By King Jemison
No. 14 Stanford (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12) vs. No. 11 USC (10-2, 8-1)
Deontay Burnett, WR (Jr.) vs. Quenton Meeks, CB (Jr.)
Burnett had a monster game against Stanford in the Week 2 matchup, catching nine passes for 121 yards and two touchdowns. The Trojan receiver took a short crossing route and turned it into six by breaking multiple Cardinal tackles and then later made an incredible diving touchdown catch. He was simply too fast for the talented Stanford secondary, which admittedly did not play its best game against USC. However, Meeks has the athleticism and the brains to shut down Burnett. One NFL scout called Meeks “one of the smartest and most intelligent cornerbacks I have ever scouted.” He’s almost certainly spent hours in the film room this week dissecting every route that Burnett and the other USC receivers run, and he has the size, speed and ball skills to take advantage of his film study. Burnett won Round One of the battle between the future NFL draft picks. If he’s able to dominate again in Round Two, it’s going to be a tough day for the Stanford defense. But if Meeks can limit Burnett’s production, USC’s offense won’t look the same because he is undoubtedly Sam Darnold’s favorite target.
USC running game vs. Stanford front-seven
Though Burnett did plenty of damage through the air, USC delivered the knockout blow to Stanford with their running game in the 42-24 Week Two Trojan victory. USC gashed the Stanford front-seven with 307 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. At that point, the Cardinal couldn’t stop anybody on the ground, but they’ve grown immensely in that area over the course of the season. Last week, Stanford held the vaunted Notre Dame rushing attack to 154 yards on just 3.5 yards per carry. When USC can get the run game going, it opens up the middle of the field for Sam Darnold, and he can pick almost any defense apart when given time. The opposite is true for Stanford’s defense; if they stop the run, it allows the pass rushers to pin their ears back and get pressure on the quarterback and gives the secondary a chance to make plays on the ball. Harrison Phillips, Bobby Okereke and co. are going to need one of their best games of the season to slow down Ronald Jones and the rest of the USC rushing attack. If they do, it will make life really tough for Darnold and the Trojan offense.
KJ Costello, QB (So.) vs. USC secondary
A lot has changed for both teams since they met way back on Sept. 9, but the young Cardinal starting quarterback might be the biggest change of all. Costello didn’t see the field in the Week 2 matchup, and after watching his fantastic performances against Washington and Notre Dame, it seems like Stanford had one of its best offensive weapons on the bench for that first USC game. Everybody calls Costello a gunslinger, but that’s because it’s true. He can throw the ball all over the field and seems to have no fear. The energy and explosiveness he brings to the table has invigorated the Stanford offense and turned it into a much more balanced unit that doesn’t have to lean on Bryce Love for every single yard. Meanwhile, USC’s secondary has struggled mightily this season, as they rank 108th in the country for passing defense. Stanford couldn’t really take advantage of that weakness with Costello on the bench, but with the new-look passing game, they could do some serious damage through the air. If USC does manage to slow down the Cardinal passing attack, it’ll put a lot of pressure on Love and the running game. But if Costello wins the battle through the air, Stanford’s offense can get rolling against a fairly weak defense.
Also: Bryce Love’s good ankle vs. Heisman voters
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.