After showing off a high-flying offense in the opening two weeks, USC football will learn just how good they are against Stanford, which boasts one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 over the past few years.
Over the last two contests, the Trojan offense has scored just 20 and 13 points versus the Cardinal, but that was all they needed to secure victories.
It is no understatement to say that Stanford lost a terrible amount of production from a 2014 defense which stood tops in the conference.
Though leading tackler Blake Martinez will be back on the field Saturday, nine starters from last year’s game between the two teams will not.
That includes defensive linemen David Parry, Henry Anderson and Blake Lueders, linebackers A.J. Tarpley and James Vaughters, and defensive backs Alex Carter, Wayne Lyons, Jordan Richards and Kyle Olugbode.
Those players plus the departed non-starters accounted for more than 500 tackles — 67% of the Cardinal’s total. That’s not to mention the 58% loss in players responsible for tackles for loss and 57.6% in sacks.
Martinez Is The Man
Like Shayne Skov and Tarpley before him, Martinez has become the main man on defense for the Cardinal. Bringing him back is the biggest bright spot Stanford could have hoped for as the inside linebacker keeps the defense ticking.
Sep 5, 2015; Evanston, IL, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) is pushed out of bounds by Stanford Cardinal linebacker Blake Martinez (4) during the second half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
For evidence of that you need only look at the Cardinal’s first two games, in which Martinez accounted for 22 tackles. That kind of production justifies Martinez place on pretty much every preseason watch list a linebacker could be on, including the Butkus, Lobardi, Bendarik and Nagurski watch lists.
The trouble is, Martinez logged a team-high 10.5 tackles in Stanford’s loss to Northwestern while the Wildcats ran over, through and around the Cardinal defense to the tune of 225 yards on the ground.
That was not a strong start for the Stanford front, which is populated by new and inexperienced players.
Defensive Line Concerns
Though the defensive front bounced back in Week 2 against UCF, giving up just 78 yards rushing, there are major red flags in the trenches for Stanford.
Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas and Cal grad transfer Brennan Scarlett will start up front against USC, but beyond those three, options are limited.
Would-be starter Harrison Phillips was lost to a season-ending knee injury, that means Jordan Watkins is the only non-starter on the two-deep. Shittu is the back up for Thomas, who is the back up for Scarlett.
Shittu was a five-star recruit, but missed most of the 2014 season due to injury. Solomon was also a highly-rated recruit out of Texas but will get his first taste of Pac-12 football on Saturday after sitting out the entirety of his true freshman season last year.
Scarlett, meanwhile, had limited playing time at Cal for four seasons. The Bears never had a defensive front that rivaled Stanford in that time, putting into perspective the potential of his impact following the loss of All-Pac-12 defensive end Henry Anderson.
The uncertainty up front for Stanford is matched by unexpected uncertainty for the Trojans on the offensive line, making this one of the more telling contests of the weekend.
Slowing Kessler and Smith-Schuster
In the defensive backfield, a quartet of players with limited starting experience will have the job of slowing Cody Kessler, JuJu Smith and company.
Unlike Arkansas State and Idaho, these Stanford players are not lacking in size. Safeties Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd are 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3 respectively, while cornerback Alijah Holder stands 6-foot-2.
Like most other positions on the Cardinal defense, the secondary returns few starters. However, there are plenty of players with game experience.
Oct 18, 2014; Tempe, AZ, USA; Stanford Cardinal safety Kodi Whitfield (5) against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the first quarter at Sun Devil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Whitfield, who switched from receiver to defense, cornerback Ronnie Harris, and nickleback Terrence Alexander played all of last year in the rotation.
True freshman Quenton Meeks is also expected to see action against the Trojans, as Stanford tries to find out exactly what they have in the secondary.
So far, Stanford has had no trouble with the quarterbacks they have come up against, but Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson and UCF back up Tyler Harris are far from Kessler’s level. They were freshmen seeing their first impact, while this isn’t exactly the first rodeo for USC’s senior signal caller.
What should you expect from the passing game? It all depends how Stanford decides to defend.
Idaho played off the Trojans’ receivers, leaving JuJu Smith-Schuster plenty of room to rack up yards after catch. Of Kessler’s 31 pass attempts last week, 21 were less than five yards down field, which accounted for 208 yards per Football Study Hall.
Stanford could go the same route to prevent the big play, something they dabbled with against UCF. But given how Kessler struggled to throw the deep ball in Week 1 against an Arkansas State with a strong pass rush, it could be more advantageous of the Cardinal to play more press coverage and force USC to throw down field.
If last year’s game is any indication, Sarkisian and offensive coordinator Clay Helton are surely going to take what the defense gives them. Nelson Agholor had nine catches for 91 yards in the Week 2 win last season, with the bulk coming underneath at Stanford looked to clog downfield lanes.
What the stats say
[table id=31 /]* Denotes statistics from 2014
- The Cardinal have not had trouble limiting the scoring of their opponents so far this season. Northwestern only managed 16 points in their victory over Stanford while UCF scored a single touchdown.
- Since a lot of advanced statistics will not be available until Week 7, we have to go by last year’s numbers, which were very favorable for Stanford. Ranked 11th in defensive efficiency, the Cardinal were among the best in the nation in nearly all the statistical categories. The big question is whether or not the strong defensive numbers from this season can be trusted against a much more formidable USC offense.
Projected starting lineups: USC football vs. Stanford
Stanford Defense[table id=33 /]
USC Offense[table id=32 /]
USC vs. Stanford Preview Podcast:
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