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After easy wins, Stanford provides first real test for USC

David Shaw and Steve Sarkisian will match wits at the LA Coliseum on Saturday. US TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- In the first two games of the 2015 season, the No. 6 and undefeated USC Trojans (2-0) have outscored the opposition by an impressive combined point total of 114-15.

Of course, the first couple of adversaries, the Arkansas State Red Wolves and the Idaho Vandals, combined have yet to win a football game (0-4) this season, something that should somewhat temper a Trojans fan’s enthusiasm. To put it bluntly, the Men of Troy haven’t really played anybody yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy.

This Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum could help bring some sort of clarity as to what kind of team the Trojans have this season -- and the clarity will come during prime time on ABC.

Things get serious -- very serious -- as the Trojans open Pac-12 play with the arrival of the unranked but unpredictable Stanford Cardinal (1-1), which defeated Central Florida 31-7 Saturday night in Stanford Stadium.

And nobody knows the importance of the upcoming challenge of Stanford more than Trojans starting senior inside linebacker and co-captain Anthony Sarao, who was once committed to the Cardinal before switching to the Trojans back in 2011.

“It’s time to lock in,” Sarao said of Stanford. “I mean it’s getting the butterflies inside, it’s exciting, get the chills, if you know what I mean.

“It’s not preseason or a non-conference game, it’s a conference game, you know. Stanford is Stanford and we’re going to do what we’re going to do, and we’re going to prepare like usual and we’re going to come out and win the game.”

Stanford, which was a solid preseason contender for the Pac-12 title, got off to a rough start a few weeks ago, being upset in its season opener, 16-6, at Northwestern. It was a game that started at 11 a.m. in the Midwest but 9 a.m. Stanford body time, and that 4:40 a.m. PT wakeup call on game day certainly contributed to the Cardinal’s lethargy and such a poor showing.

So what kind of a Stanford team will arrive at the Coliseum next Saturday night? Is it the one that slept through its season opener in Evanston and looked slow and disinterested, or the team that rebounded with an encouraging win this past weekend in Palo Alto?

Sarao knows the implications of playing Stanford (1-1) and their brand of power football, but tried to keep the big Pac-12 opener in perspective.

“Bigger than just Stanford, it’s our first Pac-12 game,” said Sarao.

The challenge for Sarao and the Trojans defense is Stanford’s style of offense, which is basically smashmouth combined with a strategic passing design. The Cardinal’s attack certainly differs from that of most Pac-12 teams, which feature wide-open, fast-paced attacks.

“They run more 21 to 22 to 23 personnel -- powers, counters, and inside football,” Sarao said. “Naturally it’s going to be more physical than bubble screens and five-wide and that type of football.”

Sarao also understands the foundation of Stanford’s style of offense, which dates back to the predecessor of current Cardinal coach David Shaw.

“When Coach (Jim) Harbaugh was their coach, I think they had that aura about them,” said Sarao. “He brings that to a team.”

While Sarao has a great deal of respect for the Cardinal, he thinks he knows what it will take to defeat them on Saturday night in Los Angeles.

“It’s come out and execute and trust our preparation,” Sarao said. “I know the coaches will get us right during practice. It’s about coming out and working hard on Tuesday and Wednesday and trust our preparations and play as Trojans.”

In the last two games of this contentious series between these two proud, private universities, games have been won by late Trojans field goals and opportune defensive plays.

So what is it that seems to bring out the best in competition between these two West Coast powers?

“It’s the Pac-12 and while it’s not an historic rivalry, it’s been building up the past couple of years,” said.

Also building is the anticipation to find out what kind of a team the undefeated Trojans really have in 2015.