The USC Trojans kicked off their 2021 season with a win over the San Jose State Spartans this past Saturday. The Trojans put together a mediocre performance that only saw two receivers catch more than two passes all day, and the Trojans still couldn't manage a 100-yard rusher against the San Jose State defense. It's not the best way to start off a season with a number of question marks.
Ready or not, the Trojans will open their Pac-12 schedule on Saturday night against Stanford, which has given them trouble in eight of the last 13 meetings.
First games of the year are usually a bit sloppy and usually feature some bugs. The problem with the issues USC had in Week 1 is that they have consistently had the same problems week in, week out, year in, year out under the Clay Helton administration. The Trojans can't run the ball effectively and their offense sputters when they can't find space to operate.
One positive from yesterday is the fact that USC's defense appears to be picking up where it left off. The Trojans intercepted veteran quarterback Nick Starkel twice yesterday. USC tends to do well in games where it has more than one turnover, and last week was no exception. The Trojans also played a clean game in relation to penalties. They only had four penalties on Saturday, which was much improved from their average outing in 2020.
Stanford at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: USC -17
When Stanford Has the Ball
The Cardinal have decided to make a change just one week into the season. Cardinal head coach David Shaw has installed Tanner McKee as the new quarterback after Jack West failed his audition against Kansas State. West was responsible for two interceptions, while McKee was responsible for Stanford's only touchdown. This means it's all McKee going forward.
McKee was a highly sought-after recruit prior to committing to Stanford. He spent the last two years doing his LDS mission in Brazil, which explains the gap in his playing days. He was the seventh-best recruit in California, per 247Sports Composite rankings. He was also an Army All-American and an Elite 11 finalist, so he has some pedigree to him. He could be the spark Stanford needs to turn the program around.
Lord knows the Cardinal will need to manufacture more than 39 total rushing yards, which is what they managed against Kansas State. The Wildcats are a tough out for anyone, but Stanford football should have more than 40 rushing yards against them. If they can't get the run game going, that puts much more on the shoulders of McKee.
However, USC should present another tough challenge. If Todd Orlando's defense continues to play with the tenacity and vigor they have shown under his stewardship, USC has the talent and scheme to be one of the nation's better defenses. Considering Steve Sarkisian just replaced the man who fired him after he himself was fired, Orlando has done quite a remarkable job of rehabilitating his name.
When USC Has the Ball
However poorly Stanford's run game looked against Kansas State, the same thing could be said for USC's passing game and San Jose State. You'd be forgiven for thinking USC only had two receivers on their roster if you watched the San Jose State game. Drake London pulled in 12 receptions for 137 yards, while Tahj Washington (four) was the only other receiver with more than two catches.
It could be USC didn't want to tip their hand against San Jose State if they didn't have to. It could also be the fact that 29 of their 70 plays went into the breadbasket of Keaontay Ingram and Vavae Malepeai out of the backfield. Both men combined for 151 rushing yards and averaged over 4.5 yards per carry, but neither found the end zone on the day. Neither was given much in the passing game either, only three receptions for seven total yards between the two.
You can expect more handoffs in the Trojans' future as well, as Stanford gave up 200 yards on 31 carries to Kansas State last week. In the shortened 2020 season, the Cardinal gave up 222 rushing yards per game, which ranked 112th nationally and 11th in the Pac-12.
There is no real reason to think USC will cover the spread against Stanford. They might not be the Cardinal of yesteryear but they're still capable of making it personal against USC. The Body Blow theory may not hold true any longer, but the Cardinal do have athletes, and there's a special amount of pride whenever they have a chance to take down USC. Expect a fight in this game. If USC can improve its ability to distribute the football, the Trojans stand a pretty good chance of winning the game.
If Stanford can limit the USC offense, force a takeaway or two, and turn the Trojans into a four- or five-man team like they were against San Jose State, they could actually come away with the upset here. Being a 17-point underdog means nothing to Stanford, who once beat USC as a 41-point dog. But unless all of those things happen, USC likely has enough and has caught Stanford at a weak enough point that it comes away with an easy win.
Prediction: USC 37, Stanford 26
Podcast: Week 2 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.