Pac-12 Championship Preview

USC looks for a rematch victory against Stanford and a trip to the Rose Bowl

There may be no matchup more emblematic and representative of the erratic, unpredictable, craziness that is college football than Stanford facing off against USC for the Pac-12 Championship.

Consider the journey.

Before the season began, USC was picked by the media to win the Pac-12. The Trojans then dropped two of their first five games—the first one to the Cardinal when USC was the No. 6 team in the country—fired their coach and lost their next game against Notre Dame. Meanwhile Stanford was quickly unranked after losing to Northwestern early, only to then go 8–1 and become the only Pac-12 team with an outside shot at the College Football Playoff.

Consider the changes.

USC is now under Clay Helton, who was just awarded the removal of his interim tag and a guaranteed five-year deal for beating UCLA and receiving a swath of player support. The Trojans have evolved from a pseudo-uptempo offense to a run-heavy, physical patchwork of a team playing with their fourth-string center and having lost two of their best linebackers. But now, according to players like running back Justin Davis, they have added something valuable: An identity.

So, what does USC need to do in each facet of the game to emerge from their first conference championship with a victory?

On Defense:

One of the major differences between USC’s first matchup against the Cardinal back in October to this one, is the development and the spotlight that has been cast around Stanford’s do-it-all playmaker Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey recorded 249 all-purpose yards at the Coliseum in that game. A then-struggling USC defensive front did not just look like a unit without an answer, but also a group without a clue on how to even go about limiting the tailback.

“It’s the most physical game I’ve played in,” said Chris Hawkins when asked about the loss this week.

Hawkins, who said he was sore for days after, bluntly answered with: “No. 5” as the most dangerous weapon the Cardinal would deploy. And you can be sure they will run their offense through him on Saturday as well, as McCaffrey has nearly 40 percent of Stanford’s carries and 35 percent of their yards on the ground. Moreover, the Heisman contender who broke Reggie Bush’s record for most all-purpose yards in a season this year, can hurt the Trojans via the return game as well.

Source: CFB Stats/Graphic via info.gram

But just like much has changed in how McCaffrey is viewed through the prism of the nation’s top players, much has also changed—or more accurately improved—on the defensive front for USC.

Whereas the offensive line has been plagued with injuries and characterized with inconsistency, the defensive line has matured and come into their own, limiting top running backs like Devontae Booker and Paul Perkins to below their rushing averages. Not just stopping the run game, but being able to infiltrate the backfield has also been a newfound positivity. In the last four games, the Trojans have chalked up an impactful 19 sacks. Fitting nicely with the narrative that Clay Helton’s team has made physicality and aggressiveness their reputation, the production on the field to back it up has indeed surfaced.

Come Saturday and come Stanford for the second time this year, that style of play will have to be duplicated effectively against the conference’s best team. Manufacturing pressure on a quarterback like Kevin Hogan, who had a near-perfect game against the Trojans, will be as big a factor as containing, or at the very least, limiting McCaffrey.

On Offense

As USC looked for its victory last week against rival UCLA, the clinchers came in the form of two long, methodical drives that slowly squeezed the life out of the Bruins by keeping the ball away from their offense in the fourth quarter. In short, the Trojans utilized their run game via a team-high 130 yards from Justin Davis to do their best Stanford impression.

Control the ball, control the game. It’s what Stanford did against USC in their first matchup. It’s what Stanford has done throughout their season, and now, it’s a style of play the Trojans are trying to replicate.

To beat a team at their own game, however, USC will need some things to go their way. Look at the tale of the tape, and it appears the groundwork for some of it may already be set:

Establish the run game. It’s simple math. Running the ball and running it successfully is the best way to control the clock and the flow of the game. Stanford’s defense arrives and tries to bounce back from allowing over nearly 300 yards on the ground to Notre Dame and 231 yards to Oregon. Despite holding Cal to under 100 yards in that three-game span, it’s hard to argue that Stanford’s physical M.O. has resulted in a successful run-stopping scheme consistently, or recently. With Tre Madden getting healthier by the day, Justin Davis hitting his breakout stride at the right time and the jarring explosiveness of Ronald Jones II there waiting to uncork itself loose, there is no reason why USC should not make the running game its primary source of offensive production.

In an ideal, utopian scenario, USC’s reliance on the run would be accompanied by a consistent passing game that—via both the play-action pass and the deep ball—would put the Trojan’s bevy of top-notch talent in a position to shine. Unfortunately, as it’s come to be seen and known, USC’s passing game has sourly regressed this year. Be it injuries, a singular trust in only one receiver (Juju Smith-Schuster) or an inconsistent amount of protection from the offensive line, the cohesion between run game and pass game has been a disjointed roller-coaster ride. That Stanford’s secondary is one of its few clear weaknesses, means it would behoove Cody Kessler and his receiving corps—tight ends included—to find a rhythm and a rhyme, especially on third down-conversions, that would result in an effective complement to the run game.

Everywhere Else

  1. Special Teams. Can Adoree’ Jackson make it three punt returns for touchdowns in a row? Will USC’s kickoff coverage—No. 2 in the Pac-12—contain one of the nation’s top returners in McCaffrey?
  2. Turnovers. USC’s defense has been able to change the flow of the game repeatedly, averaging a cool two turnovers per game since Helton took over and boasting the conference’s top turnover margin. Another interception or forced fumble could be a driving factor in determining the close outcome of this championship matchup.
  3. One of the biggest question surrounding this matchup is how will USC respond to being under Helton for the first time since his hiring. It was clear that one of the motivations behind this team’s second-half improvement was the realization that they could move the needle on USC keeping Helton. Now that they have accomplished wha they set out to do, could a motivational letdown be forthcoming? Or will the sense of accomplishment push them toward giving Helton an even bigger vote of confidence in the form of a Pac-12 Championship?

You can reach Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter @PaoloUggetti