USC vs. Stanford: Wrinkles the Trojans can sneak into the game plan

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /
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The Trojans used a few wrinkles last week against Western Michigan, let’s take a look at what they could draw up in Saturday’s USC vs. Stanford game.

In Week 1,  the Trojans got the perfect outcome for a young team building towards a big goal. They won. However, it was shaky at times and highlighted a multitude of areas where the team could improve. Now it’s time to focus on Saturday’s USC vs. Stanford game, the annual Pac-12 season opener.

The Cardinal have beaten the Trojans three-straight times going back to 2015, and steamrolled Rice in Week 0, 62-7.

With the Texas Longhorns on the horizon and USC looking to finally slay the beast, here are some wrinkles that should go into the game plan this week…

Protect the linebackers

USC’s run defense was abysmal in the first half against Western Michigan. A lot of that had to do with the absence of starting middle linebacker Cameron Smith, but there were still issues in the second half.

Clay Helton and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast attributed a lot of the issues to poor gap responsibility, not lining up properly and poor tackling.

READ MORE: What Went Wrong Defensively vs. Western Michigan?

Tackling was definitely an issue, and filling the correct gaps proved to be a problem on some of the Broncos’ bigger gains. However, what jumped off the screen was inside linebacker John Houston struggling to get off of blocks.

While true freshman Levi Jones could get reps, that isn’t the answer either. Houston can be an excellent linebacker when free to fly to the ball and make plays, as well as in pass coverage. His size and length are going to be key against the multitude of tight ends Stanford is going to deploy.

The goal should be to get him more protection from the defensive linemen in front of him. If USC is going to go to the more traditional three-man front, instead of defensive tackle Malik Dorton, get true freshman Marlon Tuipulotu on the field.

A defensive front of Josh Fatu, Tuipulotu, and Raheem Green could provide enough protection for not only Houston, but Smith as well, allowing for the two middle linebackers to attack Stanford’s backs and tight ends.

Beef up the nickel package

Last week, Western Michigan showed that can problem arise when USC is forced into its nickel package with only two defensive linemen, Green and Fatu.

Stanford isn’t going to spread USC out to throw the ball 30-plus times. They’re going to spread USC out and try to run it right up the gut.

GAME WEEK: Q&A on the Stanford Cardinal Going into the USC Game

While Green is definitely one the best defensive linemen and pass rushers the Trojans have, perhaps a combination of Fatu and Tuipulotu would provide better run-stopping power when using a two-man front. Then, USC can make its routine substitutions on 3rd down, getting both Christian Rector and Green onto the field in more obvious passing downs.

Bottom line, Tuipulotu needs to play more. He did a good job of disengaging and getting to the ball against Western Michigan. It would be a waste to not give him a chance to do the same against Stanford.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Scrap the running back rotation

USC is loaded with talent, especially at the running back position. It is also understandable that with so much talent, there is a necessity to get them involved. However, Ronald Jones II looked like a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate last Saturday, with 159 yards on 18 carries.

Stephen Carr and Aca’cedric Ware are good backs, but USC needs to shy away from idea that ‘this a Carr drive’ or ‘this is a Jones drive’.

TRENDING: Ronald Jones is USC’s Most Complete Running Back Since Marcus Allen

The Trojans should treat Jones like a featured back in the NFL. Get him as many touches as possible and then use Ware and Carr to spell him, not simply in rotation.

Keeping him fresh for the second half is an understandable goal, but USC has a monster in Jones and they need to feed him when he’s having as much success as last week.

Give Stanford a taste of their own medicine

USC’s wide receivers struggled to catch the ball in Week 1. The only reliable targets quarterback Sam Darnold could throw to were Steven Mitchell Jr. and Deontay Burnett.

USC relies on multiple wide receiver sets on offense in hopes of creatinge run lanes for Jones and on the edge for their speedsters to work. If the wide receivers aren’t going to make catches, start splitting out tight ends more often, like Stanford.

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Walk Tyler Petite into the slot. Split Daniel Imatorbhebhe out wide. Do something to get a reliable pass-catching option on the outside. Otherwise, Stanford is going to stack the box and bottle up Jones and the run game.

RELATED: Daniel Imatorbhebhe Progressing on USC’s Injury Report for Stanford

Also, splitting out those tight ends provide great edge blocking for easier wide receiver screens and providing opportunities to USC’s young pass catchers simpler opportunities to work in space.

Over the last several years, the USC vs. Stanford rivalry has been labeled as power against finesse. The 2017 iteration needs to put that billing to rest. The Trojans need to come out and be physical.

Controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball would send a message that highly physical USC teams are back.