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Tempo the talk of USC-Stanford showdown

On a chalkboard, the base offenses of Stanford and USC probably look very similar. Both derive from pro-style philosophies and principles. But if games were played only on a chalkboard, you’d have no idea just how different they really are in application.

When the No. 14 Trojans head to No. 13 Stanford on Saturday for the Pac-12 opener for both teams, the game will feature USC’s up-tempo attack versus Stanford’s methodical ground-and-pound approach.

Think of it as pro-style versus pronto-style.

Last Saturday in Steve Sarkisian’s debut as USC's head coach, the Trojans ran a conference-record 105 plays in a 52-13 pasting of the Fresno State Bulldogs. Leading the charge for the Trojans was quarterback Cody Kessler, who completed 25 of 37 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for a fifth score as the Trojans amassed 701 yards of offense -- their most in a game since 2005.

“They were what you want to start the season with,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “They were efficient and explosive. Sometimes you get one without the other, but they were both. Cody played well. It’s obvious he’s got some weapons. Like us, they turned the ball over too many times and had some first game issues. But when you watch them play, they can go up-tempo, they have great personnel, they’re big on the offensive line. They are tough to crack and get after the quarterback like we like to because they are big up front. It was an impressive thing to watch.”

Impressive indeed. But duplicating that kind of success will be a chore against the Cardinal. Known for its stout defense and ability to keep offenses sidelined (it held Oregon to just 58 plays last season), Stanford will try to play the ball-control game. Shaw & Co. have their own idea of tempo. And it’s speeding up the game by slowing it down.

“They are a lot more multiple than people give them credit for,” Sarkisian said of Stanford’s offense. “Everyone wants to focus on when they go to their big package and bring in the [extra] offensive linemen. But they do stuff out of the traditional pro-style. They do stuff out of two-tight-end sets. They do stuff out of three-wide-receiver sets. They give you a lot of different looks, and they execute their stuff really well.”

It's also worth noting that Washington integrated this scheme USC deploys last year, when Sarkisian was the coach there. And the Huskies totaled 489 yards of offense in a 31-28 loss to the Cardinal in Palo Alto.

"Tempo" is a word you’re probably going to hear a lot on the telecast and read a lot following the game. Because whoever establishes tempo is, in essence, dictating the flow of the game. And for as much credit as USC’s offense deserves in the first week, Shaw said it’s the USC defense that deserves as much of the praise.

“If you don’t stay on the field on offense, they are going to run a ton of plays,” Shaw said. “For me, that’s not a function of tempo, that’s a function of playing good defense and getting Fresno State off the field very quickly with a bunch of three-and-outs. Small time of possession, very few plays, and that gives their offense more opportunities with the ball. [USC defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox is as vital to how many plays they get on offense and how many points they get on offense as what they do on offense. USC is a very good defense. One of the best in the country. And they are going to give that offense a lot of opportunities.”

Last Saturday, the Trojans forced Fresno State into three three-and-out drives and six punts. Stanford forced UC Davis into nine three-and-outs. Offensively, Kessler was the model of efficiency on third down, completing 9 of 10 passes for 111 yards and a pair of touchdowns on third down. Davis was just 1-of-13 on third-down conversions against the Cardinal and didn’t cross midfield until the final play of the game.

And when you throw in the fact that Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is 10-1 in his career against ranked teams and that the Cardinal are riding a 17-game home win streak (including nine straight against ranked teams) and that the series has been a thrill ride of late, you have all the trappings for another fantastic showdown.

“It’s been really, really good football,” Shaw said of recent games with USC. “When both teams have been ranked or one team has been ranked, it doesn’t matter.”