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Stanford vs USC: Three things to watch in Saturday's Top 15 showdown

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A couple key matchups to watch as the Trojans tangle with the Cardinal

Ezra Shaw
1. Watch for the Fast Pass

Last year against Stanford, Cody Kessler had perhaps the best game of his career, playing mistake-free football while throwing for 288 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinal defense. This season, the passing offense has been retooled to get the ball out of Kessler's hands sooner, and that presents a huge test for the Cardinal defensive backs on Saturday.

USC's wide receiving corps could be the best in the conference thanks to Nelson Agholor, George Farmer and JuJu Smith, and the Trojans' speed on the edges was a huge reason they put up 700 yards of offense against Fresno State a week ago. They're going to put a lot of stress on the Stanford defensive backs to play rock-solid man coverage and make open-field tackles across the length of the field.

Stanford's defensive blueprint for Saturday's game should look like it did against Oregon State last year, where the Cardinal didn't allow any deep shots to beat them, and Sean Mannion threw for only 271 yards on 57 attempts. Cutting down on USC's offensive efficiency in the passing game will be essential for the Cardinal if it wants to keep USC off the scoreboard.

2. Have Sarkisian & Wilcox figured out Stanford?

Over the last two seasons, experienced Washington teams have given the Cardinal fits. Steve Sarkisian and Justin Wilcox should be credited for that.

Washington beat Stanford in Seattle two seasons ago, then came up three points short in Palo Alto last year. Ty Montgomery's 100-yard kickoff return to start the game was the difference.

If Sark and defensive coordinator Wilcox make it three games in a row, it's more than just a trend.

While 2012's result can reasonably be downplayed - the Cardinal still had Josh Nunes as the starting quarterback at that point - the 2013 game against Washington is more concerning. The Huskies moved the ball almost at will, with Keith Price throwing for 350 yards and Bishop Sankey running for 125. If Stanford once again gives up 489 total yards of offense to Sarkisian's squad on Saturday, then the Cardinal will be in serious trouble.

On top of that, Wilcox now inherits a defense that's more talented than last season's Washington defense, which held Stanford to just 179 yards on 41 carries. While Stanford appears to be less power-football oriented than a season ago, The Cardinal's success running the ball will be an important element to consider not only in the short term - Stanford could really use a big conference win early in the season - but also for years to come. This USC coaching staff isn't going away any time soon.

3. Added Offensive Complexity

In the first game of a season, there's often no reason to show every card you have. That's especially the case when you're up by 20, then 30, then 40.

Stanford didn't show a lot of different formations or interesting play calls against UC Davis, but the Cardinal have hinted that there's much more behind the curtain.

Stanford's passing game looks retooled already, and Kevin Hogan did make use of a few new targets last week, connecting with Eric Cotton and Christian McCaffrey for big gains. On the second team offense, backup Evan Crower found a new best friend in Austin Hooper. However, most of the Cardinal's running plays were fairly simple and Hogan didn't carry the ball on any designed run plays. Expect that to change against USC.

The other element in Stanford's offensive diversity is whether or not the new o-line can handle all of the duties it needs to. The group looked pretty good but not flawless against UC Davis, and they now face one of the most powerful defensive linemen in the conference in 6-foot-5, 300-pounder Leonard Williams.

Stanford offensive playbook for 2014 has just begun to unfold, and this week should be a huge step in that process.