Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - November 15, 2013

Stanford defense needs to dominate again

by Rick Eymer

Kevin Danser got a little excited when asked about Stanford's important Pac-12 Conference game with host USC on Saturday and used the word "dominant" as though he expected the fifth-ranked Cardinal to dominate the Trojans.

Leave it to team captain Shayne Skov, one of the most excitable players on a football field, to make sure the quote wasn't going to be used as motivation on the USC campus.

"Got to be careful with bulletin board material with that one," Skov said. "We want to be the best team in the Pac-12, and part of that means being the best team in the state. We take pride in dominance of the state. I'm not saying we do, but at the end of the season, if we do, we take pride in that. I'm just clarifying it."

Stanford (6-1 in the Pac-12, 8-1 overall) has won four straight over USC and five of six overall heading into Saturday's nationally televised showdown at 5 p.m. (ABC). Their games, however, have been anything but dominating by either side. Four of the past six meetings have been decided by eight points or less, including the past three.

The Cardinal, coming off its 26-20 victory over Oregon on Nov. 7, is aware a letdown against the Trojans would be disastrous to its Pac-12 title hopes.

The contest is just as important to USC (4-2, 7-3), which is a game behind Arizona State for the Pac-12 South Division lead. Following their schizophrenic start to the season, the Trojans have cured themselves into a genuine threat.

"They're healthy. Their receivers are healthy and they are two explosive athletes," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "They've settled on a quarterback and he's playing with some confidence now. He makes good decisions. They have a bevy of running backs who are all very efficient. They run the ball well. They're playing well up front on the offensive line."

USC also ranks third in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 19.6 points per game, just behind Stanford's 19.4.

"Team effort," Skov said. "It takes all 11 guys who take the field and the other 8 or 9 guys who come in."

The Trojans are second in total defense (339.0), following by Stanford (349.3). Only Stanford has a better rushing defense than USC.

"They've been good defensively all season," Shaw said. "They have a good scheme that suits their talents."

The Trojans are the conference's best in denying opponents on third downs (.327), a few percentage points ahead of second-place Stanford (.341).

"We have to get ready for all the blitzes they have shown this season," Shaw said.

The Trojans rank second in the Pac-12 with 31 sacks (in 10 games), one more than Stanford (in nine games). The Cardinal is better, in fact the best, at preventing sacks, allowing nine total. USC has given up 23.

"It's something we've always circled in the past to show America the team we are," Danser said. "USC has always been one of the top-tier teams."

Danser is part of the group that keeps quarterback Kevin Hogan relatively safe and has been winning the battle at the line of scrimmage.

"We need him to be efficient," Shaw said. "You can't hold the ball against these guys. They are good at getting after the passer. He needs to be decisive."

USC represents Stanford's final road contest of the regular season. By winning out, the Cardinal assures itself of hosting the Pac-12 title game, with a berth in the Rose Bowl at stake.

Stanford's defense got a boost against the Ducks when Henry Anderson returned to the team. He could not have scripted it any better.

"It felt really good," he said. "During my whole rehab process I was kind of looking at the Oregon game to come back for."

Stanford continues to find ways to win despite its inability to pull away from an opponent. The Cardinal led, 26-0, early in the fourth quarter against the Ducks, who then proceeded to make things interesting.

In Stanford's past five games, only one has been decided by more than eight points. The Cardinal has not scored more than 26 points in a game since edging Washington, 31-28, on Oct. 5.

On the defensive side, the Cardinal has not allowed any team more than 28 points in a game all season. USC is nearly as effective, allowing more than 14 points three times all year. The Trojans beat Cal, 62-28, last weekend.

NOTES: Skov has been named the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week, as announced by the Football Writers Association of America. Stanford's fifth-year senior is sharing the weekly honor with Duke defensive back DeVon Edwards. Skov also was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week . . . senior running back Tyler Gaffney is among 10 semifinal candidates for the Doak Walker Award, named for three-time SMU All-America running back and 1948 Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker. Gaffney (1,834) is the third Stanford player since 2009 to record at least 1,000 career rushing yards, joining Toby Gerhart (3,522) and Stepfan Taylor (4,300). Gaffney had 157 yards against Oregon. Senior Anthony Wilkerson (1,146) became the fourth player since 2009 to eclipse 1,000 career rushing yards. Gaffney has more rushing touchdowns (13) this season than yards lost (10). He has lost yardage on just six carries. His school-record 45 rushing attempts against Oregon were the most by an FBS running back since 2010 and his 24 first-half attempts are the most in a first half by an FBS player this season . . . senior free safety Ed Reynolds was named among nine semifinal candidates for the 10th annual Lott IMPACT Trophy, presented by the Pacific Club IMPACT Foundation and senior defensive tackle David Parry is among 53 candidates for the Burlsworth Trophy, presented by the Springdale (Ark.) Rotary Club. The Burlsworth Trophy is given to the most outstanding collegiate football player who began his career as a walk-on.

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