Heading into this Saturday's big clash with USC, Rule of Tree chatted with Joseph Beyda of The Stanford Daily about Stanford's season so far and its chances against the Trojans.
Rule of Tree: What has been Stanford's most pleasant surprise through two games?
The Stanford Daily: I'm going to have to go with Drew Terrell. For a senior who's always been a bit in the background - only 11 career receptions before this season - it's great to see him break into the lineup as a reliable target for Josh Nunes. And his punt-returning isn't too shabby either. On a somewhat related note, Stanford's tight ends have somehow managed to surprise me, even though we knew they would continue their dominance from last season. Without Coby Fleener around, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo have both stepped up with some impressive grabs over the first two weeks, and Toilolo's towering stature in particular is a great asset for a quarterback whose accuracy isn't as perfect as Andrew Luck's.
RoT: What has disappointed you the most about Stanford so far?
TSD: I'm hoping we'll see a lot more out of the secondary. I know everybody's excited about what Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards have done so far at safety (more on that in a minute), but Stanford has been thoroughly out-passed in each of its first two games. No, it's not really fair to judge a secondary solely on yards allowed if they can come up with big stops. But when San Jose State and Duke had easy drives coming out of halftime it made you scratch your head a little bit. I expect the Cardinal's performance in the third quarter - easily Stanford's worst in each of the last two games - to be a huge factor the rest of the season.
RoT: What are your impressions of Josh Nunes so far?
TSD: Once I followed the coaching staff's advice and lowered my expectations from the Luck days, I was very impressed by Nunes. He manages the offense well and for all we heard about how his arm strength was worse than Brett Nottingham's, he's made some nice throws. At the same time, there were a few underthrows and overthrows against Duke that weren't fun to watch, but hopefully Nunes' game awareness will only grow with time.
RoT: How do you see Ryan Hewitt's return impacting the game?
TSD: It'll be huge, not just in getting the Cardinal's ailing running game back to full speed but also in giving Nunes more flexibility out of the playbook. The key word with Hewitt is "versatility." Owen Marecic made a name for just that by playing on both sides of the ball, and Hewitt has followed suit by becoming a jack-of-all-trades offensively: as a great blocker, reliable pass target and short-yardage specialist. Shaw mentioned after the Duke game that the team is looking to incorporate more screen plays this season, and Hewitt was Stanford's go-to guy for short passes in 2011.
RoT: How do you think Stanford will attack Matt Barkley and the USC offense, and how successful will the Cardinal defense be?
TSD: The first thing that everybody goes to is the pass rush, which I agree is a big priority. Barkley has never beaten Stanford, and you've got to thank the Cardinal's front seven for that; if you give Barkley time he's going to find Robert Woods and Marqise Lee too easily for you to succeed. But I think Stanford's playmakers in the secondary will be just as important, if not more so. Shameless self-promotion here, but in a column I wrote after the Duke game I pointed out that the Cardinal had four interceptions (one of them a pick-six) in its monumental 2007 upset, no interceptions whatsoever in its home loss the following year and three interceptions (again, one of them a pick-six) in the "What's Your Deal" victory in 2009. When USC is favored - as they will be this time around - the formula for Stanford is to step in front of passes. Reynolds' three picks in two games already match last year's total for Michael Thomas, who led the team in interceptions. So in that way, the Cardinal could be primed for a surprisingly strong defensive performance against arguably the best offense in the country.
RoT: What is Stanford's biggest weakness heading into this Saturday's game?
TSD: For starters, 247 yards on the ground over two games just isn't going to cut it. Against San Jose State it was just sloppiness on the part of the offensive line - miscommunication, poor execution, whatever you want to call it. Once those issues had been worked out, though, Duke succeeded by loading up the box time and time again. In his postgame presser, head coach David Shaw joked with the media, "If anybody has nine-man-front run plays, please don't keep them to yourselves." That garnered some chuckles, but will it garner any wins? If Cardinal opponents adopt that defensive mindset consistently, even more pressure is going to be shifted onto Nunes' shoulders, and we really haven't seen how he responds to that in a game against a USC-quality team.
RoT: What is USC's biggest weakness heading into this Saturday's game?
TSD: Given USC's ongoing sanctions, depth has got to be a big concern for Lane Kiffin and his staff. With 10 fewer scholarship players a few big injuries could cost the Trojans a conference (or national) title. That might not seem to have much of a short-term bearing on Saturday's game, but keep in mind that USC lost its starting center - second-team All-Pac-12 selection Khaled Holmes - with an ankle injury against Syracuse. That slight weakness is something Stanford will look to exploit, and who knows if a few extra hits on Barkley will be the difference.
RoT: What is the one thing Stanford needs to do in order to upset USC?
TSD: Frankly, Stanford has to be lucky. It has to play its best game of the season and USC has to be a bit shaky (the Trojans were just that against Syracuse, and my gut says that the Cardinal would have given USC a really good game last weekend). Seven days later, who knows what kind of teams will show up to Stanford Stadium. From a more deterministic perspective, though, Stanford needs to come through in the clutch. We fans can brag all we want about beating USC four out of five seasons, but three of those four wins came down to crunch-time. It's all about who steps up. In 2007, it was Tavita Pritchard and Mark Bradford; in 2010, it was Andrew Luck and Nate Whitaker; in 2011, it was Luck again and A.J. Tarpley pouncing on that loose football. In 2012, it could very well be Matt Barkley, Robert Woods or Silas Redd, but it could also be Josh Nunes, Ty Montgomery or Ed Reynolds.
RoT: What is your prediction for the game?
TSD: This should be another close one, and for that reason - coupled with my lifelong responsibilities as a Cardinal homer - I think Stanford has a better chance (say, 40 percent) of earning the victory than some people will acknowledge. Still, though, it's hard to go against USC's offensive arsenal: the nation's best quarterback, two of its best receivers and a top tailback tandem. I'll pick USC, 34-30, but only because college football doesn't do ties anymore.