Southern Cal-Stanford Preview
It took everything Stanford had with the eventual No. 1 pick in the NFL draft to outlast Southern California in three overtimes last year.
With the second-ranked Trojans potentially having the top pick in next year's draft, it may take even more for the No. 21 Cardinal to win in 2012.
The Pac-12 rivals meet Saturday night in a key interdivision clash that could give the winner an early advantage in the race to the conference title game.
Before current Indianapolis Colts starting quarterback Andrew Luck left "the Farm" in Palo Alto, he engineered three straight victories over Southern California (2-0), capped by a wild 56-48 victory in Los Angeles last year. Luck finished with 330 yards and three TD passes as Stanford (2-0) scored a tying touchdown with 38 seconds left in regulation and touchdowns on all three OT possessions, thwarting counterpart Matt Barkley for the third time in as many years.
Stanford has won four of the last five between the teams as coach David Shaw and Trojans counterpart Lane Kiffin have furthered the burgeoning rivalry started by respective predecessors Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll.
"I think you can say in the last five years they've been three of the most exciting games you can imagine starting with the big upset win down there," Shaw noted. "We're different teams but we play some exciting football the last two years."
"Anytime you go to the last play of the game two years in a row in what I think were extremely well-played games by both teams," Kiffin said. "Very exciting games, great quarterback play, and it's become a rivalry... a lot of credit goes to Stanford. For a few years there, it wasn't, then obviously coach Harbaugh coming in really changed it and coach Shaw picked up the flag and ran with it."
Barkley again carries the USC flag after bypassing the draft to return for his senior year, and the signal-caller has looked every bit a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy with an FBS-leading 10 touchdown passes in two victories. He matched a career high with six last Saturday in a 42-29 victory over Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J., but only finished with 187 yards as the game featured high winds and a thunderstorm that delayed the second half for more than an hour.
"I don't really know what it was,'' said Barkley, who has thrown for 870 yards and seven TDs in three losses to Stanford. ''We felt ready to go. Took us a while to get going.''
While Barkley felt uneven, Robert Woods felt fine. He finished with 200 all-purpose yards - 76 coming on a reverse - and two receiving touchdowns, and the junior wide receiver enters this contest with 16 receptions for 135 yards and four TDs.
Woods has wreaked havoc in Stanford's secondary, totaling 21 catches for 313 yards and four scores in two games.
Yet the Cardinal can't overlook fellow Trojans wideout Marquise Lee, who ranks third in the nation with 21 receptions and is tied for fifth with 263 yards. Shaw thinks the combo is the best he's ever seen and it's "not even close," leaving him to keep his young secondary from getting overwhelmed after giving up 574 passing yards in its two wins.
''It's all about gang tackling and knowing where your help is,'' he said. ''You think you're by yourself and you take a shot and you miss and they get up the sideline, you can't catch them.''
Offensively, Luck's successor Josh Nunes looked far more comfortable in Saturday's win over Duke than in Stanford's opening grind past San Jose State. Nunes finished with 275 passing yards and three touchdowns versus the Blue Devils, and the Cardinal can still rely on tailback Stepfan Taylor, who has 185 yards in a strong start as he seeks a third straight 1,000-yard season.
He had 99 yards and two scores in last year's win and 104 yards with a TD in the 2011 victory.
Nunes has yet to find a primary go-to receiver, with five different Cardinal players grabbing at least four of his passes.
Stanford has never won four straight over Southern Cal in the 107-year rivalry.