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A look at the USC Trojans since their last meeting with Stanford

It certainly has been an interesting year for the Trojans

Stanford v USC Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Stanford Cardinal take on the USC Trojans Friday with the Pac-12 Conference Championship on the line. These two teams last met in early September with the Trojans winning convincingly. Before we over extrapolate from the results of one game that happened an eternity ago in college football time it is important to take a look at what the Trojans have done on the football field since early September.

Common opponents/results: USC and Stanford are both 8-2 since their last meeting Both schools have close (or closer than should have been) wins over Utah and Cal, both teams have narrow defeats on the road to Washington State. USC was thumped by Notre Dame in South Bend and Stanford beat the Irish by 18 in Palo Alto. The Cardinal beat Arizona State by 10, the Trojans by 31. Stanford narrowly avoided disaster with a 1 point victory over Oregon State, USC won comfortably by 28. The Trojans beat the Bruins by 5 while Stanford clobbered UCLA 58-34.

Other Results since last meeting: USC has a pair of 14 point victories over Colorado and Arizona, and beat Texas by 3 in Overtime. Stanford lost to San Diego State 20-17, an 8 point victory over Washington and a 49-7 blowout win over Oregon.

The rest of the story . . .

USC defeated Stanford, but the Cardinal exposed a huge problem for the Trojans:
The USC Trojans pulled off a convincing win over Stanford in the second week of the season and the Playoff/Heisman hype train was running full speed ahead so much so that the 2017 season felt almost like a formality leading up to the coronation. The big win over Stanford only intensified this. What most of us did not know at the time was that everyone was trying to stop Darnold and the passing game when they probably should have been trying to stop Ronald Jones, Stephen Carr and the USC running game.

A key difference since the last meeting: Stanford likely was the last opposing defense that viewed the Trojans as a Darnold first offense instead of an offense that relied on the run.

The Texas Longhorns planned to do what?
A rebuilding Texas Longhorns team came into the Coliseum the following week. The Longhorns defense had already given up 51 points to Maryland and confidence was not exactly high among Longhorn fans with Megastar Sam Darnold on the horizon. The Texas defensive staff saw the Stanford and Western Michigan tape and had an idea that at the time would have been considered so crazy, perhaps downright asinine, that saying it out loud seemed like would have been grounds for immediate firing.

The defense that gave up 51 points to Maryland planned to dare Heisman Trophy front runner Sam Darnold to throw the ball. Not just dare, practically beg. They were going to go all out on stopping Ronald Jones, Stephen Carr and the running attack and force Sam Darnold to win the game with his arm as if the last season’s Rose Bowl never happened. Now it seems all too obvious, in September, it was absurd.

The key was containing wide receiver Deontay Burnett (#80) the Trojans top pass catcher this season and easily Sam Darnold’s favorite target. Minimizing Burnett’s impact while also not letting wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. (#4) pick up the slack would theoretically cripple the passing attack or at least eliminate Darnold’s ability to win with his arm without a dominant run game.

From Heisman to Humble:
Of the 21 receptions for 316 yards and 4 passing touchdowns against Stanford Burnett accounted for 9 of 21 receptions, 121 of 316 yards and 2 of 4 touchdowns. Taking out Burnett’s production left Darnold with a very sloppy 13 completions, 195 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. As a defense you can live with those numbers if the running game doesn’t also gash you for 300+ yards.

The Plan almost worked for the Longhorns. Texas went from guaranteed thumping to taking the Trojans to overtime by focusing on running game + Burnett. What most predicted as a comfortable win for the Trojans actually required some late game heroics from Darnold. Many thought that the Trojans’ offensive line and/or running backs just had an off night but the Longhorns actually exposed USC as a run-first team that had problems in the passing attack. The Trojans offensive formula was Running back + Burnett = Points) Taking away or minimizing either of the elements on the left side of the equation stalled the USC offense that Sam Darnold was not able to consistently overcome. In fact we would eventually come to learn that consistency was about the last word to describe boom and bust Darnold.

