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USC Football Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Stanford Writers

Aaron Fischman |
October 27, 2011 | 7:02 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Luck is the centerpiece of a dominant Cardinal squad. (Han Shot First via Creative Commons)
Luck is the centerpiece of a dominant Cardinal squad. (Han Shot First via Creative Commons)
One week after posting its biggest win in the Lane Kiffin era, USC will be asked to one-up its performance against Stanford, the No. 4 team in the nation according to the latest Associated Press ranking.

The mighty Cardinal come to town with a flawless 7-0 record. In fact, they are dominating opponents, winning each game by an average of 36 points.    

Most recently, the Cardinal defeated a Top 25 opponent, the Washington Huskies, by a whopping 44 points (65-21 final).  

Stanford was able to contain the Huskies’ impressive passing attack, holding quarterback Keith Price to just 1 touchdown--significantly less than his average of 3.5 touchdown passes per game.  

For their part, the Cardinal offense really came to play, and ironically, it was not Heisman candidate quarterback Andrew Luck who did most of the damage.

The star signal caller only had to complete 16 passes for a total of 169 yards, because his running game set a school-record with 446 rushing yards (and five touchdowns, for good measure). 

In recent weeks the Trojans have defeated two quality teams, in part due to their opportunistic defense. The D has forced a total of eight turnovers in its last two games.

Heading into the Notre Dame game, many analysts questioned whether the Trojans could defend senior Irish receiver Michael Floyd. The Trojans resoundingly answered, “Yes, we can,” as the defensive unit held Floyd to four catches for a measly 28 yards. 

In the game, undersized running back Curtis McNeal also gave the Trojans a big lift, contributing 118 rushing yards.

A crucial momentum-changing play occurred near the end of the third quarter, as Notre Dame inched towards the goal line. After Dayne Crist, who came in for an injured Tommy Rees, mishandled the snap and could not secure the ball as it rolled away. Fortunately for USC, Jawanza Starling was able to recover the ball at the 20 yard-line and return it 80 yards for the Trojan touchdown. 

The fumble return was essentially a 14-point switch. Instead of Notre Dame tying the game at 17, USC took a 24-10 lead, one that they would never relinquish.

This Saturday, ESPN College Gameday will be on hand and Andrew Luck will be in full display, as the Trojans attempt to shock the nation.

Stanford has won two straight head-to-head meetings, including last year’s nail-biter. Nate Whitaker nailed a 30-yard field goal to give the Cardinal the 37-35 win in Palo Alto.  

To help us preview Saturday’s big game, Jon Wilner and Dave Fowkes have joined me for this week’s edition of Behind Enemy Lines.

Wilner writes the College Hotline blog for the San Jose Mercury News, while Fowkes covers the Cardinal for Examiner.com.  

1. The Cardinal remain undefeated under first-year head coach David Shaw. Besides employing a more civil post-game handshake, how does his coaching philosophy differ from that of Jim Harbaugh?

JW: They have similar philosophies and different personalities. Harbaugh puts people on edge; Shaw puts people at ease. Harbaugh is all emotion; Shaw is methodical. But both come from the power football school: use the run to set up the play-action game--the classic west coast offense (Shaw played for Bill Walsh at Stanford). This coaching staff has made some tweaks to the playbook to account for differences in personnel--for instance, more use of the tight ends--but the schemes are essentially the same.

DF: The philosophy is very similar. They both want to be able to dominate with the run game, pass enough to keep it interesting and play tough, physical, defense. There really has been no change in philosophy. Demeanor is much different. Coach Shaw comes across as much mellower and easy going than the hard-edged Harbaugh, but Shaw is the first to point out that you shouldn’t let the calm image fool you. He is a huge competitor just like his predecessor.

2. Junior quarterback Andrew Luck has thrown just three interceptions out of 202 passing attempts in 2011 (that’s one pick for every 67 attempts). Talk about the accuracy we’ve seen from Stanford’s field general this season. 

JW: And one of the picks went right through the hands of the receiver. He's remarkable, not only in his ability to avoid egregious throws but also his knack for putting the ball where only the receiver can catch it. A few weeks ago, he threw the ball 30 yards in the air while running to his left--and managed to loft it over a defender, right to his receiver. Everyone talks about his arm and his accuracy, but his greatest attribute is his aptitude for the game--he's so good at reading defenses, checking down to his second or third option and putting Stanford in the right play against every defense.

DF: Two of those interceptions actually hit his receiver in the hands before bouncing over to the opponent. The two biggest attributes among all of his talent are his head and his accuracy. The simple fact is that Andrew Luck does not miss his receivers very often. Drew Terrell made a comment during training camp that was along the lines of, when you are on the field and the ball goes somewhere else, you think it is a bad pass. Then they go look at the film afterwards and it turns out it really was the receiver's fault and Luck had again nailed the perfect pass. In reality, there is no such thing as perfection, but Luck can make all the throws, he makes them to the right receivers, and he delivers them as accurately as anyone, even if he is on the run.

3. At this point in the season, who do you believe is most deserving of the Heisman trophy?  Why?

JW: Luck. He's the best player, he has played brilliantly -- there's so much more to his game than yards and touchdowns -- and his team is undefeated. But I would not be surprised if Trent Richardson makes a serious run for the trophy.

