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Game of the Week: Stanford faces tough road test at rising USC


An undefeated team decked out in red and white with a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and a balanced, steamrolling offense hopes to continue its march toward a BCS title-game berth by passing its first significant test of the season on the road. Sound familiar? One week after Russell Wilson and Wisconsin saw their dream season derailed at Michigan State, Andrew Luck and No. 4 Stanford will try to survive a trip to No. 20 USC. The parallels, right down to GameDay's presence and the primetime ABC slot, might warrant the Cardinal spending extra time defending the Hail Mary in practice this week. Stanford has been lurking on the fringes of the national title discussion all season. Saturday night will be the Cardinal's first chance to state their case.

1. Can Stanford be stopped? Fans tuning in to see Luck for the first time this season may be disappointed to find the surefire No. 1 draft pick handing off more than 50 percent of the time. Luck can certainly carry an offense with the rare combination of size, smarts and strength that has the Dolphins, Colts and other NFL teams drooling. But at Stanford, the offense still starts with the run and goes to its stud quarterback when necessary. The Cardinal, who rank No. 2 in the nation with 48.6 points per game, run the ball 55 percent of the time and have 20 rushing touchdowns to go along with 21 passing touchdowns. In its biggest win to date, Stanford rushed for 446 yards and five touchdowns against Washington. USC's run defense has been especially stout lately, holding Cal and Notre Dame to a paltry 76 yards on 40 carries the last two weeks, so the Trojans may be able to force Stanford to throw. But with Luck at quarterback and USC's 104th-ranked secondary defending the pass, that route seems bound to favor Stanford.

2. USC has some weapons of its own. Wide receiver Robert Woods is a difference-maker who will have to have a big night for USC to hand Stanford its first loss. Woods made key plays in USC's 31-17 win at Notre Dame and is clearly Matt Barkley's go-to guy in the passing game. Woods is second in the nation in receptions per game (10.3) and receiving yards per game (128.9) and has recorded a team-high eight touchdowns. "Robert Woods is going to make plays," Stanford coach David Shaw said this week. "He's just that kind of talent. We're going to have to play good team defense." The Stanford secondary will not be at full strength with safety Delano Howell out another week with a hand injury. Sophomore Devon Carrington and freshman Jordan Richards will fill in. Look for Barkley to test them early.

3. Give the kicking advantage to the Cardinal. USC kicker Andre Heidari sprained his ankle when Notre Dame's George Atkinson III returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown on Saturday. Heidari tried to kick after having his ankle taped up, but missed a 32-yard field goal and barely made an extra point. If he can't go Saturday, walk-on Craig McMahon will kick, though he has very limited range and may force USC to go for it on fourth downs or punt when a field goal normally would be in order. Stanford has no such concerns, as kicker Jordan Williamson is 11-for-12 on the season, having missed only a 47-yarder against Colorado.

Stanford enters the game as an 8.5-point favorite. The trends favor the Cardinal. Stanford has covered the spread in 13 of its last 14 games, including the last 10. The Cardinal have also covered in five of the last seven matchups in this series. This is only the second time since 2001 that USC is a home underdog, the other being last season versus Oregon when the Ducks rolled to a 53-32 win. The Trojans are 1-4 against the spread in conference games at home under Lane Kiffin.

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Stanford is 38-for-38 in the red zone, with 30 touchdowns and eight field goals. NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:

• QB Andrew Luck, Stanford: Luck has been the premier quarterback prospect in the nation the past two seasons. He will be the best player at the position to be drafted into the NFL since Peyton Manning. He possesses the physical skills, football intellect and leadership ability to lead a franchise for a decade. Luck, the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in the 2012 draft, is a prospect to get excited about. Grade: First-round prospect.

• T Matt Kalil, USC: Kalil is the second junior in this game who ranks head and shoulders above all from his position. He's a big-bodied tackle whose pass blocking skills are comparative to former Trojan star Tony Boselli, the second pick in the 1995 draft. Saturday will be Kalil's biggest challenge of the season as Stanford leads the Pac-12 in sacks. Grade: First-round prospect.

• T Jonathan Martin, Stanford: Another junior in this game with first-round skills, Martin is a terrific athlete who's done a tremendous job protecting Luck's blind side the past three years. Many think Martin is a better athlete than Kalil, but not as polished in his game. Grade: First-round prospect.

• QB Matt Barkley, USC: Barkley faces the unfortunate reality of playing in the same conference as Luck, yet the junior is still a highly rated signal-caller. Very accurate with his short and intermediate throws, Barkley's style and skills would be a terrific fit in the NFL for a west coast offense. Scouts will closely monitor how Barkley responds to Stanford's pressure defense. Grade: First-round prospect.

Stanford has ripped off a record 10 straight wins by at least 25 points, but that streak will likely end this week. Stanford passed its first test of the season easily last week, whipping Washington 65-21, and this is test No. 2 before the big exam against No. 7 Oregon on Nov. 12. USC is rightfully confident it can stay with the Cardinal after back-to-back clean performances in wins over Cal and Notre Dame, but Stanford is another animal. STANFORD 41, USC 28