USC Roundtable: Trojans Travel To Stanford In Essential Pac-12 Game
First off is Stanford, a team that has hard the Trojans’ number four of the last five years. What are USC and the Cardinal’s keys to victory in the first major Pac-12 game of the year?
Which Josh Nunes is USC going to see this week? The one who lit up Duke or the one who struggled against San Jose State?
Mike Piellucci -- Nunes came out of high school four years ago as part of a rich in-state quarterback crop that also included Matt Barkley, so any questions about his ability to hang in this type of game are strictly based on experience, not talent. It’s that lack of experience that gives me pause over expecting Nunes to reliably channel his considerable skill set in just his third career start against a team markedly better than what he’s seen so far. He does have a pair of safety valves to dump it off to in Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, but the wide receiver position leaves something to be desired; bottom line, if USC can get pressure, Nunes will make some mistakes.
Scott Enyeart -- USC struggled to defend the pass a little against Syracuse, particularly at the cornerback position opposite Nickell Robey. I think the performance of whoever lines up at corner will dictate the performance of Nunes. That being said, Stanford's strong running game will be a factor as well. If the Cardinal are able to run the ball well and keep the Trojans on their toes, it will make things for Nunes much easier. At the end of the day, I think USC will have a hard time getting pressure on Nunes and will struggle in the secondary as a result, allowing Nunes to resemble the player will saw against Duke last weekend.
Will Robinson -- If anything, with no middle ground, it will be more of the Nunes seen against San Jose State, but not nearly as poor. For one, obvious statement of the day, USC’s defense is better than Duke or SJSU’s. Though the Trojan No. 2 corner is questionable, the other ten guys on the field have been playing pretty well, especially Morgan Breslin on the defensive live. The linebackers have been great, too. It depends on how well the Cardinal run the ball, and thus, works the play action effectively. If Stepfan Taylor and others can rack up some big chunks, it could freeze the defense and allow Nunes to make plays through the air.
Piellucci -- In a word, yes. I think the reticence to get one involved to this point speaks to two things. First, USC head coach Lane Kiffin didn’t need one to beat Hawaii or Syracuse and, frankly, going out of his way to get one involved only gives Pac-12 schools more of an opportunity to scout his playbook; knowing the premium Kiffin places on tactical advantages, it just hasn’t been worth it up to this point. Second, the guy he clearly wants to win that third receiver job -- judging by the number of game snaps, at least -- is Nelson Agholor, and Agholor has had to adjust to the speed of the college game like any freshman. This week seems like the perfect storm of USC cracking open the playbook a bit more and Agholor being comfortable enough to execute when called upon, both in the passing game and with his blocking.
Enyeart -- When you have a one-two punch like Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, do you really need a third option? Probably, at some point, you will -- though I am not sure this is that week. If USC does have a third option emerge in the passing game, I would expect it to be one of the gifted tight ends, Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. Both players are elite NFL-type talent, and should they need to be relied on, each have the ability to make game-changing plays at the position.
Robinson -- I’d love to say freshman Agholor or redshirt junior De’Von Flournoy, but who knows with Kiffin’s offense? Lee and Woods are already so good and demand a ton of targets. Do Barkley and Kiffin really want to, for lack of a better word, waste attempts at someone a significant step below whom they have no confidence in? If anything, the Bill Belichick offense may be the way to go, turning Grimble and Telfer into Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski lite. They’re certainly good enough, and one should be on the field at all times, save when fullback Soma Vainuku is in to lead the Trojan running attack. Just look at Grimble’s “beast mode” moment last week against ‘Cuse on his touchdown. Badass. Plus, if you play Madden or NCAA, you know having a good TE and working him is the way to win.
Piellucci -- Vainuku versus Cardinal inside linebackers Skov and James Vaughters. Stanford might have the deepest crop of linebackers in the country, and it doesn’t take a master tactician to figure out that outside linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy will be sent full bore off the edge to disrupt Barkley and the Trojan passing attack. The best way to counter that is to force Stanford to respect the run, and for that to happen, it’s paramount that Vainuku get to the second level to help disrupt one of the Cardinal’s fearsome inside duo. If you hear Skov and Vaughters’ names called often on Saturday, it means USC’s run game has stalled out and Barkley has a lot of work on his hands to get his first W against the Farm.
Enyeart -- As noted earlier this week by Kiffin, and offensive line coach James Cregg, Stanford poses a huge challenge up front for the Trojans. The Cardinal are multiple on defense, which means they show a lot of different fronts, and that's difficult for any offensive line to deal with. Adding to that is the potential for RS freshman Cyrus Hobbi to be called on again, like he was last week when Khaled Holmes left the Syracuse game with an injury. USC is also young at left tackle and left guard, starting two sophomores. It will be the first real test for the USC OL, which is why I think it's the matchup that will be the biggest factor in this game's outcome.
Robinson -- The Cardinal front seven vs. the USC offensive line. Shayne Skov leads a very impressive unit, which can certainly cause trouble for the five Trojans up front, whose performance this season has yet to inspire confidence. With Holmes, the best lineman on USC’s roster, reportedly ready to play after being carted off the field last week, how healthy will he REALLY be? It will take a concerted effort from all five guys to hold off the Cardinal attack to protect Barkley and to jumpstart the running game early.
Piellucci -- There’s an age-old saying that the key to great coaching is personnel, and make no mistake about it, UCLA has ALWAYS had the requisite personnel to be successful. The problem lied in its deployment; until now, that is. Out goes the miscast pistol offense and in comes Noel Mazzone’s grab bag of swing passes and option plays, perfectly suited to get Brett Hundley and Jonathan Franklin in space to wreak havoc. The newly deployed 3-4 defense has Datone Jones thriving at his likely NFL position, while miscast H-back Anthony Barr was shifted over to OLB and has been arguably the Bruins’ best defensive player. Is all that reconfiguring enough take down USC this year? Probably not, but head coach Jim L. Mora has provided sorely direction for a program that’s become synonymous with glaring cluelessness, and has more than enough talent on hand to be a legitimate contender in the Pac-12 South.
Enyeart -- We've seen UCLA perform strong in September before, and never really become a factor on the national scene thereafter. This team seems different, putting up eye-popping numbers and playing with an intensity rarely seen in Westwood over the last decade. Whether or not UCLA is for real may not matter, as the schedule is very favorable for the Bruins. They certainly appear to be USC's biggest threat in the Pac-12 South.
Robinson -- Well, to temper the Rice game: It was against Rice. Big whoop. Nebraska, however, is a much bigger deal. Sure, Rex Burkhead did not play, but seeing Mora’s guys win a big game was a pleasant surprise. Not to take anything away from the Bruins -- they played excellently and deserved the win behind Brett Hundley’s coming out party. It’s just the Rick Neuheisel era failed to inspire the down Bruin fanbase. Upon examining their schedule, it looks pretty damn easy. Seeing the Bruins 9-3 with a good bowl game would have seemed impossible a month ago, unsure exactly how crucial Mora and his staff would be. Now? Only just a bit out there.