The Skinny: It All Comes Down To The Running Game

Stanford comes into the Coliseum as a hot team with Rose Bowl aspirations. The Cardinal’s defeat of the 8th ranked Oregon Ducks 51-42 put the nation on notice that Stanford football can compete at the highest level and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh is one of the best young coaches in the game.

It was just two years ago that Harbaugh inherited a football program that was one of the worst in the country and used the biggest upset in college football history against USC (Stanford was a 42.5 point underdog) that year as a stepping stone to building a top 25 team.

The heart and soul of Stanford is Toby Gerhart, a 6’1, 235 pound physical powerhouse running back who is one of the best in the nation. He is one of the few backs in the country that can and will carry the ball over 30 times a game and beat defenders up. His mentality has crossed over to his teammates who thrive off playing a physical brand of football.

Another key to Stanford’s success is they play intelligently and usually will not beat themselves. The development of Redshirt Freshman Andrew Luck has been tremendous and gives Stanford the balance on offense that makes them dangerous anywhere on the field. In the past 3 games, Luck was 50-83 for 910 yards and 5 TD’s against only 1 interceptions and that included games against two top 25 teams (Oregon and Arizona) and against one of the best defenses in the conferences Arizona State.

The banged up Trojans will have to play far better than they have the past 6 quarters to leave the Coliseum with a victory. It is going to be tough as the offense will need to come to life without #1 wideout/punt returner Damian Williams (high ankle sprain) and Wide Receiver Ronald Johnson and Tight End Anthony McCoy not operating at 100%.

The Stanford defense is vulnerable to a balanced attack and the Trojans offense is not only going to have to generate at least 24 points of offense but also grind away at the game clock to rest the defense which will be involved in a very physical battle.

4 Keys to the Game:

Hold Gerhart to under 4 yards a carry: It is going to be difficult to completely shut down a back as physical as Toby Gerhart. The Trojans have to look to contain him and not allow him to frequently gain over 5 yards a carry. The Defensive Line will have to play very physical and win the line of scrimmage battle.

The shift of Defensive Lineman Devon Kennard to Linebacker could be a huge factor. Kennard looked great in practice this week and has the size and strength to handle a guy like Gerhart. He gives the undersized linebacking core a physical presence that is sorely needed in a game like this. USC coaches are very enthusiastic about Kennard’s physical and mental attributes. He can be a “55” type linebacker. However, a lot is being asked of a freshman who has not played the position before.

More keys and injury updates after the jump

Don’t be frustrated by QB Andrew Luck: As I mentioned earlier, Luck is a great quarterback who compliments Gerhart very well. He is going to make some plays with his arm and his feet. Even if he has success early, the Trojans need to make him beat them and not abandon keying on Gerhart. If Gerhart is held to under 85 yards rushing and Stanford beats USC because Luck throws for over 400 yards against what is the strength of the Trojan defense than USC probably deserves to play in the Sun Bowl.

The Offensive Line has to make a statement: The Trojan Offensive Line is struggling and really needs to get into a groove and dominate the line of scrimmage for the Trojans to have any success offensively. All of Matt Barkley’s top targets are either not playing (Damian Williams) or are not 100% (Anthony McCoy and Ronald Johnson) which will make it difficult on the true freshman quarterback.

The Trojans need to have a balanced offense which leads to success in the running game, particularly in the second half. Last year the Trojans were able to run the ball at will in the second half against Stanford thanks to great offensive line play. Stanford is going to want to play physical and the Trojans will need to match that style upfront and wear them down. Alan Bradford and Joe McKnight will need to combine for over 150-200 yards on the ground and Barkley will need to have the time to connect on a few big plays in the passing game.

Brice Butler, Joe McKnight and Anthony McCoy have to play big: All 3 of these players need to make something happen offensively. Matt Barkley feels comfortable with Brice Butler and maybe this will be a coming out party for the young Wide Receiver. As the 3rd receiver he has been dependable all year but he will really need to step up now that he is the #2 receiver and the healthiest one out there.

Despite not being 100%, Anthony McCoy will have to play big and be very dependable especially on 3rd down and in the red zone. The Trojans will not have back-up Tight End Blake Ayles so if he gets re-injured the Trojans offense could really be in trouble.

Look for McKnight to be all over the field. He’ll line-up at both tailback and Wide Receiver. The coaches want to get him the ball since he is the Trojans be all around threat without Williams available. If McKnight is able to get going early it will open up the offense and allow Barkley to get into a rhythm. It goes without saying that Fullback Stanley Havili and Running Back Alan Bradford have to be consistent and block well as Stanford is expected to blitz the Trojans often.

Notes going into Saturday:

*Wide Receiver Damian Williams is definitely not playing. Redshirt Freshman Brice Butler will start in his place.

*Fullback Stanley Havili will start after missing two games with an inured shoulder.

*Linebacker Malcolm Smith will play a limited role but not near 100%. Expect LB Shane Horton to be most of the reps.

*Tight End Blake Ayles was injured in practice this week and will miss the game. Anthony McCoy is back from his high ankle sprain but is only about 90%. Rhett Ellison will back him up.

*Freshman Defensive End Nick Perry will start at Defensive End with the move of Kennard to linebacker.


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