stay on his feet for this long bomb of a touchdown.

The Arcega-Whiteside Iman Marshall match-up will easily be the one to watch. Both will look to be physical on the perimeter, and whoever wins that battle will likely win the match-up. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few penalties called on this match up.

3. Bryce Love

Love came into the game as the Heisman front runner. He averaged a crazy 8.1 yards per rush last season, and that was with a lingering ankle injury that limited him in the closing stretch of the season, including stretches of the PAC-12 Championship Game.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Without the ankle injury, Love was supposed to be dominant. Even with just 29 yards on 18 attempts, his impact could still be felt on the Cardinal offense. With San Diego State consistently stacking the box and sending run blitzes, the game opened up for Costello and Arcega-Whiteside.

The Trojans have the talent to play Love straight up, and just run Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 base defense to stop hi,. However, we still cannot know how Clay Helton will devote resources on defense.

4. Joey Alfieri

Against San Diego State, Stanford’s offense seemed to get all of the credit. However, Stanford’s defense ultimately held a prolific SDSU running attack to just 10 points, only surrendering a field goal after the first quarter. Stanford’s pass defense held senior quarterback Christian Chapman to a QBR of just 16.9 (!).

Against SDSU, senior linebacker Joey Alfieri was the strength of the Cardinal defense coming off the edge. He ended the game with eight tackles, one and a half for loss. He also pressured the Aztec backfield, with three quarterback hurries and a sack. For JT Daniels to have a successful week two, the Trojan line must prevent Alfieri from muddying the pocket.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports