By George Chen
As college football braces itself for the colossal Pac-12 showdown between Stanford and USC tonight, the din of pre-game anticipation has grown to a deafening level. Amidst the noise is the sound of the menacing, steady footsteps of the Men of Troy, gearing for battle and marching their way north to invade the Farm.
Make no mistake: The Trojans are coming in full force.
For three years in a row, Stanford has managed to defeat USC. For three years in a row, Matt Barkley, now the best quarterback in the nation, has been thwarted in his career-long quest to beat the Cardinal just once.
Tonight, No. 21 Stanford (2-0) hopes to extend that streak to four as it takes on No. 2 USC (2-0) in one of the biggest games in college football this season and the first in-conference contest of 2012 for the Pac-12. From conference standings to national title hopes, so many things are on the line for both teams. Despite recent history on the Cardinal’s side, head coach David Shaw is fully aware of the difficulty of the tough task that lies ahead.
“There’s no mental edge we have over USC,” Shaw commented. “We always have to remind the players there’s nothing that matters before this game. There’s no such thing as momentum. What happened last year, happened, but it doesn’t have anything to do with this year.”
Heisman frontrunner Barkley looks to be a major source of headache for the Cardinal defense, orchestrating the Trojan offensive attack from under center. After coming up empty-handed the past three seasons against Stanford, the last thing the senior star wants to do is to leave the Farm tonight with a loss.
“[Barkley] is obviously a heck of a quarterback,” said defensive end Ben Gardner. “They’re going to run a lot of bootlegs and play-action passes, trying to give him time to throw and trying to get the ball to his playmakers quickly. It’s going to come down to how we tackle in the open field. And when we get to No. 7, we’ve got to hit him hard, put him down and make him feel us.”
The Stanford coaching staff can at least take some comfort in knowing that the Cardinal’s front seven, which gave up just 27 rushing yards against Duke last weekend, is the best unit that USC will face all regular season. Gardner and nose tackle Terrence Stephens anchor a dominant defensive line hoping to take full advantage of an injury-plagued Trojan offensive front.
Bolstering the men in the trenches will be an elite linebacker corps consisting of Chase Thomas, Shayne Skov, James Vaughters and Trent Murphy. While throwing the Trojan quarterback off his rhythm is a priority, the front seven also needs to watch out for the formidable running back tandem of Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd. The Cardinal cannot allow the duo to establish the Trojans’ running game early on if it hopes to be successful in stalling USC’s drives.
Yet no matter how much pressure the front seven’s pass rush is able to put on Barkley, the secondary will have to do its job. The defensive backfield certainly has shown through the first two games that that it isn’t short of talent, but inconsistencies as a group have inexcusably allowed huge passing plays at times. Senior defensive back Usua Amanam might have been the MVP in the San Jose State game, recording four tackles for loss and a forcing a critical fumble—not bad for a player who started out as a tailback. And free safety Ed Reynolds might have emerged as an interception machine by picking off three passes in just two games—an impressive feat considering that it took the Cardinal defense all 13 games last season to come up with three interceptions. But unless the Stanford secondary is on its A-game tonight as an entire group, Barkley will change what it means to pick a defense apart.
“We’re not leaving anyone on an island by themselves,” Reynolds said. “As a defensive backfield, we’re going to have to play sound, play within our rules and stay on top. And if they catch the ball, we need to swarm.”
If Barkley was the only player that the Cardinal defense needed to be worried about, developing a game plan to contain the Trojans might not be an impossible task. But the Wideouts of Mass Destruction, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, pose a double-pronged problem that may not be solvable. The goal for Stanford is not to shut the dangerous pair down, but to contain them as much as possible and hope that they’ll miraculously drop a few passes along the way.
“In all the years I was in the NFL and studied college wide receivers, and since I’ve been here studying different offenses, I’ve never seen a college team with two guys like [Lee and Woods],” Shaw said. “There’s never been in the modern era.”
