For anyone who spends a significant amount of time on the Stanford campus, the sounds of the Farm — the bells of the clock tower every half hour, the whizzing of bicycles, the hum of the fountains — begin to blend together into white noise and fade from immediate attention. That is, until that one week each year when ears across campus perk up at the faint but unmistakable blaring of brass from the football practice field, where the song of the enemy loops on repeat for hours.
The iconic beat of “Tribute to Troy” permeating through the fall air provides the definitive reminder: No. 7 Stanford (1-0) and USC (1-1) are preparing for battle once more.
For the Cardinal, the tradition of practicing to the Trojans’ fight song is as much practical as it is motivational, given the USC marching band’s penchant for playing the tune at every opportunity.
“They play it all the time, over and over again [home and away], so it just gets you used to hearing it,” said head coach David Shaw. “It also makes for a lively practice.”
“It pumps you up. It gets you in a different mindset,” added sophomore cornerback Quenton Meeks. “It gives you a little bit of extra motivation, because you don’t want to hear that at the end of the game if you come on the wrong end of the scoreboard.”
The Cardinal and the Trojans meet again after last facing off in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game, in which Stanford withstood a formidable USC comeback in the third quarter to pull away 41-22.
Since then, the two teams have traveled in wildly different directions. Stanford went on to capture another Rose Bowl victory in blowout fashion, while the Trojans fell to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl. Eight months later, the Cardinal ground out a victory over Kansas State to kick off the 2016 season, while USC became the subject of a 52-6 massacre at the hands of No. 1 Alabama. In the following week, the Men of Troy righted the ship with a 45-7 demolition of Utah State, while Stanford sat idle with the early Week 2 bye.
The Cardinal, however, have largely downplayed the results spanning these past several months and have instead considered the bigger picture of a rivalry in which five of the last seven contests have come down to a difference of a single score.
“I do [expect this game to come down to the wire],” Shaw said. “It’s an emotional game every time Stanford and USC play each other.”
The Trojans, for their part, have focused much of their defensive preparation on slowing down stalwart Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey, who pillaged Troy to the tune of 461 all-purpose yards in the Pac-12 title game. After giving up 242 yards on the ground against the Crimson Tide, USC made run defense a priority the following week and yielded just 49 yards to Utah State in Week 2. McCaffrey, though, presents a unique threat with his versatility, and there has been talk that the Trojans might even use star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson to defend the 2015 AP Player of the Year in the receiving game, a matchup that would pit two of the nation’s top athletes up against each other.
“Adoree’ is a heck of a player,” McCaffrey said ahead of facing Jackson and the Trojans. “He understands the game of football. He’s a complete corner and a complete football player, when you look at what he does on offense and special teams.”
One area of concern for the Trojans’ defense has been along the line, where USC has lost five members of its 2015 rotation. In looking ahead to the imminent clash between this Trojan defensive line and the retooled Tunnel Workers’ Union, Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren downplayed the specifics of the matchup.
“They’ve got a bunch of five-star guys [on the defensive line], and they’re incredible athletes,” Bloomgren said. “But our focus has got to be on us … how physical we are, our movement and the way we finish, that’s on us. That’s what we worked on during the bye week.”
With the extra attention that McCaffrey looks poised to receive, his supporting cast will be as critical as ever. To that end, the Cardinal will receive a major boost with the return of sophomore running back Bryce Love from a lower leg injury. As he continues to rebuild his stamina following his time off, Love will likely take on a slightly downsized role come Saturday, but his return to the offense will be a welcome presence nonetheless.
At quarterback, Shaw once again affirmed his desire to employ junior backup Keller Chryst in addition to starter Ryan Burns against Southern Cal. Burns, who turned in an efficient 14-for-18, 156-yard debut performance against Kansas, looks locked in to take the majority of snaps once again. Chryst’s role, according to Shaw, will again be determined by the flow of the game.
On the other side, the Trojans are preparing to deploy a two-quarterback system of their own. Junior Max Browne, who went 23-for-30 for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns against Utah State, is the unquestioned starter, but USC will also make use of athletic redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, particularly in red zone packages. Darnold finished his day against the Aggies last Saturday with a 5-for-7, 2-touchdown performance.
Regardless of who slides under the center for the Trojans, USC will feature an envious amount of skill position talent across the field. The Trojans boast a deep stable of running backs headlined by senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones and just might have the best receiving corps in the conference, led by JuJu Smith-Schuster, whom Shaw called the nation’s best receiver.
In discussing how the Cardinal plan to defend USC’s talented receiving force, Shaw also emphasized the importance of Stanford’s bend-but-don’t-break scheme in the secondary.
“We need to try to limit the big plays. That’s a big thing when you’ve got explosive guys like that. You don’t mind them catching the ball in front of you [if] you bring them down after they catch it and try not to let the ball get over our heads.”
Meeks and junior Alijah Holder will be the two primarily tasked with slowing down Smith-Schuster. Holder, who went toe-to-toe with USC’s star receiver in the second half of the Pac-12 Championship, epitomized Shaw’s message in that matchup, as Smith-Schuster recorded a career-best 11 receptions but was held to 8.7 yards per catch.
In addition to the battles on the outside, Stanford is also gearing up for an intriguing showdown in the trenches against a Trojan offensive line that has looked inconsistent up to this point and must now rebound from the loss of starting center Toa Lobendahn for the season with a knee injury. The Cardinal defensive front continues to deal with injuries of its own, as starting defensive tackle Harrison Phillips remains doubtful but not completely ruled out for Saturday with a knee injury. The Cardinal coaching staff will make a final decision on Phillips’ availability on Friday evening.
In a series that has produced some of the most memorable games this century in all of college football — from the “Biggest Upset Ever” in 2007, to the triple overtime thriller in 2011, to the Coliseum field-storming in 2013 — there’s always a heightened electricity in the air when these two teams meet on the field, a fact not lost on the players.
“It’s a rivalry. It’s a big rivalry,” Meeks said. “As a player, you love playing in these types of games because you know the tradition behind it, and it’s so much fun to just go out there and line it up.”
Stanford and USC will again clash this Saturday at Stanford Stadium to write the next chapter in a story that somehow seems to get better with each subsequent page. The game will be televised nationally on ABC starting at 5 p.m.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.