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Football roundtable: Another early-season battle with the Trojans

Backup quarterback Davis Mills (#15 above) completed seven of 14 attempts for 81 yards in Stanford's season-opening victory. With senior quarterback K.J. Costello injured, Mills will likely be given the start against USC on Saturday. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Stanford football has swept California teams in four of the last six years, but the first step toward making that five in seven is defeating USC. Two years ago the Trojans beat Stanford twice; last year the Cardinal almost pitched a shutout in a dominant 17-3 victory. The Pac-12 opener is crucial to defining the season for a pair of undefeated teams. Ahead of Saturday’s game, The Daily’s King Jemison, Cybele Zhang and Gregory Block talk defensive matchups, backup quarterbacks and Stanford’s recent win. 

The strength of USC’s defense is its defensive line, which will be matched up against a Stanford offensive line that is missing preseason junior and All-American tackle Walker Little. Meanwhile, the weakness of USC’s defense is its cornerbacks, which will have to cover Stanford’s impressive receiver corps. Which wins out on Saturday?

King Jemison (KJ): Early in the season, I almost always give the advantage to a dominant defensive line, even over a fairly solid offensive line. The offensive line just takes more time to gain chemistry and experience before they can play their best, while the defensive line is usually ready to perform in Week 1. This game is no different. Jay Tufele and Christian Rector are both Preseason All-Pac-12 defensive linemen for USC, and they should give Stanford’s offensive line lots of problems on Saturday, especially since true freshman Walker Rouse will be making his first career start at the all-important position of left tackle in place of Walker Little. 

At the same time, Stanford’s wide receivers should find openings in the Trojan secondary. USC’s top three corners are all true freshmen or true sophomores. The Cardinal wide receivers were very effective in the first half against Northwestern, at least before quarterback K.J. Costello went down with his injury. Wide receivers Connor Wedington and Michael Wilson were particularly slippery, breaking multiple tackles on seemingly every reception as they racked up major yards after the catch. I expect that USC’s young corners will also struggle to tackle these speedy Stanford wideouts, which should ease the burden on the developing Cardinal offensive line by allowing whoever is playing quarterback to get the ball out of their hands quickly. 

Cybele Zhang (CZ): The Stanford receivers have the potential to come up big for the Cardinal this weekend. Although the receiver corps is young, their size, speed and adaptability provide the group with the tools to overpower USC’s inexperienced cornerbacks. Although Stanford only scored two touchdowns in last week’s game against Northwestern, Wedington and Wilson combined for 13 catches for 116 yards, and Wilson had a key touchdown that flaunted his athleticism. But the Cardinal roster’s depth runs deeper. Although the team lost JJ Arcega-Whiteside ’19 to the draft, 6-foot-4 Simi Fehoko has the potential to become a target for similar plays and is arguably the best target for deeper throws, especially into the endzone. Osiris St. Brown is another untested receiver with the potential to shine, if given the chance. 

Gregory Block (GB): We talked last week about the importance of improved line play for the Cardinal and against Northwestern, the offensive line played as well as could be expected for a Week 1 game. They kept the quarterback protected and gave running back Cameron Scarlett enough holes to rush for 97 yards. However, as King mentioned, offensive lines can take weeks to develop the proper chemistry and Stanford’s unit hasn’t clicked just yet. When facing an elite defensive line, you need to have confidence in your edge protection and an experienced quarterback to recognize blitz packages. With both Little and possibly Costello out on Saturday, the Cardinal will have neither of those things. It could be tough sledding for the Cardinal in the trenches. 

But if there’s one specific bright spot in the offense, it has to be a receiving corps that looked fast and explosive against the Wildcats. Wedington and Wilson were solid, and other guys like Simi Fehoko also displayed some potential. As long as the quarterback can get the ball out quick against a solid USC pass rush, the Cardinal receiving corps could have a big day against a weak Trojans secondary. 

Junior left tackle Walker Little (#72 above) will be sidelined in Saturday’s game against USC with an injury suffered during the season opener. (ROB ERICSON/isiphotos.com)

This game looks likely to feature two back-up quarterbacks. Costello is currently questionable, but if his injury will force him to be held out, junior Davis Mills will be out on the field. The Trojans will suit up freshman Kedon Slovis in place of JT Daniels, who suffered an ACL and meniscus tear. Which second string quarterback is better suited to succeed?