The stark contrast between Barkley and Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes can hardly be ignored. On paper, the matchup certainly does not seem to tip in favor of the Cardinal. The Trojan quarterback completed over 69 percent of his passes last season and broke the Pac-12 record by amassing 39 touchdowns; Nunes didn’t see a single snap.
In game one against San Jose State, Nunes threw for 125 yards and a touchdown. Against Hawaii, Barkley threw for 194 yards and 2 touchdowns all in the first quarter. Nunes was more impressive statistically in last week’s tussle with Duke, throwing for 275 yards and 3 scores. But Barkley threw for 6 touchdowns—matching what the Stanford offense collectively scored last Saturday—against Syracuse.
Despite the obvious difference between Barkley’s heralded stardom and Nunes’ ongoing development, the Cardinal redshirt junior must stick to his own game, which includes managing the clock, getting the offense to the right plays and firing accurate throws to wide receivers that are open. Forcing a throw into tight coverage and risking a pick six could very well destroy Stanford’s chances of coming out on top. In fact, Shaw stressed that Nunes should not try to go blow-to-blow with his Trojan opponent.
“The worst thing [Nunes] can try to do is try to compete with Matt Barkley,” Shaw said. “For Josh, it’s do what he’s been doing.”
This approach makes sense considering that there is plenty of talent surrounding Nunes. Senior running back Stepfan Taylor had a relatively quiet game last week when the Blue Devils loaded the box with nine defenders and held him under 70 rushing yards, but looks to make a bigger impact against the Trojans.
As the team’s most dangerous deep threat, sophomore wide receiver Ty Montgomery will also try to expose a Trojan secondary that looked shaky against the Orange. Montgomery broke onto the national scene in last season’s game against USC, when he hauled in a 62-yard reception on a double-reverse pass and played an important part in the perfectly executed hook-and-ladder play.
“We have to be better than they are when the ball is in the air and we have to be better than they are when the ball is in our hands,” Montgomery said.
But perhaps the biggest story of Stanford’s offense is the likely return of fullback Ryan Hewitt to the backfield, where he has been featured as a fierce run-blocker as well as the primary receiver in the Cardinal’s now-infamous Spider 3 Y Banana plays.
“Hewitt poses a lot of problems for a defense because of what he can do because of his versatility,” Nunes said. “He adds that other dimension for a defense to be accountable.”
One facet of special teams play that may especially impact the game is the absence of USC’s kicker Andre Heidari, who is out for three weeks due to knee surgery. Trojan head coach Lane Kiffin didn’t appear to show a great deal faith in Heidari’s replacements last weekend, as he elected to go for it on fourth downs when in field goal range against Syracuse. It’s anyone’s guess whether Kiffin is willing to take the risk of leaving points on the board against a stingier Stanford defense, but it’s a possibility that the Cardinal will have to keep an eye out for.
Three seasons ago, the Cardinal embarrassed the Men of Troy in a 55-21 victory. Two seasons ago, Stanford eked out a 37-35 win. And of course, who can forget last season’s epic 56-48 triple overtime victory, that iconic moment when AJ Tarpley recovered Curtis McNeal’s fumble to seal the deal for Stanford? This time around, the dynamics are different because the roles are exactly reversed. Last year, it was the No. 4 Cardinal that paid a visit to the Coliseum, trying to hang on to its national title hopes against the lower-ranked Trojans. Now, it’s USC’s turn to come to the Farm, knowing perfectly well that Stanford seeks to obliterate Barkley and Co.’s national title aspirations.
Even in the face of playing against the best quarterback and not one, but two of the top wide receivers in the nation, Stanford players have expressed only confidence, not fear, throughout the week.
“We have no doubt that we can go out there on Saturday and win this game,” Gardner stated. “We know we have to play our best game and we’re ready to do it.”
Stanford will try to dash USC’s national title hopes tonight at Stanford Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 4:30 p.m., with national television coverage on FOX.
Contact George Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org.