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Behind Enemy Lines: USC Trojans

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In anticipation of No. 7 Stanford hosting its most recent Pac-12 opponent this Saturday in both teams’ first game of conference play, The Daily’s Vihan Lakshman asked Daily Trojan sports editor Eric He a few questions about USC’s first two games and its plan to stop the Cardinal’s star running back.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): The Trojans received a lot of unfavorable press after their 52-6 loss at the hands of Alabama in the season’s opening week, but USC was in control of that game for much of the first quarter. What meaningful takeaways can you draw from that game and where must the Trojans improve before playing Stanford?

Eric He (EH): A lot went south against Alabama after the first quarter. USC’s defense was superb to begin, forcing three-and-outs and getting sacks, but the offense failed to take advantage, staking out just a field goal. That came back to hurt the Trojans as Alabama’s offense opened up under freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, and USC struggled in nearly every facet of the game. It’s obviously easy to base conclusions off the final score, but factoring in that it was the first game of the season against the defending national champions, we need to see a larger sample size, and facing Stanford is a good measuring stick.

To beat Stanford, it would be an understatement to say they have to flip the script from Alabama. The big key will be how the defensive line — considered a weakness heading into the season — defends Christian McCaffrey, who torched the Trojans in the Pac-12 Championship Game last season. The Trojans routed Utah State 45-7 last week, but Clay Helton admitted it wasn’t a perfect performance. They will have to shore a lot of things up, from quarterback play to the run game to the secondary.

TSD: Since having the interim tag removed, Clay Helton has endured a rocky start to his USC head coaching career with losses to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl and the aforementioned Alabama game before recording his first win against Utah State last week. What would a win over Stanford this Saturday mean for the Clay Helton era?

EH: A win over Stanford would be Helton’s most meaningful win as the full-time head coach. It would go a long ways to quieting the doubt that has already surrounded Helton — as you mentioned he lost three prominent games to kick off his tenure and finally earned his first win last week. Considering the tough schedule that lies ahead for USC, even after the Stanford trip, it would give Helton much more confidence with a win in a “big game.” And, of course, at USC, it’s never too early to talk how much this would boost his job security.

TSD: USC boasts one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Pac-12 while Stanford’s defensive front is largely inexperienced and will likely be without defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. How critical will the Trojans‘ offensive line be in this game and how will the loss of starting center Toa Lobendahn impact this unit?

EH: For an offensive line with so many returners, it hasn’t exactly impressed early on. Against Alabama, the entire line had a grand total of one positive run block in the first half, according to Pro Football Focus. Losing Toa Lobendahn certainly is an impact, though his replacement, Nico Falah, was adequate last week against Utah State. Stanford, though, is a different beast. USC has a couple of heavy-duty tailbacks in Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II, neither of which have made a huge dent thus far. They may have to, particularly against a weaker offensive line, if the Trojans want to upset Stanford.

TSD: Let’s talk quarterbacks for a second. How would you assess Max Browne’s play so far this season and what impact do you think backup Sam Darnold will have against Stanford?

EH: It’s still too early to judge how Max Browne will fare this season as the starter. He struggled mightily against Alabama, but then again there were few USC impact players who didn’t. He responded with a 23-for-30 performance against Utah State, but how he plays in his Pac-12 debut against Stanford with two weeks of game experience under his belt may tell us a lot more.

Darnold brings an interesting dynamic, being that he is more mobile and a dual-threat. Helton has said he will play in red zone situations — he had his first touchdown pass last week on his first ever play in the red zone. I think the plan is for Darnold to enter in certain situations, though the fact that Helton has found ways to give him playing time (he played the entire fourth quarter last week after USC went up big) makes for an interesting dilemma if Browne struggles early on against Stanford.

TSD: What are your main observations of Clancy Pendergast’s new defense and what must USC do to stymie Christian McCaffrey and the Stanford offense?

EH: Pendergast’s return to USC as defensive coordinator was largely hailed as a good hire by Helton, though his first impression was not exactly favorable. Granted, he was handed a young defensive line with many new faces, going up against a powerhouse in Alabama. And the front fared much better last week, not allowing a point until the third quarter.

Barring an incredibly innovative defensive scheme, though, I don’t see this inexperienced line faring well against McCaffrey, and it may end up being a team effort to prevent big gains.

TSD:  Five of the last seven meetings between these teams have been decided by one score. Do you envision a similar result on Saturday and who do you have coming out on top?

EH: I am certainly hoping for another close game, though from the USC side, it depends on whether we see the team that was beaten badly by Alabama or the confident squad that took care of business against Utah State. I’m predicting Stanford comes out on top by a touchdown.

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu and Eric He at heeric ‘at’ usc.edu.

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Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu