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Stanford Vs. USC: Does Flipping The Proverbial Switch Work?

Has the USC defense truly improved to a significant degree over the last couple of weeks? Can Stanford so ruthlessly exploit matchup advantages when such advantages are harder to locate? Few of today's games have as many interesting questions as tonight's battle at the L.A. Coliseum.

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How much do you believe in the proverbial switch being flipped? Can a defense suddenly become good? Is it a much less linear process than a numbers nerd wants to believe? How you answer these questions reflects how much of a shot you think USC has this evening when they host Stanford.

Two weeks ago, USC's defense was performing at a below average level in a majority of advanced rankings. The Trojans were 72nd in Def. S&P+ (80th in PPP+, the explosiveness measure), 80th versus the run, 76th versus the pass, 76th on standard downs, 82nd on passing downs. Their raw numbers were alright, but that was partially because they had begun the season playing lesser offenses (Minnesota, Utah, Syracuse). They were not a squad full of both strengths and weaknesses; they were just average to below average across the board. And with one of the best defensive coordinators ever (Monte Kiffin) running the show with four- and five-star talent around him, there really was no excuse for this.

Evidently, they realized this during their week off, after allowing 554 yards (425 passing) to Nick Foles and Arizona: they've figured some things out since then, at least temporarily. They headed to Berkeley and played well against an admittedly hit-or-miss quarterback in California's Zach Maynard (25-for-43, 294 yards, three interceptions, three sacks), then went to South Bend and shut down an offense that had essentially only been able to stop itself in 2011. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees averaged just 5.1 yards per pass attempt (23-for-37, 190 yards, one interception) and receiver Michael Floyd was rendered invisible (10 targets, four catches, 28 yards) by the USC defense. It was a spectacular performance by the Trojans, and it was all about team defense. No single player truly stood out -- they just all played better.

In just two weeks, USC's defensive rankings have risen to 46th overall, 41st versus the pass, 46th on standard downs and 50th on passing downs. It has been a startling turnaround, not entirely unlike the one today's opponent experienced this time last year. Now we get to find out if Kiffin and company can consolidate their defensive gains against one of the most interesting video game offenses in recent memory.

I'm not talking about the Case Keenum-esque, "throw 90 touchdown passes in a season on Freshman" sort of video game offense; I'm talking about the oldest of old-school video games, the ones where receivers, tight ends, fullbacks, running backs, quarterbacks, tackles, kickers ... everybody ... had the same hands. Line anybody up wide, and that player naturally and magically has the complete assortment of route-running skills, hands and receiving ability.

Whatever Stanford tries with Andrew Luck behind center, it usually works. Lining tight ends up wide against cornerback? Successful. Throwing to running backs and tight ends almost 50 percent of the time? It works. Eschewing the pass in favor of a nothing-but-runs attack? Ask the Washington defense how that turned out.

Stanford is perhaps the best team in the country at identifying matchups and exploiting the hell out of them. For a lot of explosive offenses, defensive personnel is almost of secondary concern. They are just going to do what they want to do, and it is usually going to work. Stanford, on the other hand, is going to figure out which matchups they can exploit and which alignments you cannot stop, and bludgeon you to death by hammering away repeatedly. This approach has resulted in some deliciously odd full-season numbers. Some highlights:

  • Only two wideouts are among Stanford's top seven receivers, in terms of target rate. Chris Owusu (22-percent target rate) is No. 1, wonderfully-named Griff Whalen (20 percent) is No. 2, and Nos. 3-7 are all tight ends and running backs. Overall, wideouts are targeted only 53 percent of the time.
  • Andrew Luck only targets wideouts 50 percent of the time on standard downs. He is almost equally likely to target Owusu (29 targets on standard downs), Whalen (24), tight ends Zach Ertz (21) and Coby Fleener (17) or fullback Ryan Hewitt (15).
  • Depending on the defense they face, Stanford's game plan can shift 180 degrees. Against Duke, the Cardinal ran the ball just 47 percent of the time on standard downs and 46 percent on passing downs. Against Colorado: 59 percent and 26 percent. Against Washington: 70 percent and 50 percent. Pinpoint what you cannot stop, and do it until you stop it. (And you won't ever stop it.)

USC's recent surge (two weeks qualifies as a "surge," right?) comes in part because of its sudden ability to prevent big plays. That matters less against a Stanford offense that doesn't necessarily aim for them. They are more than happy to pick you part up the middle and on the sidelines if that's what you give them. USC's efficiency may still be in question; we will find out about that tonight.

For the season, Stanford's opponent-adjusted offensive numbers have only been good, not great. This is, in part, because of the weakness of the Cardinal schedule to date. Things will pick up for them now; after tonight's visit to Southern California, they head to Corvallis to take on another team suddenly figuring out how to play football (Oregon State ranks 47th in Def. F/+), then hosts Oregon (eighth), California (45th) and Notre Dame (18th) to close out the season.

That is still not a murderous stretch by any means, but it is a vast leap in difficulty from what has been, to date, the fourth-weakest schedule in college football. Will the "give the ball to anybody, at any time, from any formation, at any moment" approach still work when the defenses improve and mismatches are more difficult to find? Will Luck and company have to curtail the most random aspects of the gameplan? And of course, can USC keep up its recent improvement? Few of today's games have more questions associated with it than this one. Stanford's true road to an undefeated season begins this evening.