LOS ANGELES When Stanford struts into a sold-out Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night to play USC before a prime-time TV audience, the cameras will be pulled in many different directions.
There are the two NFL-ready quarterbacks, Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley. There are three of the best offensive linemen in college: USC tackle Matt Khalil, Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin and guard David DeCastro, all of whom could be first-round picks next April. And even though Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll are gone, it might be worth watching the post-game handshake.
All that eye candy notwithstanding, if you want to see where the game could be decided whether the Trojans are back among college football's elite or the Cardinal steamroll another opponent keep an eye on USC redshirt freshman linebacker Dion Bailey.
That is, if you can find him.
Bailey, who stands 6-foot and weighs 200 pounds, plays on the strong side of the formation, over the tight end, and against Stanford that is where the action is. The Cardinal have three NFL quality tight ends Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, each of whom are at least 6-foot-6 and 254 pounds, and have combined to catch 13 touchdown passes.
"Obviously, I'm at a disadvantage with my physical stature," Bailey said. "They're a lot bigger than me, so I can't go in there trying to be prideful taking on 6-6, 300 pounds. I'm not going to bully anyone. I have to find a way to use my abilities to my advantage. I've got to just prepare to use my hands and my quickness and make as many plays as possible."
If this game is a measuring stick for both schools, it also will be a test of philosophies. Luck's presence notwithstanding, a power running game is the bedrock on which Stanford's ascendance has been built. Likewise, a speedy if undersized linebacker was a critical component for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin when he was in Tampa Bay. Some teams might have moved Derrick Brooks, at 6-foot, 235 pounds, to strong safety but he was the league's defensive Player of the Year at linebacker. And when the Trojans rose to national prominence a decade ago on the strength of their defense, one of its stars was linebacker Matt Grootegoed, a converted safety.
Bailey is in a similar mold. He leads the Trojans with 54 tackles, something no USC freshman has done over an entire season, and already has shown a knack for making big plays. Bailey stopped a crucial fake punt against Utah and had two interceptions and a fumble recovery against Cal.
Bailey was in high school the last time the Cardinal played here, when they pounded USC, 55-21. The Cardinal bullied the Trojans in the fourth quarter, running the same play called "Power" over and over. That game was more infamous for Harbaugh's exchange with Carroll after the game. Carroll upset with Harbaugh's tactics as the score got out of hand approached the Stanford coach near midfield and asked, "What's your deal?"
Yet what makes Stanford so unique is how it tailors its scheme. The Cardinal, in addition to their punishing offensive line, often use multiple tight ends andor an additional lineman or two. All of a sudden, cornerbacks and safeties are required to take on linemen and tight ends at the point of attack.
It can be an odd sight, the Cardinal coming out of the huddle with the best quarterback in the country with one or no receivers.
"This is just abnormal," USC coach Lane Kiffin said of these formations. "I don't think anybody's done that in at least 50 years.
"They put a lot of pressure on all four DBs in the run game. Usually you've got wide receivers outside, but this is a team that sometimes goes goal line in the middle of the field. So all your corners and safeties have to work on their fits and be able to tackle at the line of scrimmage, which is unusual. It's like playing goal line defense, (but) the difference is down there you don't worry much about play action. They do a great job of giving you issues."
Washington was so fearful of Luck in their game last weekend that it refused to bring its safeties near the line of scrimmage. So the Cardinal ground out a school-record 446 yards, needing very little from Luck in trouncing the Huskies.
The Trojans, after allowing back-to-back 40-point outings against Arizona and Arizona State, have improved their tackling markedly after their bye week at the beginning of the month, Kiffin said. The defense has allowed a total of 19 points in road wins over Cal and Notre Dame.
But Stanford has won its last 10 games by at least 25 points, dating back to last season's win over the Trojans, when Luck drove them to a last-second field goal and a 37-35 win.
Whether the Trojans can stay competitive again, it might be best to keep an eye on Bailey. If he can hang in against the Cardinal's heavies, so too might the Trojans.