The first big rivalry game of the season for USC kicks off Saturday, with a major Pac-12 match up against the Stanford Cardinal.
Few teams have played as many closely-contested games over the past five seasons as the Trojans and Cardinal. With USC on the short end of the stick for four of those five years, there should be plenty of motivation to repeat last year’s upset performance.
With that in mind, here are the three things the Trojans need to do to secure a victory:
Shut Down Kevin Hogan
Stanford’s redshirt junior quarterback Kevin Hogan returns this season as potentially the most important player on the Cardinal offense.
Since taking over for Josh Nunes in 2012 as a redshirt freshman, Hogan has benefited from the presence of an elite running game to take much of the pressure off.
In 2012 it was Stepfan Taylor. In 2013 it was Tyler Gaffney.
Now, the Cardinal face a void at running back, with the unproven trio of Kelsey Young, Barry Sanders Jr. and Remound Wright fighting it out for the top spot.
That leaves Hogan and wide receiver Ty Montgomery to head the offensive attack.
Hogan didn’t take the field against USC in 2012, the last time the Cardinal downed the Trojans in Palo Alto. His lone appearance came last year in the Coliseum when the USC defense overwhelmed him in a two-interception outing.
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That night, his passer rating of 82.67 was his lowest of the season and he generated a paltry 127 yards through the air.
A year older and fresh off a 204-yard three-touchdown outing against UC Davis, Hogan will be looking to avenge the loss.
If the Trojan intend to build a winning streak against the Cardinal they will have to stop him again.
The responsibility will fall equally across all levels of USC’s defense. Leonard Williams and the defensive line will have to put Hogan under pressure by attacking Stanford’s rebuilt offensive line.
Hayes Pullard and the linebackers will need to find the balance between attacking the line of scrimmage and keeping Hogan, who is capable of scrambling for yards, contained.
Finally, Kevon Seymour must prove that he can dominate teams not nicknamed the Bulldogs, especially in the absence of Josh Shaw.
The rhythm Cody Kessler and the USC offense found in the no-huddle against Fresno State set the foundation for the Trojans excellent showing last Saturday.
Stanford will focus first and foremost on disrupting that rhythm.
Last year, Steve Sarkisian accused David Shaw’s Cardinal of faking injures to slow the Washington offense, so don’t be surprised if we see gamesmanship of that sort from Stanford.
Of course, the more pressing issue will be coping with the physicality of the Stanford defense.
USC’s receivers, especially true freshmen like JuJu Smith and Adoree’ Jackson, will need to prove they can handle the increased contact that comes from facing defenders like Alex Carter and Jordan Richards.
Aug 30, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian reacts during the game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Meanwhile, the Trojan offensive line will have their hands full protecting Kessler and opening up holes for Buck Allen against Henry Anderson and the Cardinal defensive line.
In fact, keeping Kessler upright is the biggest key to USC’s offensive effort on Saturday. He earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors for his performance last year, much of which was down to his elusiveness in the face of the Stanford pass rush.
Kessler showed similar qualities against Fresno State, paired with excellent decision making, which contributed to another Pac-12 Player of the Week award.
A repeat performance could result in yet another and a Trojan victory.
No Special Teams Mishaps
Considering the close scores USC and Stanford have produced in recent history, every single point carries extra weight.
Last year, the Trojans left important points on the field in loses to Washington State and Notre Dame because of Andre Heidari’s kicking woes. In both games, which were decided by four or less, the kicker missed two field goals.
Of course, USC also got the better of the special teams match up last November when Stanford back up kicker Conrad Ukropina missed a kick while Heidari became the hero by booting in the game-winning points.
In short, special teams can make or break a contest.
Heidari won the kicking job again this offseason despite 2013’s struggles and produced mixed results against Fresno State. He hit a 27-yard field goal in the second quarter before missing a 39-yard attempt to end the half.
Jordan Williamson, the Cardinal’s starter for the year, started 2014 with a similar record, he made one and missed one versus UC Davis.