The USC offense had early success against the Stanford defense last time, can they recreate that form in the Pac-12 Championship Game?
Facing a Stanford defense which remains solid, but cannot match the dominant units of years past, the Trojans will hope make more of an impact on offense with a rejuvenated run game.
Lance Anderson’s squad ranks in the top tier of the conference in scoring and total defense, behind only Utah and Washington, but an increase in yards allowed in both rushing and passing has left them vulnerable this season.
In the past three weeks they have allowed more than 400 yards of offense to Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame. The Irish in particular gashed the defense for 533 yards and an 8.88 yards per play average. However, only one of those games resulted in a loss for the Cardinal.
One Man Army
Blake Martinez is a one man army in the middle of the Stanford defense. Literally.
The All-Pac-12 first teamer and Butkus Award semifinalist has led the Cardinal in tackles in all but two games this season. That would be impressive on its own, but Martinez’s totals make it even more so.
In 2015, Martinez has logged 120 tackles, which is tops in the Pac-12 and 11th in the nation. The next most productive Cardinal defender? That would be safety Kodi Whitfield who has totaled a mere 49.
Martinez is the quarterback of the Stanford defense, so it’s no surprise that his uncharacteristically un-involved showing against Oregon, with just five tackles, coincided with the Cardinal’s first loss since dropping the season opener to Northwestern.
October 3, 2015; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal defensive end Aziz Shittu (7) celebrates after sacking Arizona Wildcats quarterback Brandon Dawkins (13) during the second quarter at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Fellow starting linebackers Peter Kalambayi, Kevin Palma and Kevin Anderson barely eclipse Martinez’s totals with all of their tackles this season combined. Anderson, at least, missed four games due to injury earlier this season to explain slightly lower production and can claim 8.5 tackles for loss this season as his added contribution.
Even with Martinez’s 12 tackles against Notre Dame, the Cardinal gave up 299 yards to the Irish.
USC only totaled 155 yards on the ground last time, but the Trojans attempted just 28 runs. With a renewed emphasis on the ground attack and a clear vulnerability in Stanford’s defensive front, Clay Helton may very well flip the script and ride the running backs like he did against UCLA.
Adding to that potential narrative is the absence of a dominant defensive line for Stanford this year. Aziz Shittu earned first team All-Pac-12 honors and defensive tackle Solomon Thomas and defensive end Brennan Scarlett were All-Pac-12 honorable mentions, but the Cardinal are certainly feeling the effects of losing the likes of David Parry, Henry Anderson and Blake Lueders.
The Cardinal pass rush is certainly worse off without those players. This season, Scarlett leads sack production from the line with 3.5. Shittu has gotten to the quarterback 2.5 times and Thomas has logged just 1.5 sacks. Last year Anderson matched their total on his own.
Considering linebacker Mike Tyler leads all Stanford players with 4.5 sacks, there is a dearth of players who have proven capable of putting pressure on the opposing quarterback.
Lack of depth on the line certainly plays into that. Harrison Phillips was lost for the season in September, leaving that three-man front essentially on their own.
The wildcard in the match up is USC’s center situation. Khaliel Rodgers remains questionable for the game with a high ankle sprain, leaving fourth string center Nico Falah as a potential starter.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and the Trojan receiving corps have reason to lick their lips heading into this match up considering the injury concerns plaguing the Cardinal secondary.
Both starting cornerbacks for Stanford were held out against Notre Dame and remain questionable for the championship game.
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Ronnie Harris sprained his ankle against Oregon and has missed the past two games while Alijah Holder has an undisclosed injury. Of the two, Holder is the more likely to see the field.
Though USC’s focus has turned towards the ground, the Trojans still possess a capable quarterback in Cody Kessler, an elite receiving threat in Smith-Schuster and an emerging target in Darreus Rodgers, who has made two spectacular touchdown grabs in the last two weeks.
In fact, it was Kessler and Smith-Schuster who had one of the strongest outings the Cardinal defense has allowed all season when they last squared off. The Trojan quarterback threw three touchdowns for 272 yards and a passer rating of 180 — behind only Vernon Adams among QBs who have faced Stanford.
Smith-Schuster had his best game of the year with 153 yards and a touchdown on eight catches.
What The Stats Say
[table id=74 /]
- USC is not very good at protecting the quarterback, but Stanford might be worse at getting to him. The Cardinal defense ranks among the worst teams in college football when it comes to sack rate. That is the case on normal downs and remains the case even on passing downs. On the other hand, the Trojans are particularly vulnerable on those downs when both sides know a pass is coming. A match up of weaknesses should yield interesting results.
- Many of USC’s offensive numbers are skewed thanks to the coaching change and resulting philosophy change. The Trojans rushing attempts per game have risen steadily since the first month of the season, as has their yards per game average. In November USC averaged 194 yards per game on the ground. Stanford has undergone the opposite change. As the season has progressed they have allowed more and more on the ground. In November, that average rose to 177 yards per game allowed.
Projected Starting Lineups: USC football vs. Stanford
Stanford Defense[table id=76 /]
USC Offense[table id=75 /]