The USC Blueprint was established:
The following week USC took their first road trip of the year taking on the Cal Bears who kept the game tight right up until the final minutes when the Bears finally imploded with turnovers. It was clear that the Trojans had more than just a few kinks to work out in the passing game but at 4-0 they could still point to the scoreboard and say everything was ok.

Sam Darnold was still throwing into way too much traffic, staring down receivers and had significant accuracy issues on most passes longer than roughly seven yards. When he did these things he looked like a total bust. Occasionally though he could reignite the memories of the Rose Bowl and light up the scoreboard.

Offensive coordinator Tee Martin was still not making life any easier for his players with his play calling (though it should be noted that while Tee Martin is the offensive coordinator both Head Coach Clay Helton as well as his brother and quarterback coach Tyson Helton also called plays) and receivers were still having trouble hanging on to the ball and running clean routes. The Trojans were still 4-0.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • Darnold has issues with some of the fundamentals of playing QB
  • OC Tee Martin and the offensive coaching staff were doing a poor job in putting his players in the best position to succeed.
  • USC pass catchers were woefully underdeveloped (OC Tee Martin is also the wide receivers coach)
  • opposing teams were now allowed to sell out on run stopping. The explosive duo of Jones and Carr that went wild on Stanford was now constantly running into loaded boxes.

The wheels come off the Trojan Bus:
Thanks to Pac-12 scheduling the Trojans had consecutive road trips, the second of which was on a Friday night (a situation that historically most teams in the Pac-12 end up losing). Facing a short week, on the road, against a Washington State team that played far, far better at home than on the road the Trojans had all of the external disadvantages lined up against them in addition to their own self imposed ones.

After playing with fire for the last month, the disadvantages finally caught up to them and the Cougars knocked off USC 30-27. The blueprint for shutting down the USC offense was fully exposed. Outside of an 86-yard run by Ronald Jones II the Trojans ran for all of 77 yards. Darnold had 15 completions for 164 yards and one interception.

The only reason the game was so close was the Trojans defense forcing a couple of takeaways giving the Trojans good field position and not letting the Air Raid go completely wild despite being on the field for over 35 of 60 minutes.

It was a tough loss to swallow, but the College Football Playoff and a Pac-12 Conference Championship were still possible.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • Freshman WR Tyler Vaughns (#21) emerged as a legitimate and reliable passing target for the Trojans to pair with Burnett.
  • The USC defense could be downright scary with takeaways and havoc if they are both healthy and their offense stops putting them so far into a hole
  • Sam Darnold showed the ability to run the ball rather than just scramble and improvise

USC somehow still causes concern in a blowout of Oregon State:
Back home the following week the Trojans hosted a struggling Oregon State. This was supposed to be a bounce back or get right game for USC with Utah and Notre Dame on the horizon. Many fans were disappointed with the sloppiness displayed against the Beavers. While that game showed that USC still needed to cleanup far too many things especially turnovers and penalties, they still won by four touchdowns over the Beavers. More important than the actual score, however, where the lessons learned from the game.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • Turnovers and Penalties and overall sloppy play is/was a consistently major problem for the Trojans offense and they seemed to have an inability to change or improve in these areas
  • On the plus side for the Trojans they did actually try new things on offense and use a more diverse group of weapons including multiple tight ends and many of the young new receivers.

Utah blows a chance to derail USC in the Pac-12 Race:
The next week Utah came into town. The Utes always have a brutally physical team that punishes their opponents. The USC defense was quietly putting on a great performance but sloppy ball control allowed the Utes to take a 21-7 lead at halftime.

Clay Helton openly challenged his players in the locker room at the break. The Trojans came out scoring touchdowns on three of their four (non-garbage time) possessions in the second half to take a 28-21 lead. While Darnold and Jones were playing lights out on offense, not many noticed that outside of give aways the Trojans defense had dominated the Utes for 55 minutes.

With under five minutes left, however, the Utes went on an 11-play 75-yard drive for a touchdown. Given that the Utes really had not shown much life outside of USC screwups, Utah decided to go for two and the win on the road. USC stopped them but the Utes had a wide open man that was missed. USC would once again win again while narrowly avoiding disaster.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • USC showed once again that they apparently had no ability to improve from week to week or adapt allowing the injury count, penalties, and turnovers to continue climbing. But a win is still a win, scoreboard!

