After spending the past seven seasons preparing for the same set of opponents, new USC head coach Lincoln Riley has a little bit of a different feel going into the Pac-12 opener against Stanford.
It’s a whole new conference for Riley. Gone are the files he surely had on the Big 12 as he learns the intricacies of his new annual foes.
“My bed’s still out here right now, so that tells you a little bit,” Riley said as he sat in his office during his weekly Zoom press conference. “I think our staff is really enjoying the challenge of every part of it being new and the chance to adapt and find ways to give our team the advantage.”
Riley will get his first taste of the Pac-12, and the Pac-12 its first taste of Riley, as the 10th-ranked Trojans (1-0) travel to Palo Alto on Saturday.
It’s a rivalry in which Stanford (1-0) has won five of the past eight matchups, and in which USC has not won on the road since 2014. Last season, it was a 42-28 loss to Stanford at the Coliseum that led to Clay Helton being fired two days later.
But that’s the past, as far as USC is concerned.
“Today’s a new day, tomorrow’s a new day, the day after that is a new day,” Trojans receiver Tahj Washington said.
Instead, it will be an opportunity for Riley to formally introduce himself and his iteration of the Trojans to the Pac-12.
“We’ve tried to do as much work on the front end to expedite some of this and make it feel less new,” Riley said. “But from that aspect, it certainly feels like our first year all the way around.”
When USC has the ball
The run game figures to be of the utmost importance to USC on Saturday. Stanford loves to run the ball and wear out defenses. So if USC is going to give its defense a break, the Trojans’ running backs will need to grind out yards and keep the defense on the sidelines.
USC averaged 7.4 yards per carry against Rice and will lean on backs Travis Dye and Austin Jones – playing his former team Stanford for the first time – to do so again, along with freshman Raleek Brown, who will likely be healthy enough to face the Cardinal.
Stanford has changed its defense from last season, switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 with two edge rushers and two defensive tackles. The defensive line saw several contributors leave the program for various reasons. Stanford is trying to replenish that talent with younger talent, but managed three tackles for loss against Colgate last week.
“They come downhill really hard. They’re very smart, and they know how to play the game of football really well,” Dye said. “You just gotta bring that grit every single time you play Stanford. Every single time.”
When Stanford has the ball
Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee is one of the better signal callers USC will face this season. He completed 65.4% of his passes last season while throwing for 2,327 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“Very difficult to surprise him from a coverage standpoint,” USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “Part of that’s just the experience level and also the knowledge that you have to be so solid in the run game, which creates matchups on the second level.”
Still, Stanford struggled last year due to a dip in its run game, which finished 126th out of 130 in the FBS in ground yards per game.
But back E.J. Smith had a strong season opener last weekend with 11 carries for 118 yards and two touchdowns. If he and the Stanford offense continue that trend, it will make life difficult for the USC defense.
“They have an expectation to play a physical brand of football and it’s on each defense each week to match that,” Grinch said.
No. 10 USC at Stanford
When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Stanford Stadium
TV/radio: ABC/AM 790