LOS ANGELES (AP) — A West Coast college football rivalry that rarely sizzled in its first 10 decades has become a hot ticket.
Stanford and USC share a private-school pedigree and a record of producing NFL talent, but now they also have a recent history of surprising, thrilling results ever since the Cardinal shocked the Trojans as a 41-point underdog in 2007.
The next chapter kicks off Pac-12 play on Saturday night at the Coliseum, where the No. 6 Trojans (2-0) will go for their third straight victory over the Cardinal (1-1).
“Every time we play, it’s always fun,” USC quarterback Cody Kessler said. “USC-Stanford games have been intense. Great games, great atmospheres. A great way to start off conference play.”
The fun started eight years ago when Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh’s team stunned No. 2 USC 24-23. Harbaugh embarrassed Pete Carroll in a 55-21 victory in 2009, prompting Carroll to pose an existential question in the postgame handshake: “What’s your deal?”
The ensuing five meetings have been one-possession finals decided by a total of 23 points, including a triple-overtime thriller in which Andrew Luck beat Matt Barkley in 2011.
USC has won the last two meetings on last-minute field goals by Andre Heidari, who has run out of eligibility and chances to hurt the Cardinal.
Kessler and Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan are both fifth-year seniors with ample big-game experience. Hogan could use some redemption after throwing two fourth-quarter interceptions against USC in 2013 before his offense managed just 10 points last season.
Kessler has been accurate in almost every game over the past two seasons, while Hogan’s slow start against Northwestern was key to the Cardinal’s loss. Stanford doesn’t normally blitz extensively, but coach David Shaw knows the Cardinal must harass Kessler to have a chance.
“If I had my choice, I’d rather have him sacked,” Shaw said. “He’s a better athlete than people give him credit for. He throws great on the run, and he throws with accuracy. He puts the ball in great locations. Our secondary will have to know where the help is, and the help has to be there.”
Here are some more things to watch in the latest edition of a rivalry that began in 1905:
TROUBLE UP FRONT: Stanford’s defensive line is alarmingly thin after reserve Nate Lohn was ruled out this week with an undisclosed injury. Starter Harrison Phillips already is out for the year. It means Aziz Shittu, Solomon Thomas and Brennan Scarlett will be playing extensively against a bulky USC offensive line that is eager to have an impressive game after a slow start.
THIRD DOWN: USC’s primary focus on both sides of the ball is related to improving its performance on third down. The Trojans’ offense is 4 for 16 on third downs this season, while opponents are 11 for 36. USC’s quick-strike offense hasn’t faced many third downs, but the third-down performance hasn’t pleased Sarkisian, who ceded play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Clay Helton this season.
ON THE EDGE: Stanford hasn’t had a record below .500 at any point since 2008 during its football renaissance, which includes two Rose Bowl appearances.
DAWSON’S PEAK: USC linebacker Lamar Dawson is expected to play for the first time since 2013. Now a fifth-year senior, the former elite prospect wears the coveted No. 55 jersey previously held by Junior Seau, Willie McGinest and other Trojans stars. Dawson made 20 starts early in his career, but struggled to make a major impact before injuring his knee two years ago. He missed last season after surgery, and he missed the first two games of this season with a rib injury.
GREAT ESCAPE: Kessler and the Trojans realize they haven’t managed an impressive win over the Cardinal, instead relying on their defense to subdue Hogan’s offense in the past two seasons. Kessler passed for just 135 yards at Stanford last season, and the Trojans managed just three points in the final 38 minutes of their 2013 victory. USC has scored 114 points in its first two games this season with an offense that appears to be in fine form.
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