Let’s kick off this preview by noting a couple of nice articles. Nick Sanchez’s breakdowns of the defensive backs, play-by-play, continues to be very useful, and I agree with him that the DBs have been improving, particularly Johnson Bademosi. Bademosi’s play in general has been really good—even before he became the starting CB, he was a superb gunner on special teams. Maybe we’ve stumbled on a diamond in the rough (Bademosi was very lightly recruited.) Meanwhile, the invaluable Trojan Football Analysis re-posts their running game analysis from last year’s USC-Stanford game. It’s useful because it provides a breakdown of all the plays, and one thing to watch: the histogram of Stanford’s running game is essentially the exact opposite of what you’d expect it to be. Overall production is exceptional, given the quality of the defense, but the yards were gained through big plays. I expect the Stanford running game to be more than capable today, but more in our usual mode of getting yards in chunk (and Stepfan Taylor is a better complement to Toby than Kimble was. Have you noticed that I enjoy Taylor’s work a lot?)
Let’s move to the overall picture. There have been a number of prognosticators favoring Stanford, but the overall betting on the game has favored USC (up to a double-digit spread), so the picture is muddled on what other people think. Personally, I feel that both are wrong: this game is going to be within the single-digits, and will probably end in a Stanford loss.
There are a number of things that make me think the performance of last week aren’t replicable: first, it’s away instead of home. That’s a big difference. Second, it’s not off of a bye week. That means less rest and fewer wrinkles and less precision. Third, Toby Gerhart carried the ball 38 times. That’s the most critical number of any. Toby is will personified, but I don’t care who you are: the week after you carry the ball 38 times, you will be tired, you will be worse (obviously I’m hoping otherwise). And last, last week’s offensive performance can’t be repeated because, hell, it was our best and it’s hard to sustain bringing your best week after week; it doesn’t matter what profession you’re in. Regression to the mean, it’s something to remember.
That said, there are a number of factors you’ve gotta like. First, no Damian Williams. I love Damian Williams. If I could take any one offensive player for Stanford from the Pac-10, I would pick Damian Williams. Wideouts who can make plays in space, as Williams can, are invaluable. So his absence is critical. TE Anthony McCoy will play, but those high ankle sprains are tough to bounce back from, and frankly I’m not as worried about TEs as I am WRs (USC’s other WR, Ronald Johnson, is pretty freaking good). Also, Matt Barkley is good, a prodigy and all that. He’s also ever so slightly overrated. He’s made some bad bad throws, trying to force the ball into tight spaces and all that. Part of that may be inexperience, but I think part of that is temperament as well (by contrast, Luck doesn’t gamble with tight spaces. To be fair with this comparison, Stanford doesn’t work the intermediate and short passing game the way USC does. Next year, if Gerhart leaves as is probable, Luck’s decision-making will be tested to a greater degree than ever before). Also—and this must be shouted from the rooftops—USC’s defense isn’t very good. People have been saying the Stanford offense v. USC defense isn’t quite as favorable a matchup as Oregon D v. Stanford O, and maybe that’s true, but the record of their respective defenses before playing Stanford aren’t comparable. USC has yielded 350+ yards in every game since Cal, and they were gashed by Oregon State, Notre Dame and Oregon. That’s three different styles of offense. I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that USC’s defense isn’t very good at this point.
That said, I still favor USC because if USC’s defense isn’t very good, ours is worse than that. Oregon rules apply: the Stanford defense needs to force one more turnover than the offense gives up and only allow a FG when a TD was possible. If that happens, Stanford 35 USC 27. If not (as is probable), USC 38 Stanford 31.