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King’s Keys: The Back-up Bowl

Casey Toohill (above) and the Stanford pass rush will need to be at top form for Saturday's matchup. The Trojans run their own form of the Air Raid offense, and the best way to beat it is with heavy pressure on the quarterback. (JIM SHORIN/isiphotos.com)

No. 23 Stanford football and its Week 2 opponent, the USC Trojans, both picked up big wins in the opening weekend of college football. The Cardinal defeated reigning Big Ten West Champion Northwestern in a 17-7 defensive slugfest, while the Trojans took care of defending Mountain West Champion Fresno State by a 31-23 margin. Despite those wins, both Stanford and USC left Week 1 with more questions than answers.

Stanford senior quarterback K.J. Costello was knocked out in the first half of the win over Northwestern by a cheap shot from Wildcats defensive lineman Earnest Brown IV, whose forearm slammed into Costello’s helmet as he slid to the ground. Before Costello’s injury, he was 16-20 for 152 yards and a touchdown. The Cardinal were up 7-0 already and driving for a last-second field goal that made it 10-0 when Costello left the game. After that field goal, junior Davis Mills came in at quarterback and Stanford did not score a single offensive point. 

About 350 miles down I-5, USC somehow caught the injury bug from its northern counterpart. The Pac-12’s only other private school watched sophomore QB JT Daniels go down with an ugly knee injury that turned out to be an ACL tear. Daniels will miss the rest of the season. In his place, the Trojans will trot out true freshman Kedon Slovis under center. 

Both Stanford and USC had disappointing seasons last year (though USC’s 5-7 campaign was undoubtedly worse). Both Stanford and USC came into 2019 believing their young talent was ready to take a huge leap forward. After one game, both Stanford and USC are without their starting quarterbacks. And yet, both Stanford and USC desperately need a win in their Pac-12 opener because they have brutal schedules coming up. For Stanford, a win in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum puts them squarely in the Pac-12 North title conversation with Oregon and Washington. For USC, a win keeps head coach Clay Helton around for at least another week. Here’s three keys to a major rivalry victory for Stanford in the Back-up Bowl. 

1) Maintain balance

The late, great Thanos of “Avengers: Infinity War” fame would have been pleased with Stanford’s first half offensive drive chart against Northwestern. The Cardinal called 20 running plays and 20 passing plays. In the second half however, Mills attempted just 14 passes as Stanford leaned heavily on fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett. That shortened the game and allowed the defense to carry the Cardinal home to victory, but the hamstrung offense that we saw in the second half will not be enough against the Trojans. In his first game as a starter, Stanford has to let Mills do what he does best: throw the football.

Mills was the top-ranked quarterback recruit in the 2017 class, ahead of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm. He throws a beautiful ball, and when healthy, coaches report that he has excelled in practice. After three knee injuries and so much time stuck on the sideline, it makes sense that head coach David Shaw ’94 and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard want to ease Mills back into the pace of college football. But this week, they have no choice. USC’s secondary is young and vulnerable, while their defensive line is stout enough to slow down the Stanford rushing attack. The Cardinal must lean on their talented and athletic wide receiving corps to move the football.

If Pritchard can get into the play-calling rhythm that he found in the first half against Northwestern, the balanced Stanford offense will be just fine even without their senior QB. 

2) Blitz the freshman

New USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell earned All-American honors and numerous NCAA passing records as a quarterback at Texas Tech from 2004-08. His coach during that tremendous run? Current Washington State head coach Mike Leach. The Cougars potent passing attack has terrorized Stanford in recent seasons, to the tune of three straight victories in the series. Harrell now brings the Air Raid offense that Leach developed to Los Angeles. 

Harrell’s Air Raid was having a fantastic debut before JT Daniels went down. Prior to his injury, Daniels passed for 215 yards in just two quarters. True freshman Kedon Slovis was shaky in the second half, completing just six of eight passes for 57 yards and an interception, but it might not matter. The Air Raid has given Stanford problems no matter who is running it. 

The problem with the Air Raid is that it puts the secondary in an impossible situation. They have to cover a seemingly infinite combination of routes by an army of wide receivers who knows the offense much better than they do. If the QB has enough time, he will find an open target. The only way to stop the Air Raid is by getting pressure on the quarterback. 

The Stanford pass rush rekindled the Party in the Backfield mentality in the win over Northwestern, as the Cardinal racked up three sacks and five QB hurries. That pass rush shut down the Wildcats passing attack and led to four Cardinal takeaways. The Northwestern offensive line is not very good, but USC’s line may not be any better. The Trojans had one of the weakest offensive lines in college football last year. 

Harrell will try to get the ball out of Slovis’ hand quickly, so Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has to be quicker. Anderson’s promising pass rush, led by fifth-year linebacker Casey Toohill, senior linebacker Jordan Fox, junior linebacker Gabe Reid and senior defensive end Jovan Swann, must disrupt Slovis’ debut and make it a long night for the true freshman. 

3) Own their turf

Stanford is traditionally one of the best field position teams in college football, as Shaw routinely chooses to punt in situations where more aggressive coaches would go for it on fourth down (like the first half possession where he punted from the Northwestern 34 yard line, resulting in a net of 14 yards after a touchback). Although it might be boring to watch, Shaw’s model usually works. The team that wins the field position battle usually wins the game. But this year, Stanford does not have three-time All-Pac-12 punter (and annual Heisman contender) Jake Bailey to boot it away. Instead, Stanford is relying on true freshman punter Ryan Sanborn to gain the field-position edge. 

Sanborn was the second-ranked punter in the 2019 recruiting class. He clearly has a big leg and plenty of talent, and he could be the next Bailey. But it will take time, and he had a rough debut against Northwestern, punting five times for an average of 32.6 yards. Now, he has to punt in a hostile road environment for the first time. In what will most likely be a low-scoring defensive battle, Slovis will not be the only true freshman to have an outsized impact on the game. Sanborn has a huge part to play as well. If Stanford can dominate the field position battle and put the young USC offense out of position, then the Cardinal should be able to shut down the talented Trojans and emerge with a huge Pac-12 rivalry win. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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