After the the last meeting between the USC Trojans and Stanford Cardinal and a wild season for both schools since, we once again find ourselves down to Stanford and USC for the Conference. We spoke with Conquest Chronicles manager Richard Mejia to get an update on the last 10 games for the Trojans since thumping the Cardinal in Los Angeles.
1. It seems like there are two Sam Darnolds this season, what happened to the Preseason Heisman Candidate and which Sam Darnold do you think we will see on Friday?
The media have done this USC football program and Darnold a great disservice. Propped up as essentially a slam dunk Heisman winner, not much was spoken on the mass exodus of talent USC lost on offense mostly to the NFL. With key offensive pieces in Juju Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers gone, the guys expected to step up were mostly freshman and guys like Deontay Burnett who saw limited snaps in 2016.
Camp reports in the summer were positive as Darnold developed chemistry with his new receiving unit—however most of those guys weren’t even available for the start of the season due to injury. Darnold has attempted to do it all on his own this season and he’s kind of had to.
With an oft-injured offensive line and wide receivers who frequently dropped passes, Darnold held on to the ball too long, forced the ball to guys that can’t catch and ultimately led the all FBS players in total turnovers.
However, it’s no coincidence that in the past few weeks with a resurrected offensive line and healthy play of Tyler Vaughns, Stephen Mitchell Jr. and Michael Pittman Jr. that Darnold is playing his best football all season. With this Trojan offense finally playing close to full health, I expect Darnold to keep his solid QB play rolling.
2. The USC defense looked like it started out great, but injuries really began to mount up, late drives by opposing offenses caught up with them, Notre Dame happened, now in the last few weeks the unit seems to be falling apart in the second half, and is getting burned on deep plays. Will things be better for the defense on Friday now that they've gotten a little bit more healthy or is there a much bigger red flag here?
The secondary has concerned me all season long. Before Iman Marshall’s injury in the Washington State game, guys like Marvell Tell III and Jack Jones looked solid while it seemed as Marhsall was slowly coming into his own. With Marshall sidelined, Jones was exposed as the top corner. No longer could he attempt to bully wide reicevrs at the line of scrimmage, rather he would get caught out of position and eventually burned.
The same can be said for Marshall pre-and post-injury (and his entire USC career for that matter). The front-seven compensates for the secondary, as they managed to overcome injuries to Porter Gustin and Cam Smith throughout the season and lead the NCAA in sacks. The pressure from Christian Rector, Josh Fatu and Uchenna Nwosu will still be there—they just need to consistently finish plays.
3. After watching and rewatching the USC tape, it seems like there is a pretty obvious blueprint for the USC offense, crash the box so that Ronald Jones II can't take over, and contain the one or two wide receivers of concern. I think this has been the broad strokes of every defensive game plan that the USC offense has taken on for about 10 straight games (basically every one since they beat Stanford) Yet, the offense still seems to struggle with it? How after 10 times is it still a problem? And do you think they will have it figured out before the 11th time?
The game plan has had to adjust frequently due to lack of personnel. With the bevy of injuries to the offensive line following WSU, they targeted Burnett more on WR screens to substitute for the run game and now that they have a healthy core of receivers, they are taking more shots downfield with Vaughns. However, there is a clear improvement since the Arizona State game, the Trojan offense has looked explosive. With Stephen Carr healthy and Jones running as hard as he has all season, I expect the playbook to open up even more and for Darnold to have more success within it.
4. If you could change one thing about the 2017 USC season what would it be: Injuries, Coaching, Player execution, or something else?
Injuries, easily. The injuries didn’t allow this team to be its best self—meaning Darnold never had the opportunity to figure things out and build chemistry with his receivers and the offensive line couldn’t play together for most of the season. Without the injuries, the playbook and playcalling doesn’t become limited and inexperienced players wouldn’t get a chance to consistently fail to execute as they did all season.
5. The USC run defense has had its ups and downs, they had a heck of a day outside of a one 75-yard run (only allowing Love one big run in and of itself is impressive) against Bryce Love, Notre Dame steamrolled them, Khalil Tate and the AZ running attack had a pretty good day too. What is your confidence level in the USC run defense?
They’re going to put up a fight, I’m thoroughly confident in that. One thing that bothers me about this run defense is often times they overcommit and allow for big runs (i.e. the last time they faced Bryce Love). They’ll consistently be in the backfield with plans on disrupting the QB and they’ll make Love earn every yard he gets. That being said, you cannot discredit Love’s undeniable talent as either way, I expect him to have an excellent game.
6. Stanford seems to have had USC's number in recent years, but in September USC thumped the Cardinal. Do you think that meeting was an outlier or a new trend?
They’re second game of the season was certainly a step in the right direction. As Sam Darnold’s play declined and the games got closer, most folks expected USC’s season to tank—and most years they’d be correct. But there’s something different about this Trojan team. Call out Clay Helton, call out Tee Martin and anyone else, but if there is one thing about this team it is that they do not give up. They have a team of football players who give it their all unlike teams in past seasons. After the embarrassment in South Bend, the Trojans have played the best football they’ve played all season and to me that indicates change in the culture. It’s too early to say if the tables have turned in their rivalry with Stanford, but if they win this game—I think it’d be safe to say things have changed in this longstanding Pac-12 rivalry.
7. Who wins on Friday and why?
The defense won this game for the Trojans last time out, but I don’t expect that to be the case this time around. The defense is still as scrappy as they were in September, however this offense has made quite the transformation since then. No longer are they failing to run the football and throwing just to Burnett—they’ve made Ronald Jones II the focal point of this offense and are spreading the ball around to a unit of big-bodied WRs.
It was only the second game of the season and Trojans won handily, and I expect an offensive explosion to give USC another controlled victory. Trojans win the Pac-12 Title in a 38-20 victory over Stanford.