wo nationally ranked conference rivals; the attention of a national network broadcast and College Gameday on site; and the chance for one team to move closer to the national championship and the other to avenge its embarrassing defeats of years past. Stanford has entered the difficult half of its 2011 football schedule, and USC should be the most talented adversary the Card face until Oregon comes to Palo Alto in a couple of weeks. Regardless of who wins on Saturday in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the evening will be a test by which both teams will be able to judge how high to aim in the home stretch of the fall.
The main selling point for Stanford-USC is pretty clear. Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley are two of the top quarterback prospects in the country, and America loves no part of football more than a gifted quarterback. Give the people two such players and–well, there’s a reason this game will reach the majority of American households in primetime on ABC. Both have kept the ball away from opposing defenses–Luck has thrown 3 interceptions this season while Barkley has thrown 4–and their passing attempts-to-interception ratios are virtually identical.
Depending upon the metric used to assess his performance, Barkley has turned in some of his most impressive games of 2011 in the last few weeks. He threw 3 touchdowns and completed 69% of his passes last week against Notre Dame; he orchestrated a 20-9 drubbing of California the week before; when USC barely got past Arizona on October 1, Barkley’s 468 passing yards and 82% passing completion rate gave the Trojans the offensive oomph necessary to pull the game out and avoid a costly loss to the struggling Wildcats.
It’s tempting to still think of Matt Barkley as the obnoxiously stereotypical SoCal kid with bleached blonde hair, remarkably consistent nonchalance and a tendency to buckle in big games, as he did in a September loss to Arizona State. Barkley threw 2 interceptions and lost a fumble when the Trojans had a chance to get back into the game with ASU. And for all of those reasons, and his lack of elite physical skills, he’s not Andrew Luck.
But he is surrounded by great talent. Most importantly, sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods lines up on Barkley’s side of the ball. When we asked Michael Katz of The Daily Trojan about Woods, he wasn’t shy about how good Woods has been and could continue to be this season and into future ones:
Robert Woods, in my opinion, is even better than advertised. He’s cooled off a little compared to how he started off, but he’s still averaging better than 120 ypg receiving and has eight touchdown catches. He was impressive as a true freshman last year, but he’s taken it to another level this year. At this point in the season, he’s third nationally in receiving yards. Anyone who has seen him play, however, knows that there might not be a better playmaker with the ball in his hands than Woods[. . .]
He has to be mentioned among the top two or three receivers in the country. Ryan Broyles of Oklahoma gets a lot of hype, but Woods is just as good and should be a Biletnikoff finalist. From a historical perspective, USC has had a lot of great receivers: Johnnie Morton, Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams, Steve Smith, Dwayne Jarrett, and Damian Williams are the first that come to mind. Woods still has a ways to go to make the impact that these guys did in the program, but he’s still only a sophomore. He has a lot of time to make it to the top of this list; if he stays all four years, I have no doubt he’ll be recognized as the best in school history.
It’s no secret that Stanford’s secondary is the weakest part of the defense, and Woods enjoyed 224 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns on 12 catches last year in Stanford Stadium. Woods will get his yards and then some, and so will Barkley, who will target receivers Marqise Lee and Brandon Carswell when Woods attracts double coverage. But Woods will be the man that Stanford needs to stop, as he has recorded more than twice as many receiving yards as Lee, the team’s #2 receiver, has.
What seems less certain is USC’s ability to slow down the Cardinal offense, which has scored 92 points on the Trojans over the past 2 years. The last time Andrew Luck visited the Coliseum, he and Toby Gerhart put up 55 points. As Ted Miller observed early on Thursday morning, USC has been very poor in first-down defense, where Stanford will look to pick up big portions of yardage in the running game and occasionally give Luck a chance to air it out right away. Overall, the Trojan defense is workable but not excellent: the team ranks 38th nationally in scoring defense and is one of the worst passing defenses in the Pac-12 by several barometers. As always, Stanford will try to establish the run first and then go to the passing game. But USC has struggled to keep opposing quarterbacks down, and they’re about to face the best thrower in college football.
Sure, Stanford hasn’t played an impressive number of good teams this season. The Card’s strength of schedule is one of the worst in the conference, in fact. But aside from sloppy first halves, the team has done about as well as anyone could have asked and deserves to be a 7.5-point favorite in L.A. Beating USC probably won’t be easy, especially if the Card doesn’t show up before halftime, but there’s little rational reason to think that Stanford will fall on Saturday. Luck will get another chance to make a statement to Heisman voters and Stanford will proceed on with a flawless record.
Verdict: Stanford beats USC, 48-32
How to Follow the Game
5:00 pm PST, Saturday, October 29
Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Live: Tickets at StubHub
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)
Social Media: @DailyAxe on Twitter
(Headline image courtesy of Neon Tommy on Flickr)