KJ: I absolutely give the advantage to Stanford in the back-up QB battle. He might not be the same player now after three knee injuries, but Davis Mills was the top-ranked quarterback in the country coming out of high school, ahead of Georgia star Jake Fromm and many other current starters. Mills throws a beautiful ball that will get NFL scouts drooling, but more importantly, he has been learning under the Stanford system for two full seasons. Mills knows the offense, and he has NFL-caliber “arm talent.” That is probably more than you can say about Kedon Slovis, who was only a three-star recruit and enrolled last January. Slovis might turn into a star, but his 57 yards and one interception performance against Fresno State indicated that it may take a while. If the game is close in the fourth quarter, I trust Mills to win the game (or at least not lose it) a lot more than Slovis. 

CZ: 100% Mills. I remember watching him on Elite 11 years ago, competing against the quarterbacks of his class, including Tua Tagovailoa, Sam Ehlinger, Hunter Johnson and Jack Sears. Of course it’s up to debate if he can fully recover from his recurring knee issues, but like King notes, Mills knows the playbook and the team — which you can’t say for USC’s Slovis. Mills, in my mind, is capable of calling and executing every play that Costello can. Although he hasn’t had the game experience, he’s certainly had the reps and time, especially since Costello was in-and-out in the off season with injuries. The one big question mark for him, however, are the shaky read options, but hopefully those are corrected in practices this week. Slovis, on the other hand, isn’t used to playing on the college stage in front of a 70,000 person crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pressure gets to him and he struggles with turnovers yet again. USC will need to ask a lot of their running backs because I’d be hesitant to rely on the young and slightly undersized true freshman. 

GB: Mills was an elite national recruit for a reason and he showed why in limited playing time against Northwestern last week. He throws a clean ball and looks poised in the pocket. The Cardinal don’t need him to throw for 400 yards on Saturday night, but they do need him to limit mistakes and get the ball out quickly to his playmaking receivers. I’m confident that Mills can do both of those things, and he will surely be more comfortable on a national stage than Slovis, a freshman who is still learning his way around the USC campus. 

Junior Davis Mills (above) was the top-ranked quarterback coming out of high school, ahead of Georgia’s star Jake Fromm and a number of other starters. (BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Although the fate of the game was not certain until the closing minutes, Stanford seemed in control for much of the game against Northwestern. We saw a lot of what we expected, Paulson Adebo’s dominance comes to mind, and a few new wrinkles that were teased in camp, such as “now” routes designed for yards after the catch. What questions did that game answer for you, and what more did it raise?

KJ: Honestly, the sloppy and slow performance against Northwestern did not tell us very much because  the Wildcats simply are not very good. I would like to say that I learned something positive about Stanford’s offensive line and defense, both of which had surprisingly good performances in Week 1, but I need to see more from both units in this game. My biggest concern for Stanford is depth. I knew that the starters in the offensive line and secondary were solid, but I have major questions about the back-ups. After Walker Little’s injury, the offensive line depth will be tested. The supremely talented USC wide receiving corps will push the Cardinal secondary much more significantly than Northwestern could. Are the new starters in the Stanford defensive backfield up to the task? And of course, can the offense move the ball without Costello? They looked good in the first half with the senior quarterback at the helm, but without Costello in the second half, Stanford did not score offensively. USC went 5-7 last year, but they have more talent than any other team in the Pac-12. This game will begin to give us far more answers than the ugly opening win over Northwestern. 

CZ: The Northwestern game was far from perfect for the Cardinal, but in my mind, it solidified Stanford’s defensive line. They pressured the Wildcat quarterbacks and put points on the board. I’m looking forward to seeing more of outside linebacker Casey Toohill in his last season. Against Northwestern he led the team with 13 tackles and added a sack, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. I think his play and attitude as a captain will set the pace for the rest of the team, along with captain and senior free safety Malik Antoine. The Northwestern game also solidified the already solid kicker Jet Toner, who nailed a career long 51-yard-field goal, and his kicking may be decisive in the numerous upcoming games against ranked opponents later in the season. Although Cameron Scarlett and Dorian Maddox both played well on Saturday, I’ll be interested to see if the Cardinal rely on them more this weekend because of the change in quarterback. 

GB: The season opener answered a few important questions about the Cardinal defense, including their strength on the defensive line and their talent in the secondary. Northwestern’s quarterbacks went a combined 12 for 27 for 117 yards and two interceptions, and the Cardinal secondary seemed to alleviate any concerns over their depth beyond Paulson Adebo. Against a backup quarterback this weekend, they should have a chance to add to their interception total.

On the offensive side, my biggest question is what the offensive line will look like without future NFL first-round draft pick Walker Little. He is one of the best in the country and without his experience on the blind side, it could be a long day for Mills. If the rest of the line can fill the void and prevent the talented USC front from wreaking too much havoc, it should be a good sign for the rest of the season. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu, Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’ stanford.edu and Gregory Block at gblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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