DF: I will admit my bias first, but I would certainly vote Luck. The real question is how voters rank pure stats versus the complete package. Luck will not compete with some of the other quarterbacks out there just because he does not need to throw the ball as much as they do. Honestly, I think Stanford is pumping up Luck's stats with all the goal line passes they have done. But the bottom line to me is Luck is the field general, and he works the position like no other. He is a master of the game. When Stanford needs a big play, he delivers. When Stanford needs a run, he has no problem handing the ball off. At the end of the day he is in complete control on the field and so far that has led to an undefeated record.

4. At six-foot-six-inches and 244 pounds, senior tight end Coby Fleener is not the type of guy you’d expect to be a deep-ball threat, yet he’s caught three balls for 50 yards or more this season. How has he been able to create so much space in eluding opposing defenders?

JW: Fleener is the fastest 6-6 tight end I've ever seen. He runs right past safeties and has a long stride, which makes his speed deceptive. But the leg turnover is that of a 6-2 receiver. And again, part of his success is due to 1) the play-action game and 2) Luck recognizing mismatches at the line of scrimmage and checking into a play that gets Fleener downfield.  

5. The Cardinal defense has also done its part, limiting opposing offenses to 12.6 points per game and recording 25 sacks (fifth in the nation) in the process. Now’s your chance to gush about the defensive unit…what makes them so great?   

JW: The defense is more than the sum of its parts, especially without injured linebacker Shayne Skov. The line has been the biggest surprise, able to pressure the quarterback with only four rushers. Linebacker Chase Thomas is one of the best players in the conference, a force of nature. The secondary has more speed than Stanford units in the past. And everyone plays sound assignment football. But frankly, I'm surprised it has been as good as it has.

DF: Great players and good recruiting. It has been tough for the defense, first losing Skov and now safety Delano Howell who is still questionable for the USC game. But the depth at Stanford has really shown. While you cannot replace talent like that, there really is a "next man up" mentality and the drop off has not been nearly what some would expect. Chase Thomas is a monster at outside linebacker and Michael Thomas has been a great steadying force in the secondary. Defensive end Ben Gardner has also really stepped up his game in pressuring the passer. In all, the scheme is a bit of the bend but don't break, while they pressure the quarterback all day long. With the injuries there have been a few breakdowns, but overall the defense has played very well.

6. Junior running back Stepfan Taylor is on pace to rush for more than a 1,000 yards for the second straight season after the departure of Toby Gerhart following the 2009 season. What abilities does Taylor bring to the table?

JW: He's tough, he has good speed and excellent vision. He's an ideal back for Stanford's offense because of his ability to grind out yards between the tackles. When Stanford runs something on the perimeter, it's usually one of the other backs. That's not Taylor's strengths.

DF: Taylor is deceptively strong to go with some good speed. He has good eyes and sees the field well and is very good at using his blockers. There is not a lot of flash to what Taylor does. He just gets the ball and goes behind a very good offensive line. 

7. In Stanford’s last win, it rushed for a school-record 446 yards in its 65-21 win over the Washington Huskies. How did the Cardinal ground game exhibit such dominance last week? 

DF: Four running backs that could start at a lot of schools across the country, an overrated Huskies defense, and an absolutely awesome offensive line. This year, the line was a big question mark coming into the season having to replace three starters. The Cardinal did return two NFL bound veterans in Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. Stanford has added to that with two highly touted redshirt freshmen and after a bumpy start, the line has really gelled and is playing very well.

8. The offensive line has somewhat surprisingly been a bright spot for the Cardinal this season, only allowing two sacks all year. Which new starter has shown the most improvement on Stanford’s O-Line?  

DF: Left guard David Yankey has been a real surprise. It is not just for his play but how he ended up at guard. The redshirt freshman is a natural tackle and was rotating in for the competition at right tackle. Midway through camp, Kevin Danser went down with an injury. Stanford moved Yankey to left guard and the rest is history. He was a natural and for the most part has played very well. Cameron Fleming at right tackle has also been very good.

9. The undefeated Cardinal have been rolling over their opponents en route a 7-0 start.  What are the keys to the game for the Trojans if they are to have any chance of handing Stanford its first loss?

JW: Three things: stay out of third-and-long situations, limit Stanford's big plays in the passing game, and don't turn the ball over (Stanford will feast on mistakes). I think the Trojans have enough weapons on offense to move the ball, but they have to be creative about it, and they can't get into situations in which Stanford knows Matt Barkley is going to be sitting in the pocket.

DF: The key for USC is the Barkley to Robert Woods connection. With Luck at the helm, Stanford will get some points. The team that beats Stanford will have to score with them. USC nearly did that at Stanford last year. Woods was outstanding going for over 200 yards. USC will also need to win the turnover battle. A special teams play would not hurt.

10. Please give me your prediction for Saturday’s game with an expected score included.

JW: Close game, Stanford wins -- too much Luck down the stretch. Stanford 35, USC 27.

DF: This is the game that I pegged as a possible spot to lose. USC will be highly motivated by the two embarrassing losses the last time Stanford played at the Coliseum. Plus, if you believe in trends, ESPN's Game Day will be there and they have a good record for home underdog upsets. That said, despite all the questions, all Stanford does is beat teams by 26 or more points. They have done that for 10 straight games. Do I think that streak ends? Yes, but after a very good first half I think Stanford pulls away in the second half for a 38-24 victory.

Good luck!


Follow Jon and Dave on Twitter. Thanks to both for their insight!

Reach Aaron by email, or follow him on Twitter.

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