USC Trying To Avoid Another Halloween Horror Sequel vs. Stanford

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Slasher movies that are air ad nauseum on cable networks this time of year spawned countless sequels, regardless of the franchise. With Halloween approaching, USC finds itself facing the third installment of its own horror series.

The Trojans’ 31-17 win over Notre Dame elevated USC to 6-1, and with 7-0 Stanford on its way to Los Angeles this Saturday, the downtown campus was the obvious choice for ESPN College GameDay. Each of the last two seasons, USC has played in the Halloween weekend GameDay showcase. Each of those outings turned into a horror story for the Men of Troy.

CHAPTER 1: FRIGHT NIGHT

The bone chilling Pacific Northwest set the perfect atmosphere as Oregon fans blacked out Autzen Stadium and the Ducks took the field in all-black uniforms. UO paved its road to the Rose Bowl and slashed USC’s streak of Pac-10 championships. A competitive first half devolved into the worst loss for the program in 12 years, as UO racked up over 600 yards and pounded the Trojans 47-20. The second half score? Oregon 23, USC 3.

CHAPTER 2: KELLY’S REVENGE

Like so many of the horror genre sequels, USC’s second foray into Halloween GameDay produced an almost identical result. The Trojans fell behind at halftime, as they had the season prior. The script flipped when the Trojans erupted in the third quarter to take the lead.

Perhaps the demons of the season prior were excorised?

Not exactly.

LaMichael James’ Heisman candidacy was the stuff of nightmares for SC. He rushed for 239 yards and three touchdowns, two of which came in the decisive final stretch, and USC was just another victim on the Ducks’ voyage to Glendale.

CHAPTER 3: CHANGE OF LUCK?

USC must do what no team has been able in 13 (appropriate number) months and contain the dangerous Stanford Cardinal, lest the Trojans join Halloween, Friday The 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Saw in a longstanding tradition of predictable horror franchises. The obvious starting point is Andrew Luck, a figure as iconic in the college football world as Jason or Freddy is to the thriller genre.

Luck’s reputation precedes him, so there’s really no need to go through the numbers — at least, not this season’s. In last season’s 37-35 Cardinal win, Luck completed on 20-of-24 attempts for 285 yards and scored three touchdowns, while also rushing for 40 yards. The season prior, he threw just 144 yards on 12 completions, but scored twice. And this Stanford team is in many ways, more comparable offensively to the ’09 Cardinal than last season’s Orange Bowl version.

While Stanford doesn’t have any single rusher akin to Toby Gerhart, who housed the Trojan defense for 178 yards and three touchdowns, the Cardinal can and will shove the rush down opposing defenses’ throats. One need look no further than last week’s dismantling of Washington for evidence, as the Cardinal ran the ball 44 times for 446 yards. Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson all went for at least 93 yards and a touchdowns. Boasting so many weapons from the ground probably makes Stanford more dangerous with the rush now than in Gerhart’s final season.

The Cardinal’s multifaceted run game has to be worrisome for Lane Kiffin and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, as SU managed to control the tempo against a UW team reliant heavily on the pass — something USC most certainly is, as well. Matt Barkley has interjected himself back into the Heisman discussion alongside teammate and the nation’s top receiver, Robert Woods. That combination has been the centerpiece of the Trojans racking up nearly 290 yards per game through the air, but Barkley can go elsewhere if the SU defense proves overwhelming for Woods.

Marqise Lee has hauled in 27 balls for 440 yards and scored four touchdowns as Barkley’s clear second favorite target. Stanford has proven it will surrender yards in the air — it ranks just 81st against the pass — but the Cardinal’s forte is not allowing those yards to convert to points.

The Cardinal succeed in that regard using a punishing 3-4 set with well-executed blitz packages. The Cardinal get into opposing backfields to stifle the run, an ongoing issue for USC as is, and sack quarterbacks. With 25 sacks through seven games, the Cardinal rank No. 7 in FBS. Barkley’s been successful the last month because he’s minimized bad decisions and cut way down on his turnovers, but an inability for USC to establish the run combined with a swarming Stanford presence could put him into situations requiring either he take a sack, throw away, or force passes.

Conversely, establishing the run is something Luck can rely on almost as a matter of course, andhe run helped Stanford dictate game flow vs. UW and Arizona. Coincidentally, it was USC’s undoing in its previous Halloween GameDay outings. Cue the spooky music.

James’ 239 set the tone for Oregon to accrue 311 rushing yards as a team, and the season prior went for 391 yards on the ground. That UO team’s rush offense was more akin to this Stanford team’s in that it was reliant on several components rather than one.

This Trojans’ team saving grace is that entering Saturday, it’s the 11th best team against the rush in all of college football. Luck may be the iconic monster Kiffin’s expected to take down, but there’s so much more to Stanford than that. Keying in on just one facet of what the Cardinal can do is the difference between a happy ending, or the same old horrific story for USC.

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