The Stanford Cardinal are coming to town, and that means some physical football is going to be played in the Coliseum on Saturday night. So much of the pregame attention this week for the Stanford offense revolves around quarterback Andrew Luck, but USC head coach Lane Kiffin knows the real identity for the Cardinal lies in their ground game.
"I love the style they play with," Kiffin said. "We're talking about maybe the best quarterback to play college football yet their offense starts with the run game. I truly believe that."
It's not often that you line up to play a team that just set a school record for the most rushing yards in a game, but that is exactly what the Trojans will face. Stanford ran for 446 yards in its victory over Washington and has been able to move the ball on the ground consistently all year, currently ranking No. 2 in the Pac-12 with 219.43 rushing yards per game.
That success running the ball has contributed to an offense that hasn't been stopped much. Stanford has converted 38 of 38 trips into the red zone, with 30 touchdowns and eight field goals. It is ranked No. 2 in the nation is scoring with 48.6 points per game and is on pace to break the school single-season scoring record for the third year in a row.
The foundation of this offensive prowess was laid by former coach Jim Harbaugh, now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and has been continued by current coach David Shaw, a former wide receiver at Stanford. The offense revolves around a power running scheme featuring a fullback and multiple tight ends, a big offensive line and extensive use of different formations and personnel groups to help keep the defense off guard.
The way Stanford utilizes the tight ends is a key example of why it has been so successful.
The tight end is a rare breed of athlete, one who has enough size to block a lineman yet is athletic enough to be a weapon in the passing game. The Cardinal use as many as three of them, and it will be a test for the undersized Trojans' outside linebackers to match up. USC strongside linebacker Dion Bailey is 6-feet, 200 pounds while weakside linebacker Hayes Pullard is 6-0, 225. The trio of Stanford tight ends average 6-6, 255.
"It should be tough," Bailey said. "They're a lot bigger than us, taller than us. But we played one of the best tight ends last week in No. 80 [Tyler Eifert] from Notre Dame, so it's nothing new. We just have to step up to the challenge."
By having multiple tight ends in the game, the Cardinal also is able to move them around before the snap in different formations to help create mismatches for the defense. The defense basically has a choice to adjust on the fly to what Stanford is doing or stay with a base look and take its chances.
One of the chess matches will come with the Trojans' defensive schemes and personnel. Will Monte Kiffin give help to the front seven to help combat the onslaught of Cardinal offensive linemen, as many as seven on some plays? Will the Trojans simply depend on the speed and athleticism of their defenders to make plays? USC will need to show patience in its pla,n because chances are Stanford is going to see a certain amount of success. In the end, the Trojans know it will come down to a physical battle that will likely will be determined by who wins the competition up front.
"They want to pound you," USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said. "They want to out-physical you. They do a great job of blocking and scheming up front, and the backs know exactly what they're doing, but you can't overcommit to the run, because this quarterback can make you pay with a touchdown. We can't make those kind of mistakes."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.