Thanks to Evan Budrovich of SB Nation's USC blog, Conquest Chronicles, for answering a few questions about today's game. I returned the favor here.
1. I think it’s fair to say that Stanford fans are a lot more nervous about this game now than they were when Lane Kiffin was still patrolling the sidelines earlier this season. What’re the reasons for USC’s turnaround under Ed Orgeron?
From the second he took the interim role, Orgeron has done an excellent job of going back to basics by simplifying things for his players. Gone are the days of advanced play books and micro managed situations as players are really buying into the fun atmosphere around practice. The Trojans are much the same in terms of actually x’s and o’s but the real difference is that the team has plenty of confidence each and every week.
2. The Trojans boast one of the better rushing defenses that Stanford has seen this season. What’s the key to slowing a Cardinal running game that had its way with Oregon?
Well, the USC and Oregon defensive lines are vastly different so I it's kinda like comparing apples to oranges. While Stanford was able to control the line of scrimmage, they will be facing a defensive line that can definitely hold its own. The real key to slowing down Stanford's attack will be right up the middle with Leonard Williams and George Uko manning the point of attack.
3. USC came into the season with some serious questions at the QB position, but Cody Kessler seems to have made great strides. What’s his biggest strength? What does he still need to improve on?
Cody Kessler is great at playing within the system by letting his backs and receivers make plays in space. This Trojans offense really doesn’t need Kessler to be special, just good enough to feed his talented corp of playmakers in stride to move the chains on third down. That being said, he does need to improve on managing pressure by either throwing the ball away or scrambling for yards.
4. Do you think it will take Nelson Agholor and/or Marqise Lee making a few big plays in the receiving and return game for USC to pull the upset, or can the Trojans beat the Cardinal at their own physical, grind-it-out game?
USC will certainly need Agholor and Lee to play well, if not for the basic reason that the Trojans must test Stanford deep to create room to operate in the running game. While the big completions may not be easy, just having the threat of going deep should help their upset chances. I would expect both to play well but they will not be able to dominate Stanford’s secondary for like 250 combined yards or some eye-popping stat total to put USC over the top.
5. The Stanford defense responded well against Oregon after losing defensive captain Ben Gardner for the season. How much will injuries – including some game-time decisions for a few players listed as questionable – affect the Trojans’ chances?
If the Trojans are prepared for anything, it's managing the depth chart with injury concerns all over the mat. This team has been riddled with nagging injuries all season long and starting about three weeks ago, have really begun to embrace the next guy up mentality we always tend to hear. While it certainly helps to have your best players on the field, this group of banged-up Trojans are ready to compete with the 11 on the field.
6. Who are the x-factors on offense and defense for the Trojans in this game?
The x-factor this week will be special teams ace and starting fullback Soma Vainuku, who is quietly building up quite a resume in some of the smallest facets of the game. In what should be a rather physical and tight affair, any big plays from Soma could swing the game in USC’s favor. One other player to watch will be OLB/DE Devon Kennard, who leads the team in sacks and will play a crucial role in setting the edge against this Stanford rushing attack.
7. What’s your prediction for the game?
The Trojans will put their best foot forward but I honestly don’t see the offense having enough to score a late game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Stanford 21 USC 17.