Oh, those Stanford Cardinal. They aren’t as sexy as the Trojans. They don’t have skill players like USC. David Shaw’s recruiting classes don’t rank as high as Lane Kiffin’s. Stepfan Taylor ’s runs up the middle won’t make Sports Center top-10’s like the spectacular catches that Robert Woods and Marqise Lee are able to make. They rarely sell out their 50,000 seat stadium, and let’s face it, their fans are more than a little annoying (just recall what John McKay had to say on the subject).
But, since Jim Harbaugh, oh, can the Stanford Cardinal play football.
In four of the last five meetings between the two teams, Stanford has beaten the Trojans, and there’s really only one main difference. While USC tries to use its advantage in skill players to win games, Stanford -- with no disguise or surprise -- wants to physically beat other teams to a pulp in the trenches. And, as we all saw on Saturday, it worked again.
USC had a great build-up to this season. Matt Barkley, Woods, Lee -- they were everywhere. All the talk was national championship and Heisman Trophy. Preseason No. 1 ranking. Stanford lost Andrew Luck, so it was barely in the top 25, as if he alone was the reason for the team's recent success. Compare the conventional wisdom against what happened on Saturday -- it’s more than a little ironic.
Sure, USC was playing without center Khaled Holmes, and his presence alone may have been enough to change the outcome of this close game. But USC wasn’t the better team on Saturday. Yes, the Trojans have some great individual players -- Woods and Lee stood out on offense, Dion Bailey and T.J. McDonald stood out on defense. But across the offensive front, there were issues – it wasn’t just Cyrus Hobbi. Aundrey Walker was a liability as well. And in truth, I didn’t see one position up front where there was a solid game played. And on defense, while the front played great for two-and-a-half quarters, eventually Stanford’s physically dominant style wore them out.
USC’s tradition of great skill players is as strong as any program in the country. Heisman Trophies, prolific quarterbacks, All-American receivers and legendary running backs. But one thing has marked USC’s championship years -- great lines. Great individual linemen, yes, but even more -- across the board, great lines. Offense and defense. Right now, while USC has great skill players, it doesn’t have those great lines. Good is not good enough.
Look at the elite teams right now in college football -- Alabama, LSU, Florida State, even Oregon. Their lines, on both sides of the ball, are dominant. USC won’t be elite again -- whether this season or next or the next -- until its lines are dominant again.
There will certainly be those who blame Kiffin. But before I get critical, let me first come to his defense. The one thing about linemen that isn’t true of skill players is that they almost always take time to develop, and unfortunately, for all the great things Pete Carroll did for USC, one thing he didn’t do was leave the cupboard full -- especially at offensive line. And while Kiffin has recruited heavily along the line, some of his biggest recruits, including Walker and Hobbi, don’t seem ready to play consistently at this level in their second years. And this is nothing new. Matt Kalil redshirted in 2008, was a backup for most of 2009, and when he got his first start at the end of his second year against Boston College in the Emerald Bowl, he looked a lot like Hobbi and Walker did on Saturday. This is a guy who two years later left USC after his junior season to be the first lineman taken in the NFL draft. So don’t be too mad at Hobbi and Walker -- they may be great players before they are finished at USC, they simply weren’t on Saturday.
But on the other hand, what had me shaking my head on Saturday was the degree to which USC’s coaches seemed surprised by the struggles they had up front. Why do I say they were surprised? Because there was seemingly no “Plan B.” There was no changing pass protections to help Hobbi and Walker. No one shortened the drops of Barkley to get rid of the ball more quickly with more accurate short throws. There was no attempt to move John Martinez to center and see how he fared. There seemed to be nothing, and the conclusion that the staff was surprised is all I can come up with.
But, as the Trojans have to do, let’s now look ahead. I read articles on Sunday talking about the impact of the loss on USC’s national championship chances, and how -- because they lost early -- they still have a chance if they run the table the rest of the way. While that may be true, the Trojans themselves best not be thinking that way. This team is three games into the season, and I really haven’t seen an impressive, complete game yet. That’s what they should be aiming for. Forget the score, forget about even winning. Just play your best football. Dominate the man across from you. Beat him, over and over and over. Look up at the scoreboard when it’s over. Don’t think about anything else.
But that may be easier said than done for a team coming off of such high expectations. After all, their sights weren’t set on a Pac-12 Championship -- it was national championship, Heisman Trophy. All else is disappointment. How does this team respond when that objective is a distant, unlikely, unattainable goal? We will soon find out, and when we do, we’ll see the character of this team -- one way or another. And while playing Cal at home may be another opportunity for USC to showcase Barkley, Woods and Lee and get them “back on track,” I would urge everyone to watch the battles up front on both sides of the ball. What Trojans should hope to see is a group of big, talented men who are upset, in the mood for a fight and have something to prove, and who won’t forget the horrible feeling they had in Palo Alto on Saturday, as they try to take that next step their team desperately needs them to take.