Ed Orgeron didn’t waste any time in getting to the heart of USC’s matchup against Stanford on Saturday.
“This is gonna be a line of scrimmage game,” the interim head coach said after the Trojans practice on Tuesday.
There’s no secret about what the Cardinal are looking to do these days. They are going to line up on offense and run the football behind a talented and aggressive offensive line, while often employing additional linemen or tight ends to supplement their blocking efforts. The Stanford defense is particularly strong against the run, as it gives up less than 100 rushing yards per game.
The emphasis on a physical identity from the Cardinal -- which started under Jim Harbaugh and has continued with David Shaw -- also coincides with a stretch of good fortune against the Trojans. Stanford has won four in a row against USC and five of the last six. For the Trojans to avoid a fifth straight loss there is no getting around the fact that they will need to win the battles on the line of scrimmage, and that isn’t something which has been easy to do against the Cardinal lately.
On offense, the Cardinal are very efficient, if not overwhelming. They average 32 points per game (No. 7 in the Pac-12) and are No. 11 in the conference with 388 total yards per game. They do average 205 yards on the ground each game -- No. 4 in the conference -- and only give up a nation-leading three tackles for loss per game. The Cardinal have only given up nine sacks on the season.
The Trojans will counter with a strong defensive front that is among the top 25 nationally in sacks (3.1 per game) and tackles for loss (7.1 per game). One of the keys for USC all season has been the play of defensive end Leonard Williams along the interior of the line. Williams is second on the team in tackles (56) and leads the Trojans in tackles for loss with 11 but has been hampered by a shoulder injury that caused him to sit out the California game last week.
USC is already without the services of Morgan Breslin, one of the leading pass rushers in the nation, who is out for the season with a hip injury, so depth could be a concern in such a physical contest. J.R. Tavai has proven to be a versatile reserve who could sub in for either Breslin or Williams as needed. Devon Kennard has been a steady force all year at the OLB spot opposite Breslin, leading the Trojans with eight sacks.
Things don’t get any easier for the Trojans on offense when facing the Cardinal defensive line. Stanford leads the Pac-12 in giving up only 98.7 rushing yards on the ground per game and is also stingy in scoring defense (19.4 points per game) and total defense (348.8 yards per game), ranking in the top 20 of the nation in both categories.
Stanford is also missing a key defender, as defensive end Ben Gardner is out for the season with an arm injury, but there is still plenty of talent. OLB Trent Murphy leads the Pac-12 in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (14), while defensive end Henry Anderson returned last week after missing six weeks with an injury.
While Stanford is very tough to run against, the Trojans will look to get balance while relying on Javorius Allen and Ty Isaac, as Silas Redd and Tre Madden are questionable due to injury. What is known is that all the scholarship wide receivers are available and all the tight ends got practice time this week. Look for the Trojans to keep the tight ends in a lot to help with pass protection while taking some shots with Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor in the passing game.
There might be some big plays with Lee and Agholor, or with Stanford WR Ty Montgomery, but that’s not where this game will be won. It will be won in the trenches, at the line of scrimmage. The Trojans know that and Stanford knows that. Now it’s just a matter of hitting the field on Saturday to see who can get the job done.