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3 keys for Stanford-USC: The big play takes center stage

Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire

You won’t have to jog your memory too far to recall the last time USC and Stanford met.

It was last December, in – against all odds for USC – the Pac-12 Championship Game. There was no need to watch it long. The Cardinal dismantled the Trojans quite easily, winning 41-22.

Now they meet again this Saturday in Palo Alto, and USC will need to play lights-out to keep it from becoming the blowout of 10 months ago.

Here are the three biggest keys in Saturday’s matchup:

  1. Christian McCaffrey
  • Bet you wouldn’t have guessed this one, would you? All McCaffrey did in last year’s matchup was, oh, score three touchdowns in three different ways – he threw one, caught one and ran one. He also broke Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yards record and cobbled together more than a quarter mile’s worth of yardage – 461 all-purpose yards in total. McCaffrey embarrassed the Trojans, through and through – and that was last year. USC’s defensive line is, to put it kindly, not good, a significant downgrade from 2015. The Trojans allowed 242 rushing yards and three touchdowns in an opening-weekend blowout at the hands of Alabama, and Alabama doesn’t have a runner with the talent of McCaffrey. Limit McCaffrey, and USC has a chance. Allow him to run wild, and you will be able safely switch the channel by halftime.
  1. Explosive plays
  • For how awful week one was for the Trojans, there remains no doubt that they still carry arguably more home-run threats than any team in the Pac-12 — more, even, than Stanford. Adoree’ Jackson’s punt return for a touchdown in a 45-7 rout of Utah State last week is a testament to that. Coach Clay Helton still hasn’t settled on who his QB1 is, waffling between Sam Darnold and Max Browne, who was fine against Utah State. Stanford, however, is no Utah State. The Cardinal isn’t quite Alabama, either, but it’s the closest thing the West Coast has, and as the 52-6 romping – the most lopsided loss for USC since 1966 – displayed, USC can’t afford to go 60 minutes without a big play or explosive touchdown.
  • Jackson’s services will be needed in full, and it wouldn’t hurt if Juju Smith-Schuster was used in the capacity he was against Utah State. He scored two touchdowns on seven catches, as opposed to hauling in just one catch against Alabama.
  1. USC’s defense
  • In 2015, every single one of USC’s wins came when it allowed 30 points or fewer. Not as conveniently, Stanford has scored more than 30 in 13 of its last 14 contests, and in each of the meetings between the two last year, the Cardinal put up 41. The Trojans’ offense is not yet consistent enough to keep up with an offense as explosive as Stanford’s. If the defense allows this one to get out of hand, as it did twice last year, Helton and the Trojans, who were given the same odds to win the Pac-12 as Stanford at the beginning of the year, will be staring at a losing record three weeks into the season.
3 keys for Stanford-USC: The big play takes center stage

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