Stanford, USC’s opponent today at the Coliseum, is probably the least formidable foe the Trojans will face in the next month.
But that’s no knock on the Cardinal.
On deck for USC is a lineup of top-10 teams: No. 5 Notre Dame next Saturday at South Bend, Ind.; No. 7 California at Berkeley on Nov. 2 and No. 3 Washington at the Coliseum on Nov. 9.
A loss today not only would eliminate the Trojans from the Rose Bowl race but, considering the caliber of their next three opponents, could send them into a tailspin.
If USC is to finish the season strongly and attract a bowl bid, the Trojans almost certainly will have to beat a Cardinal team that is 2-3 overall, 0-2 in the Pac-10 and has been out of the conference race for more than a month.
Stanford’s hope of returning to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 20 years ended when it opened the season by losing to Washington, 42-7, and Arizona, 28-23.
The Cardinal then upset Colorado, 28-21, and lost to Notre Dame, 42-26, ending a grueling first month.
Last week, with sophomore Steve Stenstrom replacing fifth-year senior Jason Palumbis at quarterback, Stanford beat Cornell, 56-6.
USC Coach Larry Smith said that Stanford is not unlike USC in that “you’re not sure which team is going to show up each week.”
USC, a winner on the road in its last two games but 1-2 at the Coliseum, is 3-2 overall, 2-1 in the Pac-10.
“This is the time of year when teams have to really pull it all together,” Smith said. “This is the time of year when you’ve got to make up your mind what kind of team you’re going to be and get going that way. This is the time of year when teams put themselves in a position to win championships and get into bowl games.”
This is also the time of year when the Trojans usually beat Stanford. USC is 14-0-1 against Stanford since 1975, 29-3-1 since 1957 and has won 11 consecutive games against the Cardinal.
“This is a rivalry that’s been going on for a long time,” Stanford Coach Dennis Green said. “But it’s been pretty damn lopsided in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Not to mention the ‘60s, when USC was 10-0 against Stanford.
Stenstrom, the No. 1 passer in Orange County as a senior at El Toro High, will try to help the Cardinal end its losing streak against the Trojans. In his first start last week, he passed for 225 yards and a touchdown, completing 16 of 23 passes.
Palumbis, who ranks among the all-time best at Stanford in several passing categories, had started the previous 15 games, including all 11 last season, but had not thrown a touchdown pass this season when he was replaced.
Stanford has improved its running attack behind an offensive line that, from tackle to tackle, averages 6 feet 7 and 300 pounds, making it the biggest in college football. Among NFL teams, only the Indianapolis Colts have a bigger offensive line.
Not including its loss to Washington, when the Cardinal ran for only 29 yards against the No. 1 rushing defense in college football, Stanford has averaged 217 yards and more than four touchdowns on the ground.
Halfback Glyn Milburn, expected to be among the conference rushing leaders, has been slowed by a knee injury, but fullback Tommy Vardell has equaled a school record by rushing for more than 100 yards in the Cardinal’s last four games.
Vardell has averaged 5.3 yards a carry and scored 12 touchdowns rushing this season, increasing his total to 29, a school record.
Stanford’s Glyn Milburn, who led the Pac-10 with an average of 202 all-purpose running yards last season, is averaging 105.3 this season. . . . A 29-yard run by USC tailback Mazio Royster last week against Washington State was his longest in 13 games. . . . Stanford freshman Ozzie Grenardo leads the nation with a punt-return average of 25.5 yards. . . . Stanford ranks fourth in the Pac-10 in total offense, USC seventh.