What to watch: Stanford at USC

A few things to keep an eye on as No. 6 Stanford heads south to face USC on Saturday.

  • Running with confidence: Stanford running backs are coming off the greatest game in school history. Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney both went for more than 100 yards against Washington, Anthony Wilkerson put together his strongest game of the season and Jeremy Stewart got the job done with his usual short-yardage production. Plus fullback Ryan Hewitt, who hasn't logged a carry in back-to-back games, had his strongest blocking performance of the season. As we know, you can't run if you can't block, which leads us to ...

  • ... Offensive line play: Stanford ran wild on a top-20 rush defense last week, but USC's is better, coming in 11th nationally and allowing just 91.1 yards per game. This is the toughest defensive front the Cardinal have faced this season, so all the improvement we've heard (and seen) from the offensive line will be put to the test. Stanford's bread-and-butter running play is the power, and it's up to quarterback Andrew Luck to make the right call against the right defensive alignment. He's been nearly perfect this season, according to head coach David Shaw. He'll need to be perfect again.

  • Wrap up: The cornerbacks have the unpleasant task of dealing with Trojans wide receiver Robert Woods, whom Shaw called the most developed player for his age he's ever seen. He had a monster game against the Cardinal last season, and tackling in the secondary has been spotty, to say the least. Woods will get his catches, but it's what he does after those catches that will make or break this game -- particularly with safety Delano Howell expected to be on the sidelines for the second consecutive week.

  • Time for Trees: After a relatively quiet week against Washington, it's time for the tight ends to get involved in the game. Stanford isn't as likely to have the same success on the ground as it did against Washington. Stanford has the biggest advantage of any team in the country with its speedy, oversized tight ends. Look for them to exploit that every chance they get. If they are covered up, look for Hewitt out of the backfield to have a big contribution in the receiving game.

  • The other line: Stanford's defensive line and linebackers are pretty good, too -- especially when it comes to getting after the quarterback. The Cardinal rank fourth nationally with 3.6 sacks per game. That creates quite the standoff with USC's offensive line, which is fifth nationally in sacks allowed. Part of it is good blocking, but part of it is quarterback Matt Barkley being efficient and getting rid of the ball quickly. If the Cardinal can get to Barkley, the numbers swing severely in their favor. But it's a really big if.