The biggest test of the season thus far for USC football comes on Saturday when the Trojans play host to Pac-12 rival Stanford at the Coliseum. It’ll be the fourth time defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will face the Cardinal under Steve Sarkisian, and he’ll look to continue his run of success.
In three meetings dating back to 2012 while at Washington, Stanford has scored just four offensive touchdowns against Wilcox’s defense. That includes a 2013 game in which the Cardinal had an average starting field position of their own 41 yard line thanks to a handful of long Ty Montgomery kick returns.
At Washington, Wilcox twice held Stanford to their lowest offensive output of the given season, with 3.66 yards per play in a home upset win in 2012, and 4.66 in the loss the following year in Palo Alto. Both seasons Stanford would go on to win the Pac-12.
Things were a tad different in Wilcox’s first season at USC, as the Cardinal gained 6.07 yards per play. However, they only scored 10 points.
That’s partly credit to the Trojans’ Pac-12 leading red zone defense, but it’s no secret that Stanford squandered several chances by their own doing last year. Placekicker Jordan Williamson was just 1-of-3.
Even still, despite getting across the 35-yard line on every drive, Stanford were never able to finish off drives, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Mar 3, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox at spring practice at Cromwell Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
In the three aforementioned meetings, the Cardinal did not score a single point in the final 15 minutes and twice have lost the game with game-deciding turnovers on the final drive. And it’s worth noting that those three fourth quarters had three drastically different scenarios, yet they all shared the same results.
In 2012, the Cardinal had the ill-fated Josh Nunes at quarterback and were forced to try and rally, as they abandoned a struggling run game while trailing. Nunes was 8-of-12 in the fourth quarter but was picked off on fourth down with 1:46 left, on what was a poorly thrown jump ball to tight end Levine Toilolo.
In 2013, they had a 10-point lead on the Huskies and were looking to close the game out. Stanford ran the ball 10 times to just one pass, but gained just 1.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter. It enabled Washington to creep back into the game on the back of Keith Price, who ultimately fell just short of a comeback win.
And last year, Stanford once again struggled to run the ball in the fourth quarter of a tie game against a Wilcox defense. They averaged just 2-yards per carry, though that includes a pair of final drive sacks. The last of which saw J.R. Tavai blitz off the edge and dispossess Kevin Hogan for a game-clinching fumble.
Three-straight years and three-straight scoreless fourth quarters for the Cardinal. That’s not going to win a lot of games, especially with the trio of matches being decided by a combined 10 points.
Stanford Offense vs. Justin Wilcox (2012-2014)
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What makes Wilcox’s defense so effective against Stanford? The ability to mix and match defensive fronts to what the Cardinal throw at him offensively.
Though the base defense scheme is effectively a 3-4 Over, Wilcox has shown the comfort of filling the box by shifting into a 4-3 Stack against Stanford’s power sets. He’s also utilized the playmakers he has at his disposal to defend more spread formations.
The result is that hybrid linebackers like Su’a Cravens or Shaq Thompson who are run-stoppers against zone-read offenses, can lend support in pass coverage vs. Stanford’s pro-set spread formations.
Meanwhile, the stand-up rush end can tuck in as a down five-technique if needed, to help stop the run against a jumbo set.
That’s key, as the Cardinal offense has slowly but surely evolved over the years. An offense that is widely considered to be a power-I base, has more often than not adopted shotgun formations of late with a veteran quarterback, all while leaning on power sets on high-pressure downs.
For an example, look at similar-situation first down plays from 2012 and 2014. The former came during under Nunes, while the latter was with Hogan having full control of the offense.
Stanford Power I vs. Washington (2012) Stanford Shotgun vs. USC (2014)
In the first play, Stanford goes to their traditional Power-I with three tight ends, a fullback and a tailback. Wilcox dials up the 4-3 Stack with rush end Josh Shirley serving as the down lineman on the far side of the field, in what appears to be the five-gap. Shaq Thompson, who at the time was a nickelback at UW, is directly behind him, flanking the linebackers in pass coverage.
Compare that to the second play from 2014, against Stanford’s single-back shotgun formation. Rush end Scott Felix is upright as a seven-technique well off the edge, while strongside linebacker Su’a Cravens supports the play in pass coverage.
Those are just two examples, but in looking at how Wilcox has defended the Cardinal, it’s clear that he’s willing to adapt and not hem the defense into one scheme that gives Stanford the upper hand.
Add in David Shaw’s pre-made struggles in the red zone and on third downs, and it’s safe to say that Stanford has an uphill battle in store on Saturday night.
That’s not to say they can’t overcome the challenges that USC presents –look no further than the Cardinal’s dismantling of UCLA last year– but if there’s one offensive scheme that Wilcox has shown to keep in check, it’s Stanford.
Oregon’s a completely different story, but we’ll save that stat breakdown for later.
USC vs. Stanford Preview Podcast:
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