USC came away with the victory in week one against UNLV, but if they want to beat Stanford on the road in week two, they will have to play better in all three aspects of the game.
1. Spreading the Ball
Although quarterback JT Daniels finished with a solid stat line at the end of the game, he relied heavily on his high school teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown, especially in the first half. A true freshman catching more receptions (seven) than the two starting wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns combined (one and four respectively) is a problem. Daniels was able to get away with zeroing in on St. Brown against UNLV, a team that gave up 31.8 points per game last year, but it won’t be the same against a much more talented Stanford defense that gave up just 21.5 points per game last year against tougher competition. Pittman and Vaughns ranked second and third in catching efficiency in the PAC-12 last year, so Daniels has the weapons to spread the ball everywhere.
Another big issue was the lack of a tight end. Tyler Petite finished the game with zero receptions, and the only tight end to make a catch was Erik Krommenhoek, a two-yard reception. Getting the tight ends involved would add another threat and could really help the offense.
2. Completing Drives
USC kicked five field goals. If those were touchdowns, the Trojans would have won by a much more convincing 63-21. Pittman and Vaughns struggled to hold on to a few passes in the end zone, but again, getting the tight ends the ball might have helped in those situations.
3. Consistency in the Run Game
Although USC finished the game with 219 yards on the ground and 5.8 yards a carry, consistency was a problem at times against a UNLV defense that ranked 121st in rushing yards allowed per game last year. Aca’Cedric Ware was the most consistent of the backs, but Stephen Carr had eight carries for 14 yards excluding his one long 40-yard run. Vavae Malepeai had two carries for 37 yards in garbage time, while his other six carries resulted in 10 yards. The status of center and team captain Toa Lobendahn, who did not play against UNLV, will be a major storyline leading up to the Stanford game. Lobendahn was initially listed as questionable against UNLV with a pectoral injury before being ruled out. It is hard to judge how well USC’s offensive line played considering the competition, but the run game needs to improve, whether it is the ball carriers or the line.
1. Stopping the Run
It is no secret that Stanford has the best running back in the country. Even if Bryce Love struggled in the opener against San Diego State, he still ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns a season ago. Meanwhile, USC gave up 308 yards rushing to UNLV, allowing an unacceptable 7.2 yards per carry. Granted, UNLV ranked 18th in rush yards per game last year, but against weaker competition. If Love gets going and Stanford’s passing game plays like it did last week, it will be a long day for USC’s defense.
2. Limiting Big Plays
USC gave up plays of 71, 36, 34, and 31 yards against UNLV. The longest play came on a fake reverse and another on a fake punt. However, no matter what the call, preventing explosive plays is a must for USC if they want to beat Stanford. We all know what Love is capable of, but wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside showed his own explosiveness in the opener by hauling in six receptions for 226 yards and three touchdowns, including an 80-yard reception. Preventing big plays from Love and Arcega-Whiteside will be a must.
3. Forcing Turnovers
USC forced one turnover in the game, a fumble on the very first play from scrimmage. After that, the defense failed to come up with any momentum swinging plays. Stanford finished last season tied for tenth in turnovers forced, which could give them a big edge in rattling Daniels in his first road start or create changes in momentum.
This one is obvious. Reid Budrovich, who had a solid year last year, had four punts for an average of 28.8 yards. He shanked his first two punts for nine yards and 20 yards, so he did improve as the game went on. His last two punts went for 48 yards and 38 yards, one going inside the 20 and the other should have been downed inside the five if it wasn’t for a blunder by the punt coverage. On the flip side, USC allowed a large gain and a first down on a fake punt that led to UNLV’s second touchdown of the game.
If USC can stiffen up their run defense, lean on special teams if they need to, and have their offense play like they did in the fourth quarter, a victory is well within reach.