By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Stanford redshirt sophomore free safety Ed Reynolds will be lining up against one of the top offensive teams in the nation on Saturday.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley is the early favorite for the Heisman Trophy and receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Lee have been called the best tandem in America.
The way Reynolds sees it, though, he's been up against Heisman Trophy candidates and future NFL receivers every one of his healthy practice days the past two years.
"When you go up against guys like Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Griff (Whalen) and Chris Owusu when he was healthy, it's a great experience to have," Reynolds said. "I don't think there is anything better. That helped me grow as a player."
Those practices may be the closest thing to simulating what Barkley, Woods and Lee bring to the table when the No. 21 Cardinal (2-0) and No. 2 Trojans (2-0) open Pac-12 football Conference play in Stanford Stadium in a nationally televised game (FOX) at 4:30 p.m.
The USC offense is ranked 12th in the nation and no one has thrown more than Barkley's 10 touchdown passes. He'll top the conference charts in that regard soon enough and can also become USC's leading passing and total offense leader.
Woods, an All-American last year when he broke the Pac-12 record with 111 receptions, is among the school's career leaders and Lee ranks among the nation's top six in several receiving categories.
Last year, Stanford head coach David Shaw said Stanford defended the Trojan receivers "OK" for much of the Cardinal's 56-48 triple-overtime thriller at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Last year, they combined for 16 catches, 183 yards and two touchdowns. In 2010, Woods had 12 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
"We take that as a challenge for the whole defense," Reynolds said. "They both have the ability to run once they have the ball in their hands."
Stanford's redshirt junior cornerback Terrence Brown agrees the two receivers will pose a difficult challenge.
"They are both great athletes," he said. "They are fast, they can block and they use deception in their routes."
Brown also agreed that facing the likes of Luck and Fleener has been useful.
"Definitely beneficial to our defense," Brown said. "That prepared us to face the best."
Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes has seen a talented defensive secondary, which also includes junior corner Barry Browning, strong safeties Jordan Richards and Harold Bernard and nickel back Usua Amanam.
"I didn't like going up against those guys in spring or summer," Nunes said. "They got me so many times. They have a great feel of reading the quarterback. I have tons of confidence in what they can do."
Stanford's defensive front will also be tested like never before. In addition to facing one of the nation's top quarterbacks, guys like Henry Anderson, Terrence Stephens, Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro, David Parry and Charlie Hopkins will be contending with two of the top running backs on the West Coast in Penn State transfer Silas Redd and returning starter Curtis McNeal.
San Jose State and Duke both went to the bubble pass in an attempt to neutralize the Cardinal defensive front and get the ball to their play makers in the open field. That's where linebackers Trent Murphy, James Vaughters, Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas are so important. They are capable of covering sideline to sideline and both Skov and Thomas are sure open field tacklers.
"It will be all about gang tackling," said Shaw. "If you miss you can't catch them. It's an advantage to USC for having guys who can score any time they touch the ball. I have never seen a college team with two receivers like those guys. It's not even close."
Stanford owns a three-game winning streak against the Trojans, though the past two years have been decided on the final play of the game.
The key may be in how much pressure Stanford can put on Barkley, who plays the game with enthusiasm and rarely seems flustered.
"I think they can put incredible pressure on Barkley," Stanford offensive lineman David Yankey said. "One of the best defenses we go against is in practice."
The Stanford offense looked sharper in Week 2, a 50-13 romp over Duke last Saturday, and with the possible addition of fullback Ryan Hewitt, the Cardinal will be a little more diversified.
Stepfan Taylor continues his climb up the Stanford career rushing charts in search of his third consecutive 1,000-yard season and Drew Terrell and Ty Montgomery are beginning to create their own reputation as receivers.
The most encouraging aspect of Stanford's win over Duke, for Shaw, was the Cardinal's ability to throw the ball downfield effectively when faced with a team that dared it to do just that.
Duke often produced nine players in the box to concentrate on stopping the run and forcing Stanford to pass. Nunes responded well by completing 16 of 30 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns.
What excited Shaw was not only the effectiveness of the Cardinal passing attack, but that opponents now have to prepare themselves for it too. Nunes threw deep to Montgomery, and went downfield to tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. All must be accountable in an opponents' film room.
The one thing Shaw warns against is Nunes' temptation to try and compete against Barkley, who has started all four years at USC.
"He just needs to keep doing what he has been doing." Shaw said. "Get us to the right play, don't hold onto the ball and continue to play smart. The worst thing he can try to do is try to compete with Matt Barkley. We're not in that business. We're not in that game. We're going to play our style of football. We're not going to compete statistically. That's not our goal. Our goal is to get in the fourth quarter and have a chance to win it at the end."