Notre Dame Destroys USC:
Disaster could be avoided no more, however, as USC traveled to South Bend, Indiana to take on a Notre Dame team that was running all over opponents. The Trojans still feeling punishment from Utah were also dealing with an absurd number of injuries in part from a lack of a bye week and in part because of a punishing slate.

The defensive front seven was hit the worst missing starters in several key spots while also down to scout team players in one spot. The greatest Trojan weakness was lined up directly in front of the greatest Notre Dame strength and the Irish ran the ball mercilessly down the throats of a hapless USC team unable to get a stop.

The Trojans were blasted clear out of the playoff discussion in prime time on national television to the tune of 49-14. USC could no longer point to the scoreboard and claim that everything was still fine. They finally had to face the fact that everything was not fine. In fact, some things were down right disastrous.

The Trojans were the hot preseason pick to make the playoffs and competing for National Championships was also the internal expectation inside Heritage Hall as well. The season was now guaranteed to fall short of expectations after the beatdown in South Bend. Fans and media alike were growing restless at the lack of progress and improvement shown from week to week by USC making the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • At this point in the season the USC win over Stanford was both the high point of the season and really the only time USC looked like an actual contender and Stanford may have been defending the wrong guy that game and had problems tackling the actual offensive threat.

Conference Championship or irrelevancy:
USC had four games left to salvage their season and stay in the Pac-12 conference hunt. With 4 games remaining, all against division rivals, it was gut check time for USC to either salvage the season with a run at the Conference title, or slide into one of the biggest collapses in recent memory (though not as bad as 2012, but preseason top to minor bowl game is still not a good look).

All four of those teams’ defenses rank among the absolute worst in yards allowed per opponent rushing attempt. For a team that really could not succeed on the passing game alone this would be huge.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • Unfortunately for Stanford they do not rank much better in the yards allowed per opponent rushing attempt category. If the key to stopping USC is to contain the run then it is concerning that 8 of Stanford’s 12 opponents ran for a higher rushing yards per attempt against the Cardinal than their season average, some teams substantially so.
  • Stanford kept the Rice Owls and the Oregon State Beavers to below their average (not exactly the strongest feather in their cap). The first is San Diego State, with the 13th highest yards per rush in the nation, they were kept slightly below average against Stanford in a Cardinal loss. The mind bender is Notre Dame, the third best yards per rush attempt team in the nation averaged a whopping 6.4 yards per carry. Stanford kept them to a meager 3.5

The USC Salvage Run:

Up first was an Arizona State Sun Devils team that was surging right as USC was sinking. ASU was in perfect position at home to win what ended up being the difference in the Pac-12 South race. The Trojans showed up and played like they were supposed to thrashing Arizona State 48-17 leaving everyone wondering where this team had been. The truth is ASU did not have much of a run defense allowing the Trojans to rush for over 300 yards opening up things for Darnold who had a much easier time hitting the deeper passes. Once again is USC gets the running game going they usually dominate.

Up next USC was back home against an Arizona team that was also surging thanks in large part to Khalil Tate who had one of the greatest months in the history of college football. No one had really found an answer for Tate and the Wildcats offense since he took over having put up scores of 45, 47, 45, and 58 in a 4-game winning streak.

USC kept Arizona to just 6 first half points with a 21-6 lead. USC would score another 28 points in the second half while The Wildcats would score 29 points on four consecutive possessions. It was exactly the type of explosiveness Arizona had shown in the last month, the difference was USC had a cushion to survive the onslaught and would eventually close the game out with a pair of interceptions.

Winning the Pac-12 South:
A 49-35 victory over Arizona left the Trojans one win away from winning the Pac-12 South division. All that was needed was a win on the road against a struggling Colorado Buffaloes team. Certainly this should have been an easy task after scoring nearly 100 points against the State of Arizona.

