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Stanford Cardinal vs. USC Trojans Preview and Prediction

Sam Darnold, USC Trojans Football

Sam Darnold, USC Trojans Football

Non-conference play usually dominates the first month of the college football season, but the Pac-12 has one of Week 2’s best games, as Stanford travels to Los Angeles to take on USC on Saturday night. The Trojans were considered by some to be the favorite in the Pac-12 this summer, with Stanford ranking behind Washington in most preseason polls. While it’s a long ways off to the Pac-12 Championship Game, it’s not out of the question this could be the first of two meetings between these two teams.

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Both of these teams enter Saturday night’s game with something to prove. USC defeated Western Michigan 49-31 in its opener, but the Trojans left the Week 1 contest with plenty of question marks to address. On the other sideline, Stanford easily handled Rice in Australia in Week 0, and coach David Shaw’s team didn’t play in Week 1. Although the win over the Owls was impressive, Saturday night’s matchup is a better gauge of where this team stands for 2017.

USC holds a 60-32-3 series edge over Stanford. However, the recent trends in this Pac-12 battle favor the Cardinal. Stanford has won three in a row and eight out of the last 11 matchups against the Trojans.

Stanford at USC

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: USC -6

Three Things to Watch

1. Stanford’s Rushing Attack Against USC’s Run Defense

It’s no secret Stanford likes to line up and utilize its power rushing attack. And even though Christian McCaffrey left for the NFL, the ground game is still among the best in the Pac-12. The success starts up front, as coach David Shaw has recruited and helped to develop a standout group. Bryce Love has moved into the No. 1 role with McCaffrey in the NFL and gashed Rice in the opener for 180 yards and a score on 13 carries. He’s not the only option in the backfield, as Cameron Scarlett and Dorian Maddox are capable secondary running backs to utilize in the rotation.

How well USC stops the run is going to play a huge role in how this game plays out on Saturday night. The Trojans allowed Western Michigan to run for 263 yards on 48 carries last week, averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per attempt. And in last year’s loss to Stanford, USC surrendered 302 yards and two touchdowns to the Cardinal ground attack. The Trojans are retooling a bit in the front seven after standout lineman Stevie Tu’ikolovatu expired his eligibility, but still have plenty of talent here, headlined by linebacker Cameron Smith and rising star Rasheem Greene at end.

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Will USC stack the box, slow down the ground game and force Stanford to take to the air to win? Or will the Cardinal be able to replicate Western Michigan’s success on the ground, with Love having a huge night to lead the way on offense?

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 2

2. USC QB Sam Darnold and Offensive Line

Sam Darnold entered the season as one of the favorites to win the Heisman and was a big reason why USC was considered one of the CFB Playoff favorites. The sophomore quarterback didn’t have the debut most anticipated, as Darnold completed 23 of 33 throws for 289 yards and two picks. That performance certainly wasn’t awful but it wasn’t up to the standard Darnold set in 2016.

With a game under his belt, look for Darnold to be sharper in Week 2. Of course, that’s not an easy assignment against Stanford. While losing Solomon Thomas to the NFL has left question marks up front, the Cardinal have one of the nation’s top defensive backfields. Cornerback Quenton Meeks could challenge for All-America honors, and safety Justin Reid is among the best in the Pac-12 at his position. Stanford allowed only 95 passing yards in the opener against Rice, but this will be a better barometer test for this unit. Deontay Burnett (seven catches in Week 1) is Darnold’s go-to target, with Steven Mitchell, Jalen Greene and freshmen Tyler Vaughns and Joseph Lewis rounding out the key weapons at receiver. Junior Tyler Petite and sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe headline the options at tight end.

Even though USC is still sorting out its options at receiver after JuJu Smith-Schuster departed for the NFL, a bigger concern for coach Clay Helton is the offensive line. This unit allowed two sacks and four tackles for a loss against Western Michigan and faces Stanford’s attacking 3-4 approach this Saturday. With three new starters up front, the development of the offensive line is critical to protecting Darnold, as well as opening up running lanes for Ronald Jones and Stephen Carr. Getting Jones on track would be a huge plus for USC as it looks to slow down the Stanford pass rush. Needless to say, this is a huge test for the revamped offensive line. How will USC’s front five hold up on Saturday night?

3. Stanford QB Keller Chryst

Chryst suffered a significant knee injury in the Sun Bowl victory over North Carolina last December but returned in time to start the opener against Rice. The junior showed little rust against the Owls, completing 14 of 24 throws for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Chryst is 7-0 as Stanford’s starter and has tossed only two picks in 169 career pass attempts. In addition to Chryst’s return and performance against Rice, coach David Shaw has to be encouraged about his supporting cast. Junior Trenton Irwin is a steady option on the outside after grabbing 37 receptions in 2016. The tight end position is stocked with options, including freshman Colby Parkinson (three catches for 40 yards and two touchdowns), Kaden Smith and Dalton Schultz. Additionally, freshman receiver Connor Wedington led the team against the Owls with six catches for 82 yards. The receiving corps will have reinforcements with sophomore JJ Arcega-Whiteside expected to return after missing the opener due to injury.

With Western Michigan breaking in a new quarterback and receiving corps, USC’s secondary didn’t get tested in Week 1. Even though Stanford plans to lean on its ground game, Chryst will have his share of opportunities through the air. The Trojans had to replace top cornerback Adoree Jackson this offseason, but the defensive backfield isn’t hurting for talent.

Will Chryst continue his efficient and mistake-free play? Stanford doesn’t need Chryst to match Darnold in overall performance or carry the offense, but he has to take advantage of opportunities on play action or on first downs to keep USC from loading the box.

Final Analysis

It’s important not to overreact to Week 1 results and performances. However, some of the preseason concerns for USC – line of scrimmage and sorting out the receiving corps – popped up in the opener against Western Michigan. Was that a sign of things to come or did the Trojans hold back some with Stanford up next? The guess here is a combination of both. The Cardinal will be able to run on USC, opening up some opportunities for Chryst to attack downfield. Darnold will have his moments, but the Trojans fall short, as Stanford makes it four in a row in this series.

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Prediction: Stanford 27, USC 24