Stanford might face the biggest challenge it will have all season when it plays at No. 6 Southern Cal on Saturday night.
Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams has picked up where he left off, completing 74 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and no interceptions as the Trojans beat San Jose State 56-28 and Nevada 66-14.
The USC quarterback is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency (236.4) and fifth in yards per pass attempt (12.2), but his ability to keep plays alive and scramble really separates him.
“You have to keep him in the pocket,” Stanford coach Troy Taylor said. “So you have to get pressure on him but try and contain him. The elongated plays are difficult to cover. He’s a player that doesn’t really have any weaknesses and he has exceptional talent around him. You have to cover for a long time and contain a guy who is a great thrower and a great runner.”
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Besides setting single-season school records in passing yards (4,537) and TDs (42) last season, Williams also set the program record in rushing yards for a QB (382), and he already has a 46-yard run against Nevada.
“We all know he’s an amazing player,” sophomore safety Scotty Edwards said. “He can throw the deep ball and he’s hard to bring down, so we’re going to have to be really good in our fundamentals this and especially tackling around the quarterback and getting him on the ground. We’re an aggressive defense and so we’re going to bring pressure, and so when we have the opportunities, we’re going to need to make those count and get him on the ground.”
Stanford had little success last season in its first matchup with Williams. Playing his second game at USC after transferring from Oklahoma, Williams completed 20 of 27 passes for 341 yards, 4 TDs and no INTs as the Trojans led 41-14 after three quarters at Stanford Stadium.
The Trojans (2-0) totaled 505 yards in that game and have gone over 500 yards 11 times in 16 games under coach Lincoln Riley, including 668 yards last week against Nevada.
But Stanford hopes its defensive philosophy under new defensive coordinator Bobby April will bring different results. It shut down Hawai’i’s run-and-shoot offense in a season-opening 37-24 win thanks to constant pressure.
The six sacks recorded by the Stanford defense against the Rainbow Warriors were its most in a single game since 2018 against UCLA. Three of the sacks were by sophomore outside linebacker David Bailey, who won Pac-12 Defensive Lineman of the Week and is second in the FBS with 4.0 tackles for loss per game.
“The defense this year is a lot more aggressive in its pass rush and more creative,” senior defensive lineman Tobin Phillips said. “More so than last year, we have more opportunities to confuse the offensive line and get in the backfield.”
Stanford’s front seven will need to make Williams uncomfortable to help out a completely rebuilt secondary that didn’t make any starts in 2022. The line did 1-on-1 pass rush drills with a running back playing the role of Williams to imitate his speed, and dual-threat freshman QB Myles Jackson has been the scout team QB.
The betting public isn’t sold on Stanford’s progress. The Cardinal is roughly a 30-point underdog, and USC is expected to put up 50 points.
But 16 years after Stanford won as 41-point underdogs in the L.A. Coliseum, the Cardinal is looking to pull another shocker in the last scheduled meeting between rivals that have played every year since World War II, except for the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
“We have the opportunity on Saturday to show the whole nation that we’ve turned the program around and we’re headed in the right direction,” Phillips said. “I think we have a chance to make a big statement.”
NOTE: This is the 102nd meeting between the programs. The Trojans are the Cardinal’s second-most common opponent behind Cal (125 games).