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Film Room Takeaways: Critical matchups for the Cardinal against the Trojans on Saturday

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What did Saturday's games reveal about Stanford and USC prior to this weekend's showdown?

Ezra Shaw

Coaches like to fall back on cliches. "We'll have to check the tape" might be foremost among them.

After both USC and Stanford scored blowout wins on Saturday, it's tough to tell what exactly we should take away from those wins. 39- or 45- point wins against inferior opponents don't reveal a lot about a team - unless you check the tape.

Here's a few takeaways from last week's games that should come into play this Saturday.

USC

USC's tempo combined with their speed at receiver teases something killer, even though Fresno State's Defense is awful.

The Trojans put the ball in Cody Kessler's hands and let him sling it against the Bulldogs, and he responded well. Kessler didn't have to make a lot of complex reads - he often just picked out who was singled up in coverage and fired it right to them. As a result, USC's tempo is somewhat predicated on them being able to connect with these short, simple passes. Kessler was definitely less effective if he had to hold the ball for any length of time, and he's not a very frightening runner, so that'll be a big key for the Stanford defense on Saturday. Make Kessler hold the ball, and you should be fine.

However, that will put a lot of pressure on Stanford's defensive backs to handle perhaps the Pac-12's scariest group of wideouts. Nelson Agholor is a consistent playmaker, and freshmen JuJu Smith and Adoree' Jackson have a ton of speed. How Stanford handles the Trojan receiving corps is critically important, especially after Steve Sarkisian's last QB - Keith Price - threw for 350 yards against the Cardinal a year ago.

Meanwhile, Buck Allen can do it all on the ground, and the Cardinal should fear him after giving up 125 yards to Bishop Sankey in the same offense last season. He's shifty between the tackles and a capable receiver out of the backfield, which means Stanford's relatively inexperienced linebacking corps will have to be on point. Backup running back Justin Davis is not as much of a threat. USC ran for 277 yards on Saturday (4.3 per carry), but Stanford's defense is much scarier than Fresno's.

The Trojans' offensive line should be a big question in Saturday's matchup. Freshman right guard Damien Mama was terrible, and he injured his knee against Fresno. Mama's a game-time decision this week, and if he tries to play hobbled, I have a feeling Henry Anderson will cover him in brown sugar, set him in the oven at 450 degrees for 45 minutes, and then eat him alive. However, fellow freshman Viane Talamaivao was much better in his snaps at right guard when Mama went out. Stanford's defense should be hoping Mama decides to give it a go.

On defense, there wasn't a whole lot to say for USC. Fresno State did have a little success running the ball with the quarterback, but the Trojans as a whole did a very good job plugging the run. (Also, Fresno's offense is brutal to watch unless you have a fetish for poorly run swing passes.) Some inverted veer plays with Kevin Hogan will surely be in the works on Saturday.

Stanford

The Cardinal didn't show a whole lot on Saturday, but there are a few new wrinkles in this offense that should help them keep the USC defense guessing.

Other than one wildcat snap, there weren't any interesting formations or outside-the-box plays, but Kevin Hogan and others have hinted that there's more in store for this offense this season. To that effect, it was worth noting that the Cardinal did run a few more screen passes than in years past - either quick passes to Montgomery or to the running backs. Stanford's traditionally been a pretty bad screen team because all that beef on the offensive line doesn't usually translate into agile downfield blocking, but this group of offensive linemen might be better tailored to the screen game than any unit in years past. Kyle Murphy is the best downfield blocker of the group, with center Graham Shuler not far behind.

In the run game, Barry Sanders appears to be the best of the group thus far. He was dynamic between the tackles and kept fighting for extra yards wherever he was on the field. As far as I'm concerned, the only reason to keep him off the field is to keep him rested (or put Christian McCaffrey in the backfield). I'd put my money on Sanders being the lead dog for the Stanford run game this season, and for him to get the most touches against USC.

Stanford's defense looked particularly strong - it's not all that hard to defend the run well against an FCS team - but the pass defense was particularly impressive. Every player in the defensive backfield had several really strong moments. Wayne Lyons and Alex Carter were impressive in coverage, and Zach Hoffpauir and Jordan Richards both showed their physicality and reaction time to make several nice tackles.

This unit will be heavily tested this weekend, and it's no surprise that Hoffpauir earned the starting safety spot against USC. He's one of the best the Cardinal have at tackling in the open field, and all of the defensive backs will be asked to do that frequently against USC. Kessler will try to get the ball into his receivers' hands promptly, so good tackles in space will not only make the pass-catchers hurt, but also slow down the SC offense. New defensive backs coach Duane Akina's specialty is breeding physicality though, so this group should rise to the challenge.

Finally, the Cardinal's special teams should be an advantage on Saturday. Not only because of Ty Montgomery's dominance, but also because USC looked a little out of sorts with their kick and punt return coverage.