#4 Stanford looks to keep its National Championship hopes alive as Ed Orgeron, Trojans look for fourth straight Pac-12 victory
Stanford is fresh off one of the program's biggest wins in recent memory as they defeated the No. 2 Oregon Ducks 26-20. Despite the score, the game wasn't very close, as the Cardinal dominated the double-digit favorites from the opening whistle. Stanford piled up 274 rushing yards while holding Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota to 250 yards passing and -16 yards rushing. Meanwhile, USC has quietly played back into top 25 consideration as they are 4-1 under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, having reeled off three straight victories by an average margin of victory of 22.3 points. In the last three seasons, the Stanford-USC matchup has been among the most competitive in the Pac-12. The Cardinal won all three games, though they failed to defeat the Trojans by more than one score. The last time the two programs met at the Coliseum was in 2011, when the game was decided by a USC fumble in the endzone in triple overtime. This is the 92nd overall meeting between these two early members of what was once the Pacific Coast Conference. USC holds a 59-29-3 record over Stanford since they began playing in 1905.
Three Things to Watch
Tre Madden & Company
The Trojans boast a four-headed monster of Madden, Justin Davis, Javorius Allen and Silas Redd. Madden leads the team with 671 rushing yards and four receiving touchdowns. Allen leads the team with seven rushing touchdowns and averages a team-best 7.9 yards per rush. Allen has been serving as the featured back as of late, as he 268 yards on 22 carries with five touchdowns in the Trojans' last two games at Oregon State and California. Davis is no slouch either, with six rushing touchdowns on 6.8 yards a touch. The four backs average a staggering 5.8 yards per carry and account for 70 percent of all USC touchdowns. It's unlikely the Trojans will be able to put up those types of numbers against the stingy, aggressive Stanford defense led by linebacker Shayne Skov. The Cardinal allow a conference-low 98.7 rushing yards per game and held Oregon to 62 rushing yards, which marks the Ducks' lowest total on the ground since September 2009.
Stanford Power Run vs. USC Front Seven
Last week, the Cardinal rushed the ball 66 times for 274 yards. In the fourth quarter, Stanford didn't attempt a single pass and actually ended the game with 21 straight rushing attempts. The Cardinal is unquestionably the best team in the nation at controlling the clock. Against Oregon, they had scoring drives of 5:59, 4:58, 8:26, 7:33, 4:27 and a 7:59 drive that ended in a blocked field goal. All in all, Stanford controlled the ball for 42 of the 60 minutes thanks to two 21-play drives, a 14-play drive, a 12-play drive and two 8-play drives. If the Stanford offensive line is able to push around the USC defense line like they did with Oregon, then expect much of the same from the Cardinal this week. Tyler Gaffney, the undisputed bell-cow of the Cardinal offense, had 45 rushing attempts versus Oregon, breaking the Stanford record for rushes in a single game. The previous record was 39 by Tommy Vardell in 1991 versus California. The senior is third in the Pac-12 with 1,043 yards while averaging 4.9 per carry with 14 total touchdowns. He's reached the end zone seven times in the past four games, including a 2-yard plunge against Oregon. USC has been successful in past years against Stanford due to its strong core of defense lineman. While their defensive front isn't as deep this year, defensive lineman Leonard Williams and outside linebacker Devon Kennard lead a Trojan defense that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown since September and is capable of causing some trouble for Stanford's offensive line. Still, Stanford is one of the most physical teams in college football, boasting a deep and stout offensive line.
Hogan vs. Kessler
Both quarterbacks have benefitted from the success of their respective running games, as neither signal caller has been asked to do too much the past few weeks. Kessler attempted just 17 passes last week, while Hogan dropped back a mere 13 times. Still, both have played efficient, smart football. While neither has thrown for 300 yards in any one game, each is completing over 60 percent of their passes and have at least a 2 to 1 touchdown to interception ratio. Hogan will look to wide receiver Ty Montgomery early and often, as the junior wideout has caught 35 percent of Hogan's completions. In fact, nobody else on the Stanford offense has more than 21 receptions. Meanwhile, Kessler has been much better about spreading the ball around. Kessler looks deep to either one of his two dynamic receivers in Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor, while making smart check-downs to his halfbacks. In fact, Kessler has thrown six touchdowns to running backs, while still having two receivers with multiple 60+ yard touchdown receptions. When the running game stalls, whatever quarterbacks steps up and makes a few plays with his arm will walk out of the Coliseum with a big conference win.
Key Player: Nelson Agholor, WR/PR, USC
Agholor had two of USC's NCAA-record tying three punt returns for touchdowns as he started the scoring for the Trojans with a 75-yard return and added a 93-yarder late in the second quarter. Agholor has always been an explosive weapon in the passing game as he averages 18 yards per catch and has 11 receptions of 30+ yards. Against a team like Stanford who rarely makes mistakes, the mercurial Agholor becomes an x-factor for his ability to turn the momentum of a game at a moment's notice.
While many are quick to point at that Stanford could come out flat after such a big win last week, let's remember that David Shaw led this team a Pac-12 crown and a Rose Bowl win after upsetting Oregon a season ago. Last season's squad, which returns essentially the same core group of players, followed up their big win over the Ducks by going into Los Angeles and taking down a good UCLA Bruins team 35-17. Expect both teams to come into this game playing with a sense of purpose and passion. With a win, Stanford can all but lock up the Pac-12 North title. USC is still smarting for painful losses to Stanford the pass three seasons, and the Trojans still have a chance at winning the Pac-12 South if they win out and Arizona State drops two of its final three games. These games are always close, so I don't expect the Cardinal to run away with this one. Ultimately, I think Stanford is too reliable and fundamentally sound to experience a major letdown at this point in the season.
Prediction: Stanford 30, USC 21