Over the past dozen years, the USC Trojans have been a dominant force in both their conference and on the national scene. But on Saturday, the Trojans will be the ones who are upset-minded when they host the No.4 Stanford Cardinal on Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The Cardinal have had a major resurgence in recent years. Since 2010, Stanford finished each season in the top 10, and have had the Trojans’ number in the process. The last time USC defeated Stanford was in 2008, when the Trojans avenged a stunning 24-23 loss to the Cardinal in 2007, despite being 41-point favorites.
But in the last three seasons, the Stanford-USC matchup has been among the most competitive in the Pac-12. The Cardinal won all three games, though they failed to defeat the Trojans by more than one score. The last time the two programs met at the Coliseum was in 2011, when the game was decided by a USC fumble in the endzone in triple overtime.
While the Cardinal have their sights set on a possible national championship, the Trojans have been on a roll. Under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans have outscored their last three Pac-12 opponents by a total of 112-45 to improve to 7-3 after a 3-2 start under Lane Kiffin.
With an inexperienced quarterback and offensive line, the Trojans were expected to have some struggles in the early part of the season, and appear to be improving after a lackluster effort against Notre Dame on Oct. 19. The return of Silas Redd from injury and the emergence of Buck Allen have helped strengthen a ground game in the absence of leading rusher Tre Madden.
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USC can also boast an improved passing attack under first-year starter Cody Kessler. The sophomore had his struggles in the first half of the season, but has improved his accuracy in recent weeks. He has been aided by solid performances from Nelson Agholor, De’Von Flournoy, and Darreus Rogers.
USC may have also turned a corner with Marqise Lee. At the start of the season, Lee was considered a top Heisman Trophy candidate, but has been slowed by a knee injury. The star wide out reportedly is now at full strength, so Kessler may have one of the best targets in college football to throw to against Stanford.
The USC offense may not be able to afford mistakes against a tough Stanford defense. The Cardinal boast one of the best outside linebackers in the nation. Trent Murphy is projected to be selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, as the fifth-year senior is an exceptional pass rusher, and also has tremendous instincts in containing the running game.
Murphy is just one component for the Cardinal, who are 25th in the nation in total defense allowing 353.4 yards per game. Josh Mauro has been a key figure for the defensive line this season, while Shayne Skov is considered the best inside linebacker in the Pac-12. The Cardinal were able to contain Oregon’s high-octane offense on Thursday, limiting the Ducks to just 312 total yards.
The USC defense isn’t so shabby either. The Trojans are 19th in the nation in points allowed and 11th in total defense (317.9 yards allowed). On Saturday, however, USC will be without star defensive end Morgan Breslin, who is out for the rest of the season due to a hip injury.
The defense will have arduous task containing Stanford’s disciplined offense. The Cardinal are 28th in the nation in rushing, led primarily by Tyler Gaffney. The senior has already rushed for over 1,000 yards and has had four-straight games of over 100 yards rushing.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan has done his part this season, as well. The second-year starter has only thrown one interception in his last four games, and done a more than serviceable job replacing Andrew Luck, who was drafted first overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Hogan has had plenty of targets to throw to, with Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector and Kodi Whitfield all with more than 150 receiving yards.
Head coach David Shaw has a confident squad after the momentous win over Oregon, which extended the home winning streak to 14 games. Despite a disappointing fourth quarter against the Ducks, Shaw believes the Cardinal are still in title contention and are just hitting their stride.
"It's November. We talked as a team about it's time to play our best football," he said after the win. "No one has seen our best football, and that's including us. Tonight was about three and three quarters of it."
The lone blemish on Stanford’s season is a six-point road loss to Utah in October. Since then, the Cardinal have staved off three ranked opponents, and are undefeated against five ranked opponents this season.
Even the kicking game has been strong for Stanford. Jordan Williamson has converted 13 of his 17 attempts, including three of four from at least 40 yards.
Betting Odds: Stanford by 4
Over/Under: 45 points
PREDICTION: Expect a tight game, as USC will likely be creative with their impressive receiving corp. But Stanford should find a way to pull off the victory by limiting turnovers and penalties.
PREDICTED SCORE: Stanford over USC, 30-28
An IB Times staff reporter contributed to this report.