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Stanford Vs. USC: How The Cardinal Can Spring The Upset

The Stanford Cardinal will need Josh Nunes to step up at quarterback, the defense to pressure Matt Barkley, get some big plays from Stepfan Taylor, Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz and hope Ryan Hewitt loosens up the USC Trojans defense.

Ezra Shaw

Todd Husak is a former Stanford quarterback who is now the color radio announcer for Stanford football, and he's now a contributor at Rule of Tree in helping produce top-notch analysis of the Cardinal. His analysis of this week's upcoming game against USC is well-worth a read regardless of whether you're a Stanford or a USC fan.

He later did a Q&A in the comments with various commenters, and it's also well worth a look. After the jump, here are some snippets of some of the finer points of this week's game.

Is the "generate turnovers and get big plays on special teams" formula a sustainable one for Stanford? Or is the offense going to have to continue to catch up? ~Jeff Nusser, CougCenter

HUSAK: No question Stanford will need points from all 3 phases.

Stanford scored TDs on special teams and defense against Duke. The offense hasn’t quite hit its stride yet. Until it does, they are going to need to continue to get production out of the return game and big plays on defense.

USC ran the ball better against Stanford than anyone else all season a year ago. Don’t be surprised if USC tries to establish the run game early on and make the Cardinal stay honest by slowing down the blitzes.

What about the run game? I haven’t heard much talk about what happened (or didn’t happen) in our run game on Saturday. I’m more than a little scared that we just weren’t able to get much going on the ground. And that was all-too-apparent against SJSU. Of course, the trade-off is that we allowed Nunes to get some touches and get into a bit of a rhythm in the air. Which do you think was more important? And are you at all concerned about the (lack of) run game? ~CardiGirl

HUSAK: They were throwing more because of Duke's defensive scheme.

Duke was committing the entire front 7 and the 2 safeties to stopping Taylor and that left 1 on 1 coverage outside. Shaw and the coaching staff need to prove that Stanford can beat that strategy in order to maintain balance and keep defenses honest. They did at times (Nunes had 3 TDs) but need to do in consistently which will soften the D and allow Taylor more room to run.

It is also a risky strategy by the defense because there is no second level defender to stop Taylor. If he can get through the initial surge, he can break off some long runs.

You mentioned the fade routes to Levine. How difficult is that throw to make? It seems more complicated than hitting a receiver on a slant or post route. Stanford kept going back to that well against Duke, but the well was mostly dry.
Stanford used to love that play to Teyo Johnson. When the Cardinal was inside the red zone, everyone in the stadium knew that play was coming and there wasn’t much the defense could do to stop it. ~Scott Allen, Rule of Tree
HUSAK: The throw takes a lot of practice. Toilolo became unstoppable on this play as the season went along last year, but that was largely in part because of all the work between Levine and Luck. Nunes’ completions with this play against Duke came when he underthrew the ball and allowed Toilolo to come back to the ball and play it in the air. When Josh tried to lead the receiver, it ended up falling out of bounds or was overthrown. Even when the defense played it perfectly, Toilolo was unstoppable when the ball was thrown well. So much of it is trust, practice, and understanding when/where the ball is going to be thrown.

One of my biggest concerns has been the lack of push upfront by the O-line. I know Duke was committed to stopping the run, but the old (as in last year) Stanford teams could run over teams even when they knew what was coming. If the Cardinal maintains this 3.7-ypc average, I can’t see the team keeping up with USC.

One change that I think could be key is the return of Ryan Hewitt from injury. Hewitt missed the first two games with a sprained ankle, and the fullback production definitely suffered. His replacements, despite showing potential, missed some key blocks and provided little support in the passing game. What do you think his return this week will do for the Stanford offense? ~Jacob Jaffe, Rule of Tree.

HUSAK: In a word...HUGE. In my opinion, he is one of the best FBs in the country and will do a ton for the team’s ability to throw play action and he is a very good blocker. He touched the ball 44 times last year and produced 30 1st downs (25) or TDs (5). Not a bad TE recruiting class with Toilolo, Ertz, and Hewitt all the same year.

How do you feel the run game will fare this weekend? The Trojan front seven has been very good thus far. ~wrobinson91, Conquest Chronicles

HUSAK: It will be tough. Stanford has done a good job handling the front 7 so far this season, but the safeties are overplaying the run and making a ton of tackles. That is where the play action can really be effective and post routes are huge in beating that scheme.

Todd, if you were the Stanford defense, would you blitz more with the linebackers to try and get to Barkley and try and force him to get the ball out faster than he’s comfortable with, or play straight up and force Barkley to throw and hit zones?


HUSAK: Good question. When facing a great QB who has WRs that can beat 1 on 1 coverage, blitzes really expose the defense to big plays. I would stick with some zone blitz schemes that typically only bring 4 or 5 rushers but are designed to beat the pass protection. I do think that Shayne Skov and James Vaughters are excellent pass rushing LBs and would give them some opportunities to beat the young Center, but wouldn’t do it often.