Sunday marks a year to the day since USC lost to Stanford by the final score of 42-28. As you probably remember (or won’t be able to forget), that was Clay Helton’s last game as head coach of USC, and Tuesday is the anniversary of his firing.
What a few days that was. A low point for the program was marked by a sense of hopelessness and doubt that USC could return to its glory days. A collective reaction of ‘FINALLY’ among the fanbase as news of Helton’s firing broke. A feeling of wonder about what was to come next in Los Angeles.
David Shaw’s program isn’t what it once was, but this weekend will give USC fans tangible evidence as to how far their team has come in 365 days.
It has the potential to show an unprecedented amount of growth in a truncated amount of time. That’s also why USC should also temper its expectations — there’s only so much a team can possibly improve in a year. But the Trojans might be pushing that limit.
Stanford also still isn’t a slouch of a squad. This is a team that beat a top 3 (at the time) team in Oregon last year, despite also losing seven straight games to end the season. The point is, the Cardinal are a plucky underdog that can’t wait to pounce if USC doesn’t prove that it’s the better team.
USC vs Stanford
It starts with quarterback Tanner McKee, a former high-level recruit just like the Trojans’ Caleb Williams. McKee diced up USC in that infamous 2021 game, going 16-23 passing for 234 yards and two touchdowns, plus another score with his legs. This should be one of the few games in which USC will see an opposing quarterback that can keep up with Williams, which adds some extra intrigue to the matchup.
The plot of Saturday’s game thickens more thanks to the transfer portal. After all, following last year’s catastrophe at home against Stanford, who would’ve thought running back Austin Jones would want to change sides within a few months?
Jones had a strong USC debut against Rice, albeit in limited action, with 69 total yards and two rushing touchdowns on just five touches. Williams was more of the featured rusher in the Trojans’ opener, but against Stanford’s bigger, more physical style of play, Jones could offer a better matchup for USC’s ground game.
“They’re a hard-nosed defense — everybody knows it,” said running back Travis Dye, who also has plenty of familiarity with Stanford from his time at Oregon. “They are very smart… You gotta bring that grit every time you play Stanford.”
The running game matchup going in the other direction is a major storyline as well. Riley admitted on Tuesday that he would have liked to see more consistency in the Trojans’ run defense. Rice ripped off a couple of big carries against USC in the first half, prompting a sense of apprehension regarding the Trojans’ talent on that side of the ball.
“We’re going to have to be cleaner in the run game,” Riley said after Tuesday’s practice. “[Stanford] presents a lot of different challenges that way.”
Running back EJ Smith, son of Emmitt, broke away for an 87-yard touchdown run for Stanford in its opener against Colgate. However, if you take away that play, the Cardinal barely averaged three yards per carry. Still, the threat of a big Stanford run (think back to another 87-yard touchdown run by Nathaniel Peat in last season’s USC-Stanford game), will be in the back of everyone’s mind all game.
But going back to McKee, his ability to keep up with Williams should be the defining aspect of Saturday’s matchup. USC is almost certainly going to score 30, if not 40 points (They should score in that realm against just about everyone this season), simply given the team’s vast amount of talent just about everywhere on the offensive side of the ball.
Stanford’s size — sort of a preview as to what USC might see more often in the Big Ten in a couple of years — gives it a chance to hang with the Trojans in a shootout. The average height on the Cardinal offense is 6-foot-4 — that’s almost as tall as some D1 basketball teams!
Much of that height comes at the receiver position, as Stanford’s top 4 returning pass catchers (tight end Benjamin Yurosek, receivers Elijah Higgins, John Humphreys, and Brycen Tremayne) are all between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-5). By comparison, the Trojans’ three starting cornerbacks — Ceyair Wright, Mekhi Blackmon, and Jaylin Smith — range from 5-foot-11 to 6-foot-1.
However, USC is preparing to take on that height disadvantage:
“Coverage has got to be sharp, and our guys have to do a great job of getting pressure on [McKee],” Riley added. “I think it’s going to take a little bit of everybody, and we have to play great team defense.”
If you’re looking for a betting nugget, I don’t mind USC -9, but I think your money is better spent taking the over. As I said earlier, USC shouldn’t have an issue getting into the upper 30s or 40s, but I also think Stanford’s offense presents enough challenges for Alex Grinch’s defense to get over the high total of 66.5 points. Regardless of whether or not you’ve got money on the game, this will be a great matchup to watch, as it will quantify how far USC has come in a year.