USC vs. Stanford five things to watch: End of an era for the Trojans

USC wide receiver Zachariah Branch celebrates with teammate Dorian Singer after making a touchdown catch.
USC wide receiver Zachariah Branch celebrates with teammate Dorian Singer after making a touchdown catch against Nevada on Sept. 2. How will Branch fare against Stanford on Saturday?
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
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For USC’s last year in the Pac-12, it seems fitting the Trojans would start with their first rival.

As college football’s landscape prepares to shift, future Big Ten member USC hosts soon-to-be ACC team Stanford on Saturday. The teams first met in 1905 making the Cardinal USC’s oldest rival. Since 1924, World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic were the only things that stopped the California rivals from playing each other. With conference realignment, there’s no telling when they’ll meet again.

“That’s crazy,” USC safety Calen Bullock said of the indefinite pause on the rivalry. “Knowing the history of Stanford and USC ... we gotta go out there and make it a good one.”


Here are five things to watch for USC’s game against Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (FOX):


Tahj Washington gets cooking

Los Angeles, California September 2, 2023-USC receiver Tahj Washington makes a catch.
USC wide receiver Tahj Washington scores on a touchdown catch against Nevada on Sept. 2.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Tahj Washington serves soul food classics out of his kitchen and dishes out touchdowns on the field. The redshirt senior receiver leads the Trojans with 160 receiving yards and three touchdowns on five catches this season. He had six touchdowns all of last season.

Receivers coach Dennis Simmons pointed out Washington’s improved concentration on deep balls as one area of improvement this season, but head coach Lincoln Riley emphasized the former Memphis transfer’s consistent approach in every aspect of his life, whether in school, on the field or in the kitchen, where he stars in a cooking show on YouTube.

“He can just do anything,” Riley said. “He’s really talented, but then he really just puts his mind to things and it’s been impressive to see. His mindset is, as a coach, that’s kind of what you draw up. If you had a team full of guys like that, you’d be really, really difficult to beat.”


USC running back MarShawn Lloyd left South Carolina for a chance to play in Lincoln Riley’s offense because it showcases everything he can do.

Sept. 7, 2023


Raesjon Davis stepping up

USC linebacker Raesjon Davis lines up against Nevada on Sept. 2.
(Johm McCoy / Associated Press)

Even on the cusp of his first start in his three-year USC career, Raesjon Davis didn’t take time to soak in the moment. The night before USC played Nevada, when the junior from Mater Dei would start in place of injured senior Mason Cobb, Davis sat in his hotel room, reviewed the playbook and watched film. It was all perfect.

“It was just a dream come true,” Davis said. “I was just ready for the moment.”

Davis may be in line for a second start as Cobb is still questionable after an unspecified injury. Even when Cobb and Eric Gentry return, Davis will be in position for a larger role after he had four tackles against Nevada. He entered the game with just eight tackles during his USC career, but credited his increased trust with the coaching staff and teammates for helping him seize the larger role.

Caleb Williams is expected to be the top pick in the 2024 NFL draft. But his father says a return to USC also could be in the cards for the Heisman Trophy winner.

Sept. 6, 2023

“When you get an opportunity and you show something you earn the right to continue to compete, you earn the right to continue to gain reps,” Riley said.

The coach noted that the first two games were the two cleanest inside linebacker performances of the coaching staff’s USC tenure, and Davis and Shane Lee provided the cleanest individual performances at the position in the previous two years. Lee, who was thrust into a larger role after freshman starter Tackett Curtis was ejected for targeting in the first half against Nevada, finished with a team-high 10 tackles.


Beware of Bear

USC defensive lineman Bear Alexander practices with teammates in July.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Bear Alexander is quietly wrecking opposing offenses with eight quarterback pressures that lead all Power 5 defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The Georgia transfer has only four official tackles, but his presence on the interior can be “one of the great advantages defensively,” Riley said.

“Look at the NFL, the guy who’s been the most dominant player in the NFL for probably a long time which is right down the road here with Aaron [Donald],” Riley said. “I think offensively, it’s one of the toughest things to deal with is when there’s an elite inside guy because they’re going to be part of the run game. Anytime you can get push in the interior of the pocket in the throw game, it’s a factor.”

Strengthening the inside of the defensive front was one of the coaching staff’s top priorities during the offseason. With Alexander and Arizona transfer Kyon Barrs anchoring the interior defensive line, the Trojans allowed just 3.8 yards per rush in the first two games.


On the clock

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches practice in March.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)


Riley has barely noticed college football’s new timing rules, but even if letting the clock run on first downs outside of the final two minutes of each half shaves just one drive off each game, the coach understands how the small tweak can result in a massive impact.

“You’re going to create probably a few more tight games at the end,” Riley said. “Some of those instances where two-minute offense or defense is going to decide who ends up winning the game.”

USC struggled in first-half two-minute situations during the first two games. The season opener was a disaster. Trojans went three-and-out for minus-15 yards on their last full possession of the first half then gave up a touchdown with eight seconds remaining because of a coverage bust in the secondary.

Raleek Brown played a big role in the USC offense last season but might end up redshirting. Coach Lincoln Riley says Brown still could make an impact this season.

Sept. 5, 2023

The next week, the Trojans fumbled, giving Nevada the ball back on its 45-yard line with 34 seconds remaining.

“Offense has been awful,” Riley said.

Showing much-needed improvement from the first week, the defense bailed the team out. The Trojans held the Wolf Pack to a 54-yard field goal attempt that fell short at the end of the first half.


New-look Cardinal

Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels carries the ball on a touchdown scramble.
Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels carries the ball on a touchdown scramble against Washington State in November.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

This isn’t your father’s Stanford offense.

First-year head coach Troy Taylor has installed the up-tempo, spread system that helped carry Sacramento State to a 30-8 record in four seasons. Known under Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw as the pro-style team that relied on physical offensive linemen, multiple tight ends and a bruising running game, the Cardinal debuted Taylor’s offense against Hawai’i last week with 37 points, their most against an FBS opponent since Sept. 18, 2021 against Vanderbilt.

Sophomore quarterback Ashton Daniels completed 25 of 36 passes for 248 yards and two touchdowns while also leading the Cardinal with 11 rush attempts.