Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is the unofficial birthplace of Stanford football in its current incarnation: the Stanford football that competes for conference championships and has been in the national title conversation.
The Cardinal’s win there in 2007 launched the Jim Harbaugh era, which became the David Shaw era in 2011. Shaw went 2-0 in his first two seasons against the Trojans, extended a Stanford win streak of four games and improved its record over USC to 5-1 from 2007 through 2012.
The last two seasons, however, USC took both decisions in barnburners. Last year’s was Steve Sarkisian’s first Pac-12 win as Trojans head coach.
Saturday’s installment is again the conference opener for both teams.
“First Pac-12 game in general is time to lock in,” said USC linebacker Anthony Sarao. “[Playing Stanford] it’s always competitive.”
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For USC, a win is a crucial building block in its quest for its first league title since 2008, and potentially, a berth in the College Football Playoff. Stanford is also looking for a conference championship, its third in four years. But the Cardinal are also looking to avoid a very precarious spot of starting 1-2.
Stanford at USC
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: USC -10
Three Things to Watch
1. USC’s Deep Backfield vs. Stanford’s Defensive Front
Running backs were an unknown for USC heading into the season, with junior Justin Davis the sole returner on scholarship from 2014. However, with one-time leading rusher Tre Madden back from injuries that sidelined him almost two full years, and an influx of young talent, the Trojans have answered the unknown rather resoundingly: this position is a decided strength.
In last season’s win on The Farm, USC rode Buck Allen’s 154 yards to overcome a lackluster day from the passing game. This time around, expect the Trojans to attack Stanford’s always-stout front seven with a steady mix of Madden, Davis and freshmen Ronald Jones II and Dominic Davis.
“It’s going to keep us all fresh for the season,” Justin Davis said. “No matter who’s in there, the defense has got to be on its toes.”
If the Trojans can expect any one defense to be on its toes, it’s Stanford. The Cardinal routinely rank among the nation’s best against the run, and this season’s no exception, with the first two opponents averaging just 3.07 yards per carry — the exact same total Stanford held opponents to in 2014.
2. Old-School, Hard-Hitting Football
Shaw’s success at Stanford with a traditional, pro-style offense and stout defense is an interesting contrast to the rest of the conference. The Pac-12 is known for no-huddle offense and high point totals.
Sarkisian introduced a more up-tempo brand of football to USC in his first year, and has stepped on the accelerator more in Year 2. Still, the Trojans continue to rely on the power identity that has long defined USC football, especially on the defensive end.
When the two teams meet, the result is a physical contest.
“They run…powers, counters, inside football,” Sarao said. “That’s more physical than five-wide, bubble screens, that type of thing.”
The Trojan defense must find a way to get to Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, but that means solving the Stanford offensive line. With Kyle Murphy anchoring the unit at tackle, the Cardinal have one of the most imposing front fives in the nation.
Those powers and counters Sarao mentioned, which he’ll be tasked with slowing at inside linebacker, start with the physical nature of play up front.
3. JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Stanford DBs
Last year, in just his second career game, USC wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was held to one catch for -2 yards. No other defense was anywhere nearly as effective against the talented pass-catcher, save Oregon State, which limited him to 13 yards — and that was in a three-touchdown USC rout.
Smith-Schuster’s sophomore season is off to a roaring start. He has 14 receptions through two games for 281 yards and three touchdowns.
“As good as he was last year, you can just tell he’s got even more savvy,” Shaw said of Smith-Schuster. “You’re talking about speed, size, strength, acceleration. He’s one of those guys who’s just fun to watch as a football fan.
“His future is extremely bright,” Shaw added.
Stanford’s secondary will try to keep that immediate future from shining too much. The Cardinal held Northwestern and UCF to a combined 256 yards and a completion percentage below 43, but neither had a playmaker as explosive as Smith-Schuster lining up wide.
Stanford’s strong finish to the 2014 season failed to carry over into Week 1 of the 2015 campaign, as the Cardinal stumbled to an offensively anemic, 16-6 loss at Northwestern. The defeat isn’t necessarily an indictment of Stanford’s chances in the Pac-12 landscape, however.
In each of the Cardinal’s previous two conference championship campaigns, 2012 and 2013, it lost a low-scoring, early season game. Moreover, Stanford’s response last week in a 31-7 rout of UCF seemed to address some of the offensive woes that plagued it at Northwestern.
Stanford overcame a sluggish offense in last year’s meeting with USC by limiting the Trojans quarterback, Cody Kessler. Getting to him early and often is critical for the Cardinal to slow the increasingly up-tempo attack USC employs.
A Trojan offensive line that gave up five sacks Week 1 must give Kessler time to operate. The development of the run game will help. Low-scoring chess matches have become the norm in this series, and Saturday should continue in that mold.