The first massive conference tilt is upon us. USC and Stanford square off in the Coliseum in a battle of two teams with designs on the College Football Playoff. Along with the high stakes for each team, the game matters to other teams eyeing their division championships- out of division losses are a big blow to a team’s chance of winning the title.
USC’s Rocky Start- The first game of the season didn’t go as planned for the Trojans, who were locked in a dogfight with Western Michigan all night. This was largely thanks to a two-headed monster rushing attack that USC struggled to contain, giving up a total of 179 yards on 24 carries. In the end, the Trojans dialed it in and took it to Western Michigan, ultimately winning by 18 points. Still, most USC fans were expecting the mighty Trojans to coast to an easy victory in the second half, and that’s not what they got.
Sam Darnold Serviceable- Darnold’s performance wasn’t particularly noteworthy, putting together a decent outing from a yards per pass and accuracy perspective. The blemish on his night was no touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s certainly not survivable against a team like Stanford, but given Darnold’s other numbers it’s more likely than not he’ll come around and be the Darnold USC fans expect.
Deontay Burnett Emerges- Wide receivers have been a persistent cause of concern for USC, who is usually totally loaded at the position. Burnett ran with the first option role against the Mustangs, racking up an impressive 142 yards on 7 receptions. It’s telling that Burnett has emerged as ‘the guy’- the junior is far from the most talented player in the receiving corps, but is making the most of the opportunity afforded by his experience. ‘SC is used to reaching into their recruiting class and finding the next superstar receiver, but this season they have to work for it.
Bryce Love-ly- There was no shortage of evidence suggesting he was up to the challenge, but all eyes were nonetheless on Bryce Love to see if he could come close to filling the shoes of departed superstar Christian McCaffrey. He met expectations two weeks ago against Rice, rushing for 180 yards on only 13 carries. He didn’t catch a pass or record a punt or kick return, however. Love looks like a promising running back, but he’s not the transcendent player McCaffrey was.
Chryst Struggles with Accuracy- Keller Chryst’s basic numbers look great- two touchdowns, no picks, and 253 yards through the air. His 58% accuracy number is not where the Cardinal will want it to be, however, especially against weak defensive competition. USC will look to blanket Stanford’s receivers and make Chryst have to throw beautiful balls if he wants to make plays.
Lock Down Pass Defense- Two picks, four passes defensed, and a crushing 4.0 yards per pass attempt describe a lethally effective secondary. Talented, well coached defensive backs will do everything they can to make life difficult for Darnold and his WR corps. Whether the receivers can work their way open or not is likely to be a core deciding factor in this game.
This projects to be a fiercely fought contest between two very good teams. G.A.W.P. favors the Cardinal in this matchup, largely due to the way USC struggled with WMU. It projects a 62.4% chance for the Cardinal to win. There are a lot of dynamics at work here, but the core matchup issues both play in the favor of Stanford.
First, Stanford’s secondary will give USC’s offense fits. No major talent has emerged at wide receiver, and the Trojans are relying on a three-star player to be a big play threat and offensive weapon. He’s a good player, but Stanford will be able to deploy a level of athleticism that should keep passing yards difficult to come by for the Trojans.
Second, Stanford’s massive trench players and strong running back play right into the weakness Western Michigan found and exploited. Bryce Love will have room to run, and he’s shown himself to be an explosive back. The bright spot here is that limiting this advantage for the Cardinal is all about linebacker play. USC’s best defenders play linebacker, and it’s crucial to note that star ‘backer Cameron Smith was suspended for the first half of the Broncos game. WMU went from 6.2 yards per carry in the first half to 4.6 in the second, with Smith on the field.
We’re projecting a tight, hard-fought match up, but ultimately the running attack and stout passing defense of the Cardinal will likely prove too much for the Trojans.
Stanford 29, USC 26