In the first 15 minutes of the contest, however, the Trojans once again looked a lot more like the team team that played Notre Dame than the team that played Stanford. In the second quarter, however, USC exploded, winning the frame 20-0, before reverting to form in the second half.

The Buffaloes actually outscored USC 24-18 in the second half. Colorado could have made it a much different ball game if not for a missed field goal and some other shaky play in the red zone. The Buffaloes marched into scoring range on five consecutive possession scoring on four of them. USC ended that streak with an interception then Colorado marched the ball back down to the Trojans’ three yard line before turning it over on downs. The Trojans would win 38-24.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • USC can be a very inconsistent boom or bust team over the course of 60 minutes on both sides of the ball
  • If USC cannot get a consistent dominant run game going they need to make sure their “booms” are at least slightly bigger than their “busts”
  • The Trojans defense is starting to unravel except in the red zone, a fact that has kept them alive in several late games.

Deep Trouble going deep:

Once again the Trojans defense was sliced open in the second half and there was no explosive future Heisman Trophy candidate to blame it on this time. Also once again, the USC defense made plays when they needed to in the red zone and the offense was able to provide just enough to stay in front.

A new problem was beginning to emerge though. It wasn’t so much a new problem as it was just now beginning to be fully exposed to the outside world. USC had a problem in their defensive secondary. Teams were beginning to fully explore the extent of it far too late possibly because of all the injuries in the front seven made running more attractive or possibly because there was not usually a need to take risks downfield when so many USC games were too close. In any event it had become evident that USC was having a problem with the long ball and explosive plays more generally.

Josh Rosen and deep threat specialist Jordan Lasley blew a hole in the USC defense wide open on national television. USC was able to pull off the win thanks to some seriously impressive red zone defense and some trickeration on special teams. Excellent defense inside the red zone was the biggest reason the Trojans won this game. A lesser red zone defensive performance could have led to a blowout win for the for the UCLA Bruins.

Lasley had 10 receptions for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns. Four different UCLA receivers, however, had receptions of greater than 20 yards that night. UCLA may have done the most to make this problem plain to see but it has been there for a while. The Trojans rank 112th (out of 130) in most plays of 20+ yards allowed with 66 in total. For comparison number one is the Washington huskies with only 31, Stanford ranks 39th with 48.

Over 40 different players had a play for over 20 yards against the Trojans this season. 34 different pass catchers have torched USC for big gains this year. These numbers do not even include the 19 and 18 yard receptions by Stanford tight end Connor Wedington and wide receiver Kaden Smith against the Trojans. There is a big problem here for the Trojans that Stanford was either unwilling or unable to exploit the last meeting.

Key differences since the last meeting:

  • The USC defense has a huge problem allowing explosive passing plays that Stanford was either unwilling or unable to exploit last time.
  • K.J. Costello is now the starting QB - a few key points to keep in mind here:

- Costello just had an incredible game against Notre Dame with 4 touchdown passes, connecting with seven different targets, with 3 different pass catchers going for 20+ yard plays on an otherwise pedestrian (for him) night for Bryce Love. He also had 29 yard TD to Trenton Irwin, 19-yard TD pass to Kaden Smith, and 12-yard TD pass to Dalton Schultz.

- Costello’s total passing yards and completion percentage do not look impressive against ND but he was great inside the 40 and opened up the long ball. Costellow displayed his ability to deliver exactly what will be necessary to beat the USC defense even if Love doesn’t run for 200+ and carry the load.

Stanford Football: Pac-12 Championship: Pac-12 Networks Preview

Stanford is coming off a difficult but impressive month of November playing Washington State, Washington, Big Game, and Notre Dame while going 3-1. The Cardinal has moment and confidence as well as a coaching staff that has sufficient faith in their QB’s abilities to get far less vanilla and predictable on offense.

While Stanford was fighting through the hardest part of their schedule, USC relatively coasted through the easiest part of theirs before finally getting a week off to rest and heal.

Ultimately both of these teams are very different from what we saw on September 9th in spots radically so. Expecting a similar type of game with similar results from that last meeting seems foolish.