The No. 13 Stanford Cardinal have taken the last two Pac-12 titles, and largely run roughshod over No. 14 USC Trojans in recent seasons, but it was the Trojans who denied the Cardinal a shot at the national title last season. USC’s Andre Heidari knocked in a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining, and the Trojan defense forced three turnovers in the 20-17 upset that looked to be the now-departed Ed Orgeron’s best case to stay on as head coach following the abrupt dismissal of Lane Kiffin.
But it’s a new season, a new head coach for the Trojans and a whole new set of circumstances and expectations for USC and Stanford.
Following the bizarre Josh Shaw saga and Anthony Brown’s unfounded accusations of racism, first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian managed his first wave of controversy and USC blasted Fresno State in their season opener, but now the Trojans open Pac-12 conference play against the always formidable Stanford on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
The Trojans haven’t claimed a victory at Stanford since 2008, a trend Sarkisian hopes to end and one USC’s offense appears well-equipped to pull off. Junior quarterback Cody Kessler launched a career-best 394 passing yards for four touchdowns and running back Javorius Allen racked up 133 yards on 22 attempts in the 52-13 rout over Fresno State. Kessler is reportedly nursing a toe injuyr, but is expected to play against Stanford.
Kessler's targets faired well in the season opener. Receiver JuJu Smith totaled four receptions for 123 yards, and junior Nelson Agholor pulled down a game-high two scores after netting five receptions for 57 yards.
But it was dangerous all-around threat freshman Adoree’ Jackson who impressed the most, notching 13 plays on offense, 25 on defense and 14 on special teams. It was Jackson’s 18-yard reception from Kessler in the final minute of play in the first half that put USC up 31-7 and erased any chance of a Fresno State comeback. It’s that type of big play ability that separates this year’s batch of Trojans over a team that ranked ninth in the Pac-12 in points scored and 10th in total offense.
USC set a new conference record with 105 plays from scrimmage, but the defense looked equally impressive while forcing four interceptions and holding the Bulldogs to 317 total yards.
However, the defending two-time Pac-12 champion Cardinal represent an entirely different test for Sarkisian and the Trojans, having won five of the last seven meetings between the rivals.
Now in his fourth year as head coach, David Shaw’s squad looked just as dominate in their debut, crushing UC Davis 45-0. Receiver Ty Montgomery showed no ill signs from offseason shoulder surgery as he racked up two touchdowns, including a 60-yard punt return for a score in the first quarter.
Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan was in midseason form, going 12-for-16 for 204 yards and three touchdowns to one interception, and the Cardinal defense allowed the Aggies to gain a paltry 115 total yards and go 1-for-13 on third down.
Cardinal linebackers Noor Davis and Peter Kalambayi each came up with an interception as the defense generated three total turnovers, and didn’t let three turnovers from the offense affect the scoreboard. Stanford again looks poised to be the best defense in the conference, ranking first in points allowed, second in total defense and first against the run last season.
Betting Odds: Stanford -2.5
Time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EST
Prediction: Stanford over USC, 27-26