Stanford-USC: Kessler devastating against standard pressure

Cody Kessler has been nearly perfect against standard pressure this season, completing 32 of 36 passes for five touchdowns with no interceptions. Kevin Hogan's Total QBR of 60 through two games this season would be a career low. AP Photo, Getty Images

The USC Trojans will host the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday in Los Angeles (8 p.m. ET, ABC/WatchESPN), and historical trends favor the Trojans’ chances to beat the Cardinal. Unranked Stanford teams have won once in the past 19 games against ranked USC teams (1-17-1). Stanford’s win in this situation came in 2007, when Jim Harbaugh was coach, against a USC team favored by 41 points.

Each of the past five games in this series has finished with a final score within one possession, including a triple-overtime game in 2011. The five-game streak is the longest in this series, which dates to 1905, and last happened in the five games played from 1922 to 1927.

In last season’s 13-10 USC victory, Stanford had every chance to win, driving inside the Trojans’ 35-yard line nine times. But on those nine drives, they came away with 10 points; the other seven drives ended by punt (twice), turnover (twice), missed field goal (two) and turnover on downs (once). Stanford scored the fewest points among teams that had at least nine such drives in a game since the start of last season.

Kessler is the catalyst of the Trojans’ offense

USC’s win over Idaho marked the first time in 10 years it has scored 50 points in back-to-back games. Not including USC’s 2005 vacated wins, you’d have to go to 1972 to find back-to-back recognized games in which USC broke 50 points.

A lot of the Trojans’ early success can be attributed to Cody Kessler. He is off to a fantastic start in 2015, including one of his best career games against Idaho: a career-high 410 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Since the start of last season, Kessler has six games throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, most in the FBS in that span.

Kessler has been especially successful throwing the ball when the opposing defenses committed more defenders to coverage. Against four or fewer pass-rushers, Kessler has an 85 Total QBR and a Power 5-high 33 touchdown passes.

Stanford has used a standard pass rush (that is, has not blitzed) on 84 percent of opponents’ dropbacks since the start of last season, six percentage points greater than the Power 5 average.

Over the past two seasons, Kessler has thrown 41 more touchdowns than interceptions, which is tied with Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty for the best touchdown-to-interception differential in the FBS.

As Hogan goes, so goes Stanford

How well the Cardinal play on offense depends on the play of Kevin Hogan. In wins, Hogan has posted a Total QBR of 83 with a completion percentage above 67 percent, but there has been a stark difference in the Cardinal’s losses.

The Cardinal’s ability to handle the blitz is also of note. Against the blitz in losses the past two seasons, Hogan has a Total QBR of 13 (the Pac-12 average is 42); against five or more pass-rushers in wins, Hogan’s QBR is 77 (Pac-12 average: 75). USC blitzed on 13 percent of opponents' dropbacks last season, 28 percent this season.

Hogan’s success throwing the deep ball in those games has been crucial. On passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield, Hogan has 20 touchdowns to six interceptions in wins. On such plays in losses, he has not recorded a touchdown and has thrown three interceptions.

What to watch for: third down

Neither team has been successful at converting third-down opportunities this season. Stanford (30 percent) and USC (25 percent) rank 106th and 117th, respectively, in the FBS in third-down conversion percentage this season.

ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Trojans an 82 percent likelihood of winning.