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Behind Enemy Lines: Stanford Seeking Revenge In Pac-12 Showdown Against USC

Max Meyer |
September 3, 2014 | 8:50 a.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor

Cody Kessler against Stanford last year. (Neon Tommy)
Cody Kessler against Stanford last year. (Neon Tommy)
USC is one of four teams in college football to play their first six games against teams with winning records last season. This weekend, the Trojans will face their toughest challenge over that span, as they travel up to Palo Alto to take on Stanford, the two-time defending Pac-12 champions. After USC upset Stanford 20-17 last season, Coach David Shaw and his team will be seeking redemption this time around. 

David Lombardi, who writes for Scout.com, is a must-follow for any person who wants a little Cardinal added to their college football diet. Luckily, Lombardi is here to help USC fans become more acclimated with Stanford before the showdown on Saturday afternoon. 

1. Quarterback Kevin Hogan had one of his worst games last season against USC's defense. How do you expect Stanford's offensive game plan to differ this time around to ensure that Hogan doesn't struggle again versus the Trojans?

Last season, Kevin Hogan didn't need to do much for Stanford to win -- the power rushing attack and defense were simply that good. Hogan merely had to provide some passing down glue to keep opposing defenses honest. Since the Cardinal outrushed the Trojans 210-23, it looked as if the ground-oriented formula was on its way to success at USC. Ultimately, though, there was a problem that derailed Stanford: They scored only 10 points on four trips to the red zone, and you can be sure that Hogan takes a lot of blame for that. Stanford's offensive arsenal is different this year -- they don't have a bell cow-type power back (but they actually have tight ends again) -- so Hogan's job will be different. 

His offense's end goal, though, will be the same: He must find a way to improve his team's efficiency in the red zone (No. 83 nationally last year). The Cardinal spent all offseason working on a short-to-intermediate passing game, and I think we'll see several variations of that implementation against USC. Success there is Hogan's ticket to avoiding last year's struggles.

2. Ty Montgomery is one of the best wide receivers in the Pac-12, if not the country. Are there any other weapons in Stanford's passing game to keep an eye out for with Montgomery commanding so much attention from opposing secondaries? 

There are many, and that's why this is an intriguing Stanford team. Fans aren't accustomed to seeing such a plethora of Cardinal weapons on the perimeter, but multiple threats exist there this year. Devon Cajuste (6-4, 227) is extremely fast for his size, so he's a matchup nightmare opposite Montgomery. Michael Rector, who averaged 30.8 yards per reception last year, is one of the fastest players on Stanford's team and a bona fide deep threat. Francis Owusu is emerging into an electric target underneath, while Jordan Pratt and Jeff Trojan both proved to be dependable secondary targets last year. 

Most notably, though, Stanford's tight end position is back in the form of redshirt freshmen Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton and Greg Taboada. The position group only had 69 receiving yards all of last season, but that trio racked up 90 yards on Saturday alone.

3. Stanford's defensive unit lost two major pieces in Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy. Is this the group that will need to make the biggest impact in this game since they are facing an inexperienced USC offensive line? 

Despite losing the star power that you mentioned, Stanford's defense is still strong across the board, and that's a fruit of the staff's excellent recruiting efforts over the past half decade. The Cardinal will be missing linebackers Joe Hemschoot and Kevin Palma against USC. Though those guys aren't starters, they're an important part of the squad's depth at the position. Still, Stanford has a nice crop of physical, well-conditioned players in the front seven, and they expect to continue seeing success stuffing the run and rushing the passer this season. 

The best way to keep USC's high-octane offense at bay is to keep them on the sidelines, so the Cardinal considers early defensive success on Saturday to be of paramount importance. That will involve stonewalling the run and pressuring Cody Kessler as a direct result, something that defensive end Henry Anderson thinks is very possible given USC's massive size on the right side of the line. Damien Mama weighs 370 pounds, and Stanford's rugged defensive lineman have been known to torment oversized guys who can't exactly be considered spry when it comes to lateral movement.

4. Stanford has two very good cornerbacks in Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons. With those two locking down the outside, is Stanford's pass defense vulnerable over the middle despite having elite safety Jordan Richards? Would it be wise for USC to attack that area with their slot receivers and tight ends?

I think any collegiate pass defense is vulnerable against an offense that features as many weapons as USC, so trying to overwhelm Stanford with weapons downfield seems like a good strategy for the Trojans. Steve Sarkisian's Washington offense saw its share of success against the Cardinal last year utilizing a plethora of weapons: The Huskies racked up 470 yards of total offense behind three talented wide receivers, stud running back Bishop Sankey, and gigantic tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. 

Stanford adjusted to those types of attacks later in 2013 by pressing hard with their cornerbacks on the edges (they counted on the pass rush to get home before receivers could break free), and I expect Stanford to again use Carter and Lyons' physicality on the perimeter to challenge USC's relatively young wide receivers close to the line of scrimmage. But if the Trojans can neutralize the Cardinal's pass rush (possible only if they establish a running game), they should be able to buy Kessler enough time to test a relatively non-established target in Stanford's secondary: Zach Hoffpauir will be making his first career start at free safety.

5. Andrus Peat is the only returning starter from last year's offensive line. Peat is projected to be a high NFL draft pick, but how well has the unit gelled over fall camp and against UC Davis? Is the Stanford coaching staff worried about them struggling against USC's talented defensive line?

The line wasn't great against UC Davis, and there was certainly some disgust apparent among the group after that sloppy performance against the Aggies (three penalties -- a pair of holds -- after only two holding penalties all of last season). Still, those hiccups are to be expected since the unit is indeed a retooled one. And although there is worry that USC can control Stanford's running game much more effectively than they did last year, there's also a lot of hope coming out of the Cardinal's camp because the staff knows how extremely talented this collection of offensive linemen is (three former five-star recruits, two former four-stars). 

This contest against Leonard Williams and Co. will serve as an excellent litmus test for a growing Cardinal line, one that is the first unit of the Harbaugh-Shaw era to block exclusively for smaller, shiftier running backs (unless 220-pound wide receiver Ty Montgomery gets a few carries, which is always possible since he was a running back in high school).

6. What is your prediction for the game? Do you think Stanford will treat this contest with the same level of importance as their later matchup against Oregon? 

Stanford has lost only one home game this decade, and they generally come out extremely well-prepared after lengthy time to prepare for a contest. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren has already assured me that the Cardinal have some stuff up their sleeve offensively, and I think it's hard to bet against this program's recent track record at home. It's hard to use any other evidence to predict this game because all of the data points seem to conflict: Aside from performing so differently against USC and Sarkisian-led Washington last year, Stanford's style has changed a bit this year, too. So I'm predicting a 31-24 Cardinal win, and yes, this is just as important to the program as the showdown against Oregon.

Reach Senior Sports Editor Max Meyer by email.

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