The marquee Pac-12 match up of USC vs Stanford starts off the conference slate with a rematch of last year’s title game. Here’s the view from the Cardinal side.
The fortunes of USC and Stanford have gone their separate ways since the two last played.
While Stanford used the Pac-12 Championship Game as a springboard to a blowout victory over Iowa in the Rose Bowl, USC fell to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl and were embarrassed by Alabama in the 2016 season opener.
Still, the Cardinal stand ranked No. 7 in the AP poll and have a long way to go to prove they deserve a spot in the playoff come the end of the 2016 season.
Reign of Troy caught up with Hank Waddles from Go Mighty Card to get the scoop on Stanford ahead of Saturday’s clash.
Here’s how the Q&A went down…
RoT: Stanford seems to have made a habit of starting the year off slowly and growing into the season. Does that explain the tight contest against Kansas State? And do you think that will be a factor in this week’s match up?
Waddles: Stanford’s slow starts recently have been frustrating, never more so than last year. Even when they’ve avoided the upset, some of the season openers have been more than sluggish. I don’t think this will be a problem against USC, however.
The Stanford-USC matchup, especially when it takes place in Palo Alto, always seems to come early in the season, and it could be that the opening game playbook has been intentionally vanilla precisely because of the pending game with the Trojans.
My guess is that there are two factors here.
One, the Stanford offense is notoriously complicated and difficult to master. There will always be new players thrust into new roles each fall, so perhaps they aren’t quite ready to run everything in the early going.
Two, David Shaw seems to be hesitant to put anything on tape unnecessarily. Why should he give the USC coaching staff any tips about what he might run on Saturday?
The argument against this is that there are years of tape out there with evidence of what David Shaw likes to do, but I still think that’s a factor.
RoT: What are your feelings on Ryan Burns? What strengths should USC watch out for and what weaknesses could be exploited?
Waddles: Heading into the Kansas State game, I didn’t believe that the quarterback competition was actually over. I had expected, like most observers, that junior Keller Chryst would win the job, so I thought he’d still get a few more chances during the game to win the job.
That didn’t happen. Chryst played just one series in the first half, and sat through the second.
Burns’s performance was surprising. He was incredibly accurate (he didn’t have an incompletion until midway through the third quarter), and he showed the poise of a veteran when facing defensive pressure on clear passing downs.
The offense is clearly centered around Christian McCaffrey, and his presence on the field immediately makes Burns better. Not only is it nice to turn around and hand the ball to the best running back in the country, it’s also comforting to know that he’s a great receiver as well.
But more on Burns. You can think of him as a bigger, more accurate version of Kevin Hogan. What I’m most curious about right now is how much running he’ll do on Saturday. With his size and strength he could be a real weapon, and the offense ran a few read-option plays against Kansas State to exploit that. I’m sure we’ll see it at least a few more times this week.
RoT: Aside from Christian McCaffrey, who is on everyone’s radar, what other offensive weapons do you expect to have the biggest impact against USC?
Waddles: I think that once we get deep into the season and the quarterback situation is settled, this could be one of the more potent offenses in the country, with weapons all over the field.
The player to watch this weekend, though, is sophomore running back Bryce Love. If Christian McCaffrey weren’t around, Stanford fans would be gushing over Love.
As is Shaw’s habit (even with McCaffrey two years ago), he used Love sparingly during his freshman year, allowing him to learn the offense and adjust to the college game.
Even with limited touches, however, he had a significant impact. He’s every bit as fast and electric as McCaffrey, but not as strong running inside at this point. He gives the offense tremendous flexibility. He’s good enough that the defense won’t be able to relax when McCaffrey is off the field, but with both of them in the backfield the possibilities are tantalizing or terrifying, depending on which side of the field you’re on.
One play I’m hoping to see, even though the USC defense will be aware of it — Love splits out wide to take a pitch from McCaffrey on the reverse. It’ll be fun to watch.
RoT: Stanford lost some heavy hitters on the defense from last year, including the top tackler at every level of the defense. Who are the key defenders on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary who will step up and fill the void?
Waddles: Stanford lost some key players, including linebacker Blake Martinez, who is now starting and calling the defensive signals for the Green Bay Packers, but I don’t think the Cardinal has ever had this much depth on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive end Solomon Thomas is a returning starter, but this will be the year that makes a name for himself and will likely earn All-Pac-12 honors. He’s a ferocious pass rusher and probably the fastest defensive linemen Stanford has ever had.
At linebacker watch for Peter Kalambayi, another aggressive pass rusher.
The defensive backs are probably the strength of the defense and unquestionably the best group of players Stanford has ever had on the back level.
Quenton Meeks is the best. He starts at corner, but he’s versatile enough to slide into the nickel position in passing situations. At 6-foot-2 he’s big enough to match up with most receivers in the conference, and he has that supersized confidence that great corners have to have.
Stanford fans remember his huge interception in the waning moments against Washington State that led to a game-winning field goal, and certainly his pick six in the Rose Bowl against Iowa. He’s a playmaker, and I look forward to watching him matchup against the USC receivers.
RoT: Stanford scored 41 points in both outings against USC last year and eclipsed 30 points in every game except the opener in 2015. Yet, the offense hasn’t gotten a lot of credit nationally for being so effective. Do you think the Cardinal can sustain that kind of output with a new quarterback and some changes on the offensive line?
Waddles: I kind of alluded to this above, but the short answer is yes.
McCaffrey is the best player in the country, and Love is good enough to start for at least nine of the other teams in the Pac-12. Dalton Schultz is the next great Stanford tight end, and the receivers, led by sophomore Trenton Irwin and fifth-year senior Michael Rector are a versatile group.
The key, as you mention, is Ryan Burns and the rebuilt offensive line.
I saw enough of Burns last week against Kansas State to feel confident that he’s going to grow into the job and be fine. By all accounts he knows the offense, and he certainly has the physical tools to succeed.
The line was good, if inconsistent, but I’m always optimistic.
More from Reign of Troy
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- USC football adds Xavion Alford as transfer from Texas
- USC Podcast: RoT Radio Ep. 396 on the Football Season’s Fallout
- Talanoa Hufanga named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, USC football with five first-teamers
RoT: Where would you rank David Shaw among coaches in the Pac-12? In the nation? Is he as underrated as he seems from an outsiders perspective?
Waddles: There’s no other coach in America — not Saban, not Meyer, not even Harbaugh — who I’d rather have coaching at Stanford. He’s a perfect fit, and I think most fans and impartial observers would agree with that.
He’s been named conference Coach of the Year three times, so it’s hard to say that he’s been underrated, but as you mentioned in one of your answers to my questions, trophies are important.
I think he’s the best coach in the Pac-12, and he has three conference trophies to back that up. But until he wins a national championship — the biggest trophy of all — I don’t think people will be willing to put him in the company of those who have.
RoT: What’s your prediction for the game?
Waddles: Stanford wins. Like most of these games over the past six or seven years, I expect it to be close through three quarters, but I think McCaffrey and the rest of the offense will be too much, and the Cardinal will pull away in the fourth to a 34-17 win.