PLAYERS TO WATCH
–RB Buck Allen began what should be a big year for him by rushing 22 times for 133 yards and a touchdown in the opener against Fresno State. He rushed for 817 yards on 141 carries last season, but those numbers will soar as he’s now the full-time starter.
–DL Leonard Williams had a super 2014 debut with seven tackles, an interception and two other pass break-ups. He had seven stops and a fumble recovery vs. Stanford last season.
–WR JuJu Smith, a true freshman, is listed as a starter this week against Stanford. He caught four passes for 123 yards in the opener against Fresno State. Freshman Ajene Harris was dropped to third string at that receiver spot.
–LB Hayes Pullard will be a key figure in stopping Stanford’s power running game. He made 11 tackles vs. the Cardinal last season.
–QB Kevin Hogan struggled badly in last year’s loss to USC. Hogan completed 14 of 25 passes for 127 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions, finishing with an abysmal 23.1 quarterback rating. Stanford will need a better showing from its senior quarterback this time.
–True freshman RB Christian McCaffrey displayed the explosiveness in the season opener against UC Davis that coaches and teammates have witnessed behind the scenes in camp. On the first offensive touch of his career, McCaffrey caught a pass out of the backfield and scored a 52-yard touchdown. He later added a 40-yard punt return and ran for 10 yards on his only carry of the game. He finished with 122 all-purpose yards.
–Junior RB Barry Sanders was impressive in limited duty against UC Davis. Sanders rushed seven times for 43 yards, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. The highlight was a 17-yard run that set up a field goal on the final play of the first half.
–Freshman TE Austin Hooper lived up to the hype in his much-anticipated college debut against UC Davis. Hooper caught four passes for 63 yards, including a spectacular leaping 14-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
TO THE GAME
USC’s game at Stanford — one of the highlights of the second week of the college football season — doesn’t need any extra hype or subplots.
But first-year Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian provided some fireworks last season that will still burn bright this week.
Sarkisian, then the head coach at Washington, accused Stanford of faking injuries in order to slow down the Huskies’ hurry-up attack.
“I guess that’s how we play here at Stanford,” Sarkisian said the Cardinal’s 31-28 victory. “So we’ll have to prepare for that next time.”
The next time is right now. Pace of play (and any attempt by the defense to slow it down) will be a key factor in Saturday’s game, which could go a long way in determining the races in the Pac-12′s north and south divisions.
USC ran a school- and Pac-12 record 105 plays against Fresno State in Sarkisian’s USC debut last week, and will use that tempo as a contrast in styles to Stanford’s power-football approach.
Sarkisian’s style is likely to make an ever bigger star out of junior quarterback Cody Kessler, who was chosen the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in the 52-13 win over Fresno State.
Kessler completed 25 of 37 passes for a career-high 394 yards and four touchdowns.
“I learned a lot about Cody,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a tough kid. He was gutty.”
Kessler was plenty good against Stanford last season, completing 25 of 37 throws for 288 yards and a score as the Trojans upset the fifth-ranked Cardinal 20-17. Kessler put together a late drive that led to the game-winning field goal with 19 seconds left. That performance earned him conference player of the week honors, too.
Now, unleashed from USC’s former more-plodding attack, he’ll look to amass bigger numbers against one of the top defenses in the league.
“Our tempo was really good,” Sarkisian said.
“I don’t know if we can average over 100 plays a game, but we would like to go briskly. There are times when we are going to go fast, there are times where we’re going to slow down some. The key to that number of plays is really our third-down efficiency. When we can convert third downs to extend drives, that’s how we can get more plays.”
The Cardinal’s biggest challenge might be blocking Leonard Williams, a 6-foot-5, 291-pound defensive lineman whom Stanford coach David Shaw called the “best defensive player in the country.” Shaw referred to the USC showdown as a “big game,” but he said his team must remain focused on its preparation and execution, not the name on the visiting uniforms.
“We can’t care about what it is or who it is, but we have to recognize that it’s time to play big-time college football,” Shaw said. “We’ve got a good opponent coming in next week.”
The Cardinal has won 17 in a row at Stanford Stadium, the nation’s longest active home winning streak. Winning the next one won’t be easy, but Hogan said his team will have a “good plan” in place when it comes time to open what is expected to be a very difficult conference schedule.
Six Pac-12 teams were ranked in the Top 25 to start the season. All six were victorious in their season openers. Senior defensive tackle David Parry said the Cardinal can only be concerned with one team.
“Every game, we go in thinking it doesn’t matter who the opponent is,” Parry said. “We want to focus on us, maximize how we play and play to the best of our abilities. Kind of keeping that focus maintained on ourselves helps us through the longevity of the season.”