Justin Wilcox and the USC football defense face their first test of the season as the Stanford Cardinal look to get their power offense firing on all cylinders to start Pac-12 play.
This is the third offense the Trojans will have faced in 2015 with a different style from the last. First they dominated the dual-threat attack of the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Then they shut down Idaho’s pass-happy offense. Now they’ll get to show how they stack up against Stanford’s bruising approach.
The Kevin Hogan Question
The ship has sailed on Kevin Hogan living up to his predecessor Andrew Luck and the expectations which were place on him as a redshirt freshman when he led the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl with six straight victories to end the season. But there is still plenty of time for Hogan to enshrine his legacy in Palo Alto.
After a passable enough 2013, in which he once again directed Stanford to the Rose Bowl, he struggled through a rocky 2014 when his team lost five games for the first time since 2009. Worryingly, the quarterback appeared to be regressing.
The world would later find out that Hogan had shouldered the burden of his father’s cancer diagnosis, struggle against the disease and eventual death through the fall of that year without telling anyone at Stanford until the end.
On the football field, Hogan’s demeanor and performances picked up at the end of that difficult season. He logged his two best performances in the final two games and had the Cardinal entering the 2015 with renewed hope.
April 11, 2015; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) warms up on the sideline during the spring football game at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The question marks still surround his ability to have Stanford once again contend for the North and the Pac-12 title.
In the first game of the season, Stanford suffered a slip up against Northwestern. Hogan had a poor showing with an interception and a passer rating of 88.63.
Hogan recovered nicely against UCF, slinging three touchdown passes with no picks.
Still, if there’s any position for the Cardinal which requires the flip of a coin to decide if it is a weakness or a strength, it is quarterback.
So far, the Trojans have handled each quarterback they have faced with ease. Since Hogan has never scored a touchdown pass in two games against USC, the pressure is on him to deliver this time around.
Where Have All the Bruisers Gone?
In 2014, a 1,000-yard rusher failed to emerge for Stanford for the first time since 2008. That was when Toby Gerhart set the standard for what a Cardinal running back should be and achieve.
There are no Gerhart’s, Stepfan Taylor’s or Tyler Gaffney’s on tap for Stanford this time around.
Christian McCaffrey seems to be the main man in the Cardinal attack, but he doesn’t exactly fit the mold. By no means undersized, McCaffrey is much more of a finesse back than the prototypical Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw type.
As a freshman, McCaffrey provided the spark for the Stanford offense with a 7.14 yards per carry average. Now a sophomore, he’s been expected to carry the load and it has not exactly gone to plan. On 32 attempts he has just 124 yards.
In a three-man rotation, last year’s leading rusher Remound Wright and Barry Sanders Jr. have not been much more effective.
September 13, 2014; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal wide receiver Devon Cajuste (89) catches a touchdown pass against Army Black Knights defensive back Geoffery Bacon (6) during the second quarter at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
That’s a problem for the Cardinal, who have always relied on a strong rushing attack to fuel the offense.
Considering Stanford has not had a running back eclipse 100 yards rushing since 2013, the running game is a concern.
That’s good news for USC, who will be breaking in a defensive front sans-Leonard Williams, who was immense against the Cardinal last season.
Big Men On Campus
The Cardinal lost offensive playmaker Ty Montgomery, but they return two of the bigger targets for Hogan nonetheless.
And big is exactly the way Devon Cajuste and Austin Hooper deserve to be described.
At 6-foot-4, 248 pounds, Hooper has continued the tradition of dominant Stanford tight ends. Meanwhile, at 6-foot-4, 227 pounds Cajuste is essentially a tight end playing receiver.
So far this season, Cajuste and Hooper have been Hogan’s favorite targets.
As usual, Stanford has no shortage of big men to work with, especially up front.
With Kyle Murphy protecting Hogan’s blindside, the Cardinal return four of five starters on the offensive line from 2014. All but one of those five up front weigh in above 300 pounds.
No doubt this Stanford front will be among the best that USC faces all season. Generating the same kind of pressure as the Trojans did in the first two games would be a great sign of progress in the trenches defensively.
What the stats say
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- You cannot discuss the Stanford offense and statistics without mentioning the red zone troubles which have plagued the Cardinal since last season. At a dismal 57%, they are not just the worst Pac-12 squad in that category so far this season, they ranked 121st nationally, better than just four other teams. Last year was hardly better with the Cardinal ranked 112th in the country.
- The devastating thing about Stanford’s red zone efficiency is that the offense last season was actually among the nation’s most efficient by most other measures. The Cardinal were ranked in the top half of college teams when it came to avoiding three-and-outs, sustaining long drives and getting into the red zone. The one metric they trailed behind in was explosive drives — which are drives which average more than ten yards per play.
- One thing the Stanford offense has done well this season is keep Kevin Hogan’s jersey clean — he has been sacked just three times so far. The same cannot be said of the Cardinal’s ability to give their running backs a chance. They have conceded 15 tackles for loss already in 2015.
Projected starting lineups: USC football vs. Stanford
Stanford Offense[table id=30 /]
USC Defense[table id=29 /]
USC vs. Stanford Preview Podcast:
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