No. 2 Southern Cal and No. 21 Stanford square off Saturday at Stanford Stadium in the Pac-12 opener and first major test for both teams this season, and there are similarities in nearly every area except two — quarterback and wide receiver.
Both teams have strong offensive lines blocking for a proven runner — Stepfan Taylor for Stanford and Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal for Stanford. Each team boasts an excellent front seven defensively and through two games have been outstanding against the run; USC is yielding just 2.6 yards per rush and the Cardinal giving up just 2.2 yards per running attempt. Likewise, either team has a defensive weakness in the secondary, making them vulnerable to the pass.
Both teams have played well in one game and were unimpressive in the other — USC not looking like the national contender it is supposed to be in the 42-29 victory over Syracuse on Sept. 8 and Stanford not looking like a ranked team in a 20-17 victory over heavy underdog San Jose State in its opener.
Then there are the differences, glaring as it were, between USC and Stanford.
First, USC has a pair of standout wide receivers — Robert Woods and Marqise Lee — who have used their advantage in athleticism to overwhelm the Cardinal secondary in the past. Stanford’s Drew Terrell and Ty Montgomery have shown improvement and promise, but they are not nearly the big-play threats their USC counterparts are.
More important is the difference at quarterback, the most important position on the field.
Stanford has Josh Nunes, who will be making his third career collegiate start, and he has been decent, if not spectacular, in his two previous games. It is difficult to determine whether he will be an adequate successor to Andrew Luck after two games against mediocre opposition with suspect pass defenses, Duke and San Jose State.
But USC has Matt Barkley, possibly the best quarterback in the country and undoubtedly the best pro prospect at the position.
He’s in his fourth year as a starter and has sliced apart the Cardinal secondary with alarming ease the past two seasons, even though USC lost both.
Stanford’s lone apparent advantage is the site, and being at home has been a significant factor for the Cardinal, which is 25-3 in its last 28 home games dating back to 2007.
This game will provide the first meaningful measure of how good Stanford can be with Luck no longer controlling the offense. He was the main reason Stanford was able to pull out last-second wins over the Trojans the past two seasons.
–Stanford has won three straight against USC, but the last two games have come down the last play of the game. In 2010, after USC had taken a 35-34 lead with 1:08 left, Andrew Luck led a 62-yard drive that culminated with Nate Whitaker’s game-winning, 30-yard field goal on the game’s final play. Last season, Luck led another late scoring drive that covered 76 yards in 10 plays and ended in a game-tying touchdown with 38 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Stanford eventually won 56-48 when Curtis McNeal fumbled the ball into the end zone after getting to the 1-yard line on a first-down play in the third overtime.
–Pac-12 teams will not play two teams from the other division every year. But even though Stanford is in the North Division and USC in the South, those teams will play every season as a result of an accommodation for the conference’s California teams to continue their long rivalries. Cal and Stanford will play UCLA and USC every year. It does not work out so well for Stanford competitively this season, because UCLA and USC are both ranked at the moment, while the two South Division teams the Cardinal avoids — Utah and Arizona State – are not.
–Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt is expected to play against USC after missing the first two games because of an ankle injury. Although you don’t hear much about Hewitt, he is an important part of the Cardinal offense. He’s a clutch runner when needed, a good blocker and an excellent receiver, catching 35 passes last season, tied for third on the team. Five of those receptions went for touchdowns. Stanford often puts him in motion to act much like a tight end, both as a receiver and blocker. He is really more of an H-back than a true fullback.
–The two rivals cannot agree on the all-time series tally. USC leads 58-28-3 according to Stanford. It’s actually 59-28-3 according to USC (last meeting, 2011, 56-48, Stanford in triple overtime).