In a clash between a pair of first-time starting quarterbacks, No. 23 Stanford (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) heads to the renovated Memorial Coliseum on Saturday for its sixth early conference tilt with USC (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) in as many seasons.
The Cardinal and the Trojans will play the first Pac-12 Conference game for the sixth-straight year, with five of those games played in the season’s second week.
“I think it’s been a good barometer for both teams early in the season to play against a conference opponent,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94. “These games are exciting, they’re close, they’ve got talent on both sides.”
The Trojans named sophomore JT Daniels the starting quarterback out of camp, but in the first half of the season-opening win over Fresno State, Daniels tore his ACL and meniscus. He will miss the remainder of the season. Freshman Kedon Slovis was handed the reins in the second half of that game and looks to start against the Cardinal.
“Our defensive mentality is to continue to accentuate what we do well and to talk a lot about our scheme versus their scheme more so than who’s playing quarterback,” Shaw said. “[Slovis] went in there last week, made some great throws, made some nice plays.”
Senior outside linebacker Casey Toohill also has no plans to doubt Slovis.
“Looks like a really athletic kid who can throw the deep ball,” he said. “It’s never really smart to doubt someone just because they’re a true freshman.”
The Cardinal lost K.J. Costello on the final drive of the first half last week. Shaw would not comment on the hit without a chance to review the replay, but on Tuesday he made his opinion clear.
“I believe the officials on the field and the replay official missed the call,” Shaw said. “I thought it was an ejectable offense.”
Junior quarterback Davis Mills stepped in for the second half, and will lead the team once again on Saturday.
“Davis and I have built up a great relationship over the past two years of our time at Stanford, and especially in the last couple weeks,” said junior tight end Colby Parkinson.
“Whether it’s K.J. or whether it’s Davis, I’m very comfortable with both,” said junior wide receiver Connor Wedington. “K.J. is a veteran quarterback, he knows exactly what he’s doing, he knows how to read the defense and knows where to put the ball. Davis, on the other hand, is another great quarterback, my roommate as well, so we have chemistry.”
That connection will be important as Wedington’s role in the offense grows. Wedington missed almost the entire 2018 season with an injury, but returned in the week one victory with a team-high seven receptions for an average of 9.9 yards. Shaw asked the junior to focus on yards after the catch in the offseason, and together with sophomore receiver Michael Wilson he worked on mastering every route in the book.
“That’s something I do pride myself in, being able to do anything on the field whether it’s in the backfield or from the receiver position,” Wedington said. “From the receiver position, being able to run every route that’s something Michael Wilson and I worked on all offseason.”
Like Wedington, Mills has missed time with injuries over his first two years on the Farm. Wedington came in as a highly-touted consensus four-star recruit with the athlete designation, while Mills was a top-rated quarterback out of Georgia.
“He makes some big throws and I can just see him getting into his rhythm a little bit,” said fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett. “The kid hasn’t really played since senior year of high school, he’s been through so much, and he’s just now trying to get his feet back under him.”
With Costello ruled out, sophomore Jack West will back up Mills.
“Jack West had a really good training camp,” Shaw said. “Showed multiple times he can handle everything that we do.”
Junior left tackle Walker Little, a preseason All-American, also went down with an injury against Northwestern. Little will be out for Saturday, but Shaw is hopeful he will return midseason.
“Walker is an outstanding player and I’m going to miss just going against him in practice, especially with one-on-ones,” Toohill said. “I’m happy to hear that he will be back and I’m excited for when he returns, but like anything it’s next man up at Stanford.”
With senior interior lineman Dylan Powell doubtful, the second-string at both guard positions and center, freshman Walter Rouse will be the next man up at left tackle will be. Outside of Powell, all offensive linemen that will be rotated in are freshmen.
“We’ve been challenging everybody all offseason,” Scarlett said. “We knew we were going to go through adversity throughout the season, we didn’t know it would come this soon, but we’re prepared for it. We have guys in the position who have trust from the coaches and the players.”
Shaw is confident that the experience of the seniors around Rouse and the offseason work to pare down what the offensive line was being asked to do will allow the true freshman to thrive.
“Walter has had a great training camp, honestly, for a young guy coming in with no expectation to play,” Shaw said. “Over time, he’s going to get bigger and stronger and better, but right now I think he’s good enough to start there for us.”
USC sacked the slippery Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna three times. The true freshman Drake Jackson has been the talk of the Trojans, and performed in his debut with 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups.
There are also questions on the Stanford defensive line, where sophomore defensive end Thomas Booker is questionable.
The Cardinal defense will be matched up with a Trojan offense running its version of the Air Raid under first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.
“I don’t think their offense is a complete shift from what they’ve done,” Toohill said. “There’s definitely different tendencies to be picked up on and different things we’ll have to prepare for in terms of formations and play calls.”
“There’s a lot of talk about this style of offense not having a lot of plays,” Shaw said. “They don’t have a lot of plays, they have a lot of adjustments.”
On the Stanford offense, 365 yards of offense were turned into just 17 points, and both ball security and penalty discipline have been identified as issues. Stanford committed eight penalties and turned the ball over twice, both on mesh plays between Mills and Scarlett, but were helped by a defense that took the ball away from Northwestern four times.
“The penalties were killers,” Scarlett said. “We felt like we should have put 40 points on the board if it wasn’t for some penalties and a couple mishaps.”
In their opener, ball security was also an issue for the Trojans, who lost the turnover battle 4-3. The turnovers allowed Fresno State to keep the game within reach, not allowing USC to rest its starters. Stanford and USC are two of just three Power Five schools, the other is Purdue, to not play an FCS opponent this year, and are two of just five who will play 11 regular season games against fellow Power Five opponents.
“Glad that it was close, and we were able to see them play a whole game. They did not have a chance to rest their guys for a whole half before they played us,” Shaw said.
Historically, the game has been dominated by the Trojans. Heading into the 99th matchup, USC claims an all-time record over Stanford 62-33-3, but Shaw has won six of the 10 matchups for the Cardinal as head coach.
Stanford digs deep into the Southern California recruiting pool, and many Cardinal grew up going to USC games, including Costello, Parkinson and Toohill. Junior wide receiver Osiris St. Brown’s brother, Amon-Ra, is a starter for the Trojans.
“It’s always fun to play USC, and to play them down in the Coliseum is going to be a really fun and exciting time, especially for me being from Southern California,” Parkinson said.
One of the changes Stanford makes in preparation for game week with USC is the practice soundtrack. Instead of the traditional music, the Spirit of Troy blasts over the loudspeakers.
“The stupid fight song is just stuck in my head all the time,” Parkinson said. “It gets us used to the action, they love playing it.”
“It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but it’s nothing that we haven’t worked on,” Scarlett said. “Just making sure we stay together as a team going up against a hostile environment in LA.”
Stanford, the oldest rival of USC, renews its quest for California supremacy Saturday at 7:30 p.m. PST.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.