USC vs. Stanford: Three things to watch for in the Pac-12 opener

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP. 3, 2022. USC head coach Lincoln Riley cheers his Trojans team.
USC coach Lincoln Riley cheers before the Trojans' blowout win over Rice on Sept. 3. USC should face a tougher test on the road against Stanford on Saturday. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The bed, still rolled out in Lincoln Riley’s office as of Thursday late morning, spoke volumes. As he enters Pac-12 play for the first time, there’s still a lot of unfamiliar territory for USC’s new coach to cover within his new conference.

He’s tried to cram in as much of that studying ahead of time.

“The opponents are new, it's new traveling, it's new schedules, it's new everything,” Riley said. “So we've tried to do as much work on the front end to expedite some of this and make it feel less new. But the reality is every part of these weeks, especially in the first part of the season, is new and most of these opponents are people that we haven't played against. So it's fun.”

Of course, each Pac-12 trip from here will presumably be a one-off for the coach, with USC leaving for the Big Ten in 2024. Nonetheless, his first stop on that brief conference tour comes against Stanford.

Here’s what you should watch for in USC’s first trip of the season against Stanford on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. (Ch. 7, ESPN+):

Tanner McKee, a top QB?

Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee throws a pass against Colgate on Sept. 3.
Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee throws a pass against Colgate on Sept. 3. (Josie Lepe / Associated Press)

When Stanford last had a top-tier NFL talent at quarterback, the Cardinal were the class of the Pac-12. OK, so McKee might not be in the same stratosphere as Andrew Luck … but at 6-foot-5 with a big arm, he has many traits that have made NFL scouts take notice.

He’ll be a major test for an unproven USC secondary.

“You have to be disciplined with your eyes,” Riley said of facing McKee. “You have to do a good job of trusting your technique and staying in great position and understanding this guy can make any throw. You can’t let your foot off the gas at any point. You can never relax with a guy who is a good player back there like he is.”

Another trio of pick-sixes would sure help the cause.

Korey Foreman rising

USC defensive lineman Korey Foreman lines up for a play against Washington last year.
USC defensive lineman Korey Foreman lines up for a play against Washington last year. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

Former top recruit Korey Foreman was thrust into full-time action last Saturday against Rice, when Romello Height was ejected in the second quarter for targeting.

It would take Foreman a little while to find his groove. But eventually he settled in, logging 34 snaps, his most as a Trojan. Riley called his performance “a very positive start.”

Height will be back against Stanford. But might we see more of Foreman on Saturday, anyway?

“The longer he stays on the field, the more flashes you see and the more consistent they become,” Riley said.

Caleb Williams can run

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scrambles for a gain against Rice on Sept. 3.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams scrambles for a gain against Rice on Sept. 3. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

After one week, USC’s leading rusher is its quarterback.

That comes as no surprise if you watched Caleb Williams deftly dance between Rice defenders for 68 yards in six carries last week. And though he’s unlikely to lead the Trojans in rushing for long, his role as a potential running threat isn’t going anywhere.

This week, it could be an especially valuable asset — or decoy — with USC likely to rely more on its ground game.

“Man, he’s a special kid,” USC running back Travis Dye said of Williams. “He can do it all. He can literally do it all. He can pass. He can paint your back porch. He can walk your dog. And he can run the ball. He’s a great player.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.