Time to talk Trojans. With Stanford’s highly anticipated Pac-12 opener against USC less than a week away, football analysts Vihan Lakshman, Alexa Philippou and Andrew Mather answer a question a day about the Cardinal’s Week 1 performance against Kansas State and the impending battle with the Trojans.
Today’s question: The Trojans, as usual, boast tremendous talent all over the field. Which USC position group do you see giving Stanford the most trouble, and what will the Cardinal need to do to respond?
Vihan Lakshman: Even with the heartbreaking news that starting center Toa Lobendahn will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, I’m going to give the nod to the Trojans’ offensive line. Yes, that unit got devoured alive by Alabama Week 1, but that Crimson Tide D-line could probably line up on Sundays and nobody would bat an eye. USC still has two of the most experienced linemen in the conference in Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler and should be a force up front on most other Saturdays. On the other side, Stanford is still breaking in an inexperienced front seven and will be without one of its key cogs in defensive tackle Harrison Phillips.
In response, the Cardinal will need to show that their rotation up front is truly viable. Against K-State, we saw what a two-deep revolving door at defensive line and outside linebacker provided Stanford in allowing Solomon Thomas and Peter Kalambayi to attack at full speed in the fourth quarter. But will the Cardinal be able to trust their backups against a superior offensive line? Can Jordan Watkins, who will likely start in place of Phillips, can take advantage of Lobendahn’s absence? Can Eric Cotton, Luke Kaumatule and Casey Toohill play a lot of snaps and get the job done to take the load off Thomas and Kalambayi? Those will be the critical questions in this matchup.
Andrew Mather: Stanford’s secondary might rightfully lay claim to the title of best-performing position unit for the Cardinal against Kansas State. USC’s receivers are just scary good, however, and I think it will take an incredible performance from Stanford’s young DBs merely to slow them down. Alijah Holder did a solid job against the Trojans’ JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second half of the Pac-12 Championship game last year, but the preseason All-American is just the first of many threats that Clay Helton’s side can throw at you. Darreus Rogers is off to a rocking start to the 2016 season, Steven Mitchell Jr. looks to have improved from a 37-catch 2015 and, just as your defense is figuring those guys out, Adoree’ Jackson can come in to add a whole new element to the Trojans’ attack. Stanford has the talent to keep this unit’s numbers in the “acceptable” range, but it will take a huge amount of athleticism and discipline. Let’s see if Duane Akina has his crew prepared for the challenge.
Alexa Philippou: While I definitely see USC’s receivers as a very real threat, as Andrew expounded on, let’s not forget about USC’s talent on the defensive side of the ball, particularly the potential potency of USC’s linebackers. Prior to his season-ending injury in the third to last game of the 2015 regular season, inside linebacker Cameron Smith led USC in interceptions and tackles, and he was on pace to be the first freshman to lead the team in the latter since the stat was first recorded in 1954. Already this year he held his own against Alabama and dominated against Utah State, with a team-high 13 tackles. The unit as a whole was part of the reason USC hung around as long as it did against Alabama, while last week against Utah State it came more into its own, particularly with some strong play from outline linebacker Porter Gustin, who as a freshman was one of the Trojans’ sack leaders from last season. A big day from that duo and the rest of the unit could also spell trouble for the Cardinal as they attempt to establish the run via Christian McCaffrey and (assuming he returns from his lower leg injury) Bryce Love.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu, Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu and Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.