Injuries mount ahead of the Pac-12 season opener
Stanford and USC have shared a conference for the better part of a century, but only in the last decade or so has the series grown into what can be deemed a rivalry. The Pac-12's only two private universities have combined for four of the past seven conference championships, met in two Pac-12 Championship Games and delivered numerous memorable moments when facing off.
In 2019, the budding rivals meet at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum steeped in uncertainty. Both sides are down their Week 1 starting quarterback and Stanford's star offensive tackle is a scratch. The Trojans are trying to find consistency with a new-look offense, while the once-outstanding Cardinal rushing attack — which produced three Heisman Trophy finalists in eight years — continues to flounder.
The winner leaves the Coliseum Saturday night with a leg up in the unpredictable Pac-12, despite the uncertainty facing both teams.
Stanford at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -1
When Stanford Has the Ball
An unexpected result of 2017 Heisman finalist Bryce Love's early-season ankle injury was that it set the stage for quarterback K.J. Costello to emerge as Stanford's most prolific passer since two-time Heisman finalist Andrew Luck. Costello finished second only to Washington State's Gardner Minshew in passing yards a season ago, and he started 2019 on a similar pace, completing 16-of-20 passes with a touchdown against Northwestern and leading another promising drive in the final minute of the first half.
However, after taking a forearm shot to the head while sliding, Costello left the game, and he was ruled out by head coach David Shaw on Thursday night. That means Davis Mills will make his first career start on Saturday. The Stanford offense sputtered badly in the second half of Week 1, going scoreless with Mills behind center. Perhaps most unsettling in the difference after the quarterback change was a Cardinal running game that had struggled mightily after Love's injury a season ago (11th in the Pac-12) fading once again in the second half against Northwestern.
Compounding the question marks for Stanford's offense: Preseason All-America offensive lineman Walker Little left the fourth quarter last week with an injury coach David Shaw said would keep him out until about the midway point of the season. Expect USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to try to exploit that void with outstanding pass rusher Christian Rector.
Any positive for Stanford's offensive outlook can be gleaned in the struggles that USC's defense had with Fresno State in Week 1. Bulldogs quarterback Jorge Reyna rushed for big gains as the Trojans struggled to contain the boundary, and Bulldogs wide receivers got open deep frequently. Overall, Fresno State's offense outgained the USC air raid.
When USC Has the Ball
USC roared out of the gate Week 1 with touchdown drives on each of its first two possessions. While the opening drive went pass-heavy, as anticipated with Graham Harrell's new-look scheme, the Trojans successfully mixed things up, with running back Vavae Malepeai rushing for 134 yards. Even before quarterback JT Daniels suffered an ACL tear just before halftime, though, USC endured stretches of stagnation reminiscent of the team's 2018 woes.
The Trojans coughed up possession twice in the red zone, a problem that plagued them last year and that absolutely cannot be repeated against the Stanford defense. The Cardinal looked much improved from an already-solid side in 2018, which held USC to three points in their early-season meeting. Northwestern scored just once in Week 1, gaining only 93 yards on the ground and 117 through the air. Stanford's front five looks particularly salty with Casey Toohill, Jovan Swann and Michael Williams.
The Cardinal also have one of the best cornerbacks in the country, Paulson Adebo — but he's just one player, and the USC wide receiving corps is loaded. Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-Ra St. Brown are established stars, while Tyler Vaughns looks ready to be a breakout performer in the new system after his 150-yard performance in Week 1. Add Stephen Carr, who functions almost like a slot receiver out of the backfield, and USC has a clear advantage with its receiving corps. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis must make effective use of the receivers and minimize mistakes, but he will face considerable pressure.
"Styles make fights" is a favored cliche of boxing analysts. It applies here: A high-scoring style late Saturday means a USC win. A combined score of fewer than about 50 points is a Stanford win. The Trojans have the weapons to push the pace, as well as the scheme to do it. If there's any relief for USC facing what looks to be a return to form for the Stanford defense, it's that the Cardinal's greatest struggles in the Pac-12 have come against Washington State, another air-raid team.
However, the familiar inconsistency that USC endured in Week 1 is a red flag. The onus may be on the USC defense to generate takeaways and keep Stanford possessions short. Otherwise, the Cardinal can turn this one into a grinding pace before physically wearing down the Trojans.
Prediction: Stanford 20, USC 17
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.