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Worst time for Stanford to play USC

Charles Davis previews Week 3's College Football on FOX matchups.
Charles Davis previews Week 3's College Football on FOX matchups.
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Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner is a general assignment writer for FOXSports.com. Originally from Orlando, Fla., he previously covered the Orlando Magic for FOX Sports Florida and has also covered the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and MLB playoffs. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Stanford and USC football teams have played each other virtually every year since 1918, but only lately has their annual meeting developed into the kind of heated rivalry you’d expect out of the two California powerhouses.

It started back in 2007, when, after five years of Southern Cal dominance and Stanford malaise, the Cardinal famously stunned the Trojans at home, the 41-point underdogs riding backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard to a 24-23 win at Memorial Coliseum.

The win was one of the biggest upsets in college football history and seemed to reignite the Stanford-USC rivalry, so it comes as no surprise that the four games since have increased the hype around the annual soiree — which some might say is now bigger than the Big Game between Stanford and rival Cal.

USC rebounded from that stunning ’07 loss with a blowout win in Palo Alto in 2008, but the Cardinal returned the favor the following season with a 55-21 win in Los Angeles that led to the famous “What’s your deal?” postgame confrontation between then-coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh.

The 2010 game came down to a last-second, game-winning field goal by Cardinal kicker Nate Whitaker, and Stanford’s win last season at USC saw more than 100 combined points scored between the teams and required three overtimes to decide a winner.

The common thread in the revival of the rivalry, of course, is that Stanford has had Southern Cal’s number over the past five years.

But with the Cardinal still adjusting to life without Andrew Luck while No. 2 USC is considered to be the nation’s best bet to end the SEC’s six-year run of BCS titles, you can’t help but wonder if this is the year the Trojans reassert themselves as the dominant force — both in the rivalry and in the Pac-12 standings.

No. 21 Stanford (2-0) enters Saturday’s game (7 p.m. ET on FOX) as eight-point underdogs, but that’s probably a generous line — not to mention a favorable ranking — for a team that barely escaped San Jose State at home in Week 1 and is still adapting to a new lineup after an offseason marked by massive turnover at key positions

The Cardinal have five first-time starters on offense, the most notable of whom is quarterback Josh Nunes, who replaced No. 1 draft pick Luck, and four new starters on defense, including three in a secondary that, last year, ranked 95th nationally in passing yards allowed per game. And so far, it’s been slow-going for some of the new guys.

“Two games in, there’s been some good, there’s been some bad, but I love our effort,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “I think we’ve got a chance to be better probably three weeks down the road than we are now. We’re playing 22 first-time players, 10 true freshmen, and those guys are going to keep getting better.”

Unfortunately, the Cardinal are getting their toughest test of the season now, not in three weeks — it's the earliest the teams have met since 1988 — and the Pac-12 opener might be too big of a challenge too soon for Shaw’s green Stanford squad.

“They’re playing well right now, but they’re playing through errors and playing through mistakes,” Shaw said of his newcomers. “They’re playing and learning at the same time, so that’s kind of where we are right now. But I like the fact that we’re more athletic than we have been, I like the fact that we’re playing extremely hard. We’ve just got to make sure we’re improving each week.”

One place where Stanford will absolutely need to make strides if they want to hang with a 2-0 USC team that’s averaging 45.5 points on 460 yards of offense per game is in the red zone. Stanford has only found the end zone on five of its 10 trips inside the 20 this season, kicking field goals on four of the other red zone opportunities and turning the ball over on downs once against San Jose State.

Even in a 50-13 win over Duke last week, Stanford had to settle for field goals on three of six trips inside the Blue Devils’ 20. But field goals won’t get the job done against USC, and the Trojans won’t be quite as prone to the big play as Duke, which also allowed a punt return and an interception return for a touchdown.

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“I know that our focus now has to be laser-sharp and we’ve got to make sure we eliminate as much error in our game as possible, if we want a chance to win,” Shaw said.

In order to hang with USC senior quarterback Matt Barkley — who has never beaten Stanford — and the Trojans, the Cardinal are going to need to come up with red zone production to rival last year's team, which led the nation in red zone efficiency at 97.1 percent, including a 76.8 percent touchdown rate on trips inside the opponent’s 20.

But even if they do, Stanford still might find that they’re just not ready for a game this early against a team this good. Timing is everything, and while Stanford might develop into a formidable foe in October or November, now is the worst possible time to be playing the toughest game of the year.

“It’s hard to say where you want to have them (on your schedule),” Shaw said of playing USC so early. “At some point you’ve got to play them, and whether you play them late or play them early, they could hit their stride at any time.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

Tagged: Stanford, USC, Nate Whitaker

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