USC is just over 24 hours away from the Pac-12 opener against Stanford in Palo Alto, which means now is as good a time as any to get a view from the other side of the fence.
So we took a moment to consult Hank Waddles of the Stanford blog Go Mighty Card for his take on the Cardinal as they seek revenge Saturday and on the season as a whole.
RoT: How much of an advantage or disadvantage for Stanford is playing UC Davis as a tune-up game before USC?
Hank: While it’s definitely good that Stanford was able to get some game action before the USC matchup, lower-division UC Davis obviously didn’t provide much competition, so the game felt more like a glorified scrimmage.
The Cardinal offense looked unstoppable while the starters played in the first half, and the defense was dominant throughout, but that’s exactly what should’ve happened.
Even so, it was nice for the rebuilt offensive line to be on the field together, several players who didn’t appear on the two-deep depth chart got into the game, and — most importantly — there were no injuries. Overall, it was a positive.
RoT: Ty Montgomery is a stud, and we’ve seen him do a lot of big things. But with other guys graduated, how much of a weapon will he be this year for the Cardinal?
Hank: USC fans are certainly used to watching powerful dynamic wide receivers like Mike Williams and Robert Woods, and now Nelson Agholor and Marqise Lee, but this is all new for Stanford.
At 6’2″ and 220 pounds, Montgomery is physically imposing, but his 4.4 speed makes him a deep threat on offense and a game-changing force returning kickoffs. This year he’s added punt returning to his repertoire, and he took his first touch and returned it sixty yards for a touchdown.
I can’t imagine that a wide receiver would ever garner any serious consideration in the Heisman Trophy discussion, but Montgomery is clearly one of the best football players in America. He should pose a significant challenge for USC’s defensive backs this Saturday.
RoT: Derek Mason is gone and so are Skov, Garnder, Mauro and Murphy. Who can we expect to step up and make an immediate impact for the Cardinal on Saturday that isn’t necessarily a household name yet?
Hank: David Shaw promoted from within and tabbed linebacker coach Lance Anderson to take over for Mason as defensive coordinator. There may be some subtle differences in scheme, but in general this will be the same Stanford defense that we’ve seen for the past several years. Anderson has lots of talent to work with.
Defensive end Henry Anderson is a beast, and should closely approximate Trent Murphy’s production, and alongside him is nose tackle David Parry, a former walk-on who’s developed into a huge run stopper in the middle.
The linebacking corps is a bit thin, especially this week with two backups sidelined, but watch for two-year starters James Vaughters, a strong pass rusher on the outside, and A.J. Tarpley, his running mate on the opposite side.
The defensive backfield is probably the most talented in school history, led by safety Jordan Richards, and corners Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons, so it will be particularly interesting to see how they fare against USC’s receivers, who are amongst the best in the nation.
Hank: Everyone’s waiting for Barry Sanders, but right now he still isn’t listed at the top of the depth chart. That honor goes to Kelsey Young.
Young has game-changing speed, but he doesn’t quite fit the mold of what we’re used to seeing in the Stanford backfield. For the past two years he’s been used as something of a gimmick back, getting the ball primarily on jet sweeps and screens, so it isn’t yet clear whether or not he’ll be able to adjust to running between the tackles.
The same can be said of Sanders, who has shown flashes of brilliance and evoked memories of his father on isolated plays, but hasn’t received the consistent workload necessary to establish himself as a lead back.
There are whispers around the program that true freshman Christian McCaffrey (son of former Stanford and Denver Bronco wide receiver Ed McCaffrey) could be the most talented running back on the roster. Until he learns the offense, however, his greatest impact will be on punt returns. Expect to see some of him on Saturday, and lots of more in years to come. Believe it or not, he has Heisman potential.
RoT: Washington gave Stanford trouble last year in Steve Sarkisian’s first year with the hurry-up no-huddle offense. Do you think Stanford is better prepared the second time around?
Hank: I think the Stanford defense has moved past the point where they should be worried about an opponent’s scheme. With all the time they spend preparing for the various spread offenses in the Pac-12, they know how to approach these challenges.
Also, the defense is still getting better and faster, so the personnel is there to compete at that pace.
If there is a concern, however, it’s that this unit doesn’t currently have the depth in the front seven that they’d like. The hope is that the offense will be able to control the ball for long enough stretches to keep the Trojans from finding a rhythm while simultaneously keeping the Stanford defense fresh. I firmly believe that that will decide the game.
RoT: Not going to put you on the spot to make a prediction if you don’t want to, but how do you see the game playing out? What’s the one key factor that will decide who wins?
Hank: Two weeks ago I wrote that Stanford had an 85% chance of winning this game, but then I watched the Trojans dismantle Fresno State, and everything changed.
These are two closely-matched teams. Even though the talk heading into last year’s matchup was of Stanford’s four-game winning streak against USC, the reality was that most of those games were incredibly close and could’ve gone either way. Chances are that we get another game like that.
I expect Saturday’s game to be close throughout, but I see Stanford’s offense making the difference. Kevin Hogan looks to have improved tremendously, and he’s working with the best group of wide receivers in Stanford history. I think they’ll pose problems for USC’s secondary, and the Cardinal will pull away in the fourth quarter.
Let’s put the final score at Stanford 34, USC 17.