USC vs. Stanford rivalry has lost some heat, but sparks could still fly

Connor McLaughlin couldn’t possibly forget USC’s fight song if he tried, because during game week, it was always there.

Blasting, courtesy of former head coach David Shaw, through Stanford’s speakers at practice every week they’d face the Trojans. Two hours straight of trombones, tubas and trumpets. A motivational tool, perhaps; but also a security blanket, a way for players like McLaughlin to prepare themselves for the atmosphere of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum rocking under the weight of decades of rivalry history.

“I think it’s ingrained in my head,” the Cardinal senior offensive lineman grinned, discussing the fight song in a mid-week press conference. “So I don’t think it’ll be anything new, nothing surprising.”

These are no longer, however, the days of yore. The days of Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll’s “what’s your deal,” or USC’s John McKay saying he’d like to beat Stanford by “2,000 points,” or even the recent days of McLaughlin having to endure “fight on” drums for an entire week. Even Shaw, Stanford’s all-time winningest coach who held a 7-5 record against the Trojans, is gone.

USC is jetting for the Big Ten, watching the Pac-12 crumble piece by piece in the rearview mirror. Stanford was pushed to the ACC, and is undergoing a complete program overhaul under new coach Troy Taylor. The California powers are going their separate ways despite physically staying in the exact same place, and the flame of this rivalry is sputtering.

“This happens to be a team that Stanford’s played in the past,” Taylor said in his pregame presser Tuesday. “And it’s been a great rivalry and they’re a really good team, and we’re playing in a really historic place … but to be honest with you, once you get on the field and when you’re preparing, they’re really kind of a faceless opponent.”

But a few embers still burn. Scotty Edwards, a Stanford safety, said Tuesday that players hadn’t forgotten USC coming to Stanford Stadium last year and rolling over the Cardinals 41-28. USC players made it clear, in mid-week media availability, they were aware this could be the last Stanford meeting in a long while.

And Saturday, after the Trojans’ rout of Nevada, head coach Lincoln Riley took some verbal gasoline and dumped it over the coals.

“We need this place rocking,” Riley said at the postgame podium. “This’ll be potentially the last time these schools match up for a long time. And there’s a lot of significance to that.”

So perhaps there’s a chance, even in a game where USC’s favored by 29 points, that Saturday puts an exclamation point on what could be the final meeting of a 118-year-old rivalry. There’s plenty of on-field intrigue here, too, as the Trojans try to figure out how to defend a funky Taylor-led offense.

When Stanford has the ball

Stanford’s offense, as USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said, has historically relied heavily on production from its tight ends. Think Austin Hooper. Think Zach Ertz. And they’ve got their best one in a while in senior Benjamin Yurosek, who shredded Hawai’i’s defense for 138 yards in a season-opening win.

Just about every USC defender during media availability this week, though, pointed to how different Stanford’s attack looks under Taylor, who brings a wealth of spread and motion concepts from his standout years at Sacramento State. And after USC’s defense struggled a bit against a dual-threat quarterback in San Jose State’s Chevan Cordeiro in Week 0, Stanford’s Ashton Daniels presents a challenge: a fleet-footed sophomore for whom Taylor specifically designs runs.

“Usually, if you have a pocket passer, you’re playing with 10 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense, so the math for the defense is obviously up,” USC linebacker Shane Lee said this week. “But when you got a running quarterback, especially with designed runs, it’s 11-on-11. So you gotta kinda come for the quarterback in the run game, which is different than the usual.”

When USC has the ball

Stanford’s defense gave up 355 yards to Hawai’i quarterback Brayden Schager last weekend. By all accounts, Schager is a fine quarterback who looks improved his junior season. He was also the 87th-ranked QB in his high school class, per 247Sports, and threw 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions last year.

So it should be another golden game for Caleb Williams and his receivers. The ceiling will hinge on the Trojans’ offensive line, a unit recently crippled by Gino Quinones’ season-ending injury. Center Justin Dedich mentioned Stanford’s defensive line didn’t incorporate a lot of movement, simply playing on a string with the secondary, making discipline a key point of emphasis Saturday.


When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

TV/Radio: FOX/790 AM

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