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USC seeks to ward off attack from the North

LOS ANGELES -- It's a beautiful fall day in Southern California, but a team from the North is planning a coup d'etat.

While USC is a double-digit favorite over Stanford, it's fair to say the Trojans are embattled, their seven-year perch atop the Pac-10 in severe peril.

They have injury issues on both sides of the ball. The offense has scored one touchdown over the last six quarters. The normally stout defense has been gashed of late, most particularly by Oregon, which piled up 613 yards in an eye-popping 47-20 win, the worst defeat of the Pete Carroll Era.

A week after that thunderclap left USC with two conference defeats, Stanford outlasted those same Ducks, 51-42, leaving a logjam among the Rose Bowl aspirants.

Stanford is in the mix. And Oregon. Oregon State and Arizona, too.

And, by the way, so is USC.

What hangs over the Trojans today is simple: Will they step up and refuse to go quietly into the gloaming or will they be left behind for the first time since 2001?

The first order of business: USC must stop -- or slow down -- Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, who started earning some Heisman Trophy attention when he rushed for a school-record 223 yards against Oregon last weekend.

The Trojans run defense was dominant early in the season, but it's slipped to fifth in the conference (114.6 yards per game).

That said: The Gerhart and the Cardinal run game is nothing like Oregon's spread-option, which out-smarted and out-quicked the Trojans. Stanford is a power team, and the USC defensive line should be more adept at challenging that approach.

But Gerhart isn't a one-man show. Redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck has the makings of a future first-round draft pick. He keeps defenses honest with a nice passing touch attacking downfield. The emergence of speedy but previously inconsistent receiver Chris Owusu certainly has helped that cause.

And watch out for Owusu in the return game. He's gone yard on three kickoffs this year and just missed a fourth vs. Oregon.

On the other side of the ball, Stanford seems to have the sort of defense that could help a struggling USC offense. The Cardinal ranks in the bottom half of the conference in most defensive catagories, though they forced Oregon to punt five times. USC did that only once.

But USC's offense, particularly its passing game, is wounded. Leading receiver Damian Williams is out. Tight end Anthony McCoy is hobbled.

Where the game might turn is USC's running game. The Trojans offensive line, a disappointment much of the year, at least based on preseason hype, should be a good physical match for the Stanford front-seven, which will be missing end Erik Lorig and linebacker Clinton Snyder. It also helps to have versatile fullback Stanley Havili back.

The Trojans might just feed Joe McKnight right and left and Allen Bradford up the middle and run right at Stanford. If they can do that, that might loosen things up for the struggling Matt Barkley in the passing game.

A couple of deep throws to Ronald Johnson might solve his recent woes. McKnight also might be a receiving threat, his speed and elusiveness the sort of thing that could hurt the Cardinal D.

A number that provides pause for those thinking upset: 47. That's how many games USC has won, out of its last 48, in the Coliseum.

Of course, that One is Stanford's 2007 stunning upset as a 41-point underdog.

If the Cardinal somehow prevail this afternoon, far fewer jaws will drop.