Pac-12 Championship Game: No. 7 Stanford (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) vs. No. 24 USC (8-4, 6-3)
Stanford fans rightfully fear the Cardinal playing USC. The Trojans have as much talent as anybody in the conference — Cody Kessler, Juju Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson, Su’a Cravens and Ronald Jones are among the best at their respective positions in the conference. If Alijah Holder and Ronnie Harris can’t play on Saturday, Stanford could be in for a rough night trying to slow down Smith-Schuster, who is seventh in the nation with 109 receiving yards per game, and Kessler, the Pac-12’s second most efficient quarterback. However, Stanford owns a clear advantage when its offense is on the field. USC lost linebackers Cameron Smith and Lamar Dawson to injuries and has struggled for much of the year to slow down opposing offenses, surrendering 400 total yards of offense per game, which is 70th in the nation.
Against Notre Dame, the Stanford offense overcame its inability to truly establish the run to win in another brilliantly called and executed offensive game. However, against USC, Stanford should be able to do a much better job establishing the run, which will only help red-hot Kevin Hogan. I expect this game to play out similarly to the Stanford-Notre Dame game, where turnovers, red-zone performance or a big play here and there will determine the winner. Whoever has the ball last might very well win the game, but ultimately, Kevin Hogan pulls out another clutch fourth-quarter scoring drive to give Stanford the win in yet another back-and-forth, nail-biting classic in what’s becoming one of the better rivalries in college football.
This game feels eerily reminiscent of the 2013 clash between Stanford and USC: a revitalized Trojan squad playing its best football under an interim head coach versus a Cardinal team coming off of an emotional, field-storming victory at home over a would-be national title contender. But those kind of cute comparisons can only take you so far — the game on the field promises to be of a much different flavor than the defensive struggle of two years ago. Under Clay Helton, the Trojans have rallied around a physical brand of football and will almost certainly look to attack Stanford on the ground behind their massive offensive line and emerging running back in Ronald Jones — a formula that worked brilliantly for both Oregon and Notre Dame against the Cardinal. Meanwhile, the looming nuclear threat of Juju Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson could blow up Stanford’s bend-but-don’t-break style of defense at any instant. However, Stanford’s offense looks equipped to match Southern Cal blow for blow behind an absurdly efficient Kevin Hogan and the reemergence of his favorite targets, Austin Hooper and Devon Cajuste, who made the difference in this matchup back in September. Behind a big day from Hogan and a record breaking performance from Christian McCaffrey, Stanford rallies from an early deficit and holds on at the end to claim its third Pac-12 title in four seasons.
HOW AM I THE ONLY PERSON NOT PICKING STANFORD IN THIS GAME? My god, people. And I’m usually the crazy optimist, too. Here’s the deal: Teams with physical fronts have been running roughshod over the Cardinal over the last few weeks. This defensive line is tired. USC has a very physical front and a supremely talented running back in Ronald Jones. Opposing No. 1 receivers have been racking up the yards against Stanford’s injured secondary. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell, Jr. are fantastic receivers. Stanford’s offensive line has gotten pretty bad push against the last two defensive fronts that it has played against (Cal and Notre Dame), and even though USC is injured at linebacker, the Trojans have more than enough talent to make up for a few injuries with their tremendous recruiting.
This game is going to be a back-and-forth affair, but ultimately, USC’s ridiculous big-play potential and newfound reliance on the power run game will prove to wear Stanford’s defense down, while the Stanford offense will be stopped just enough times, especially if the Trojans get good push on their defensive line, to put this game out of reach by the time the fourth quarter starts. I don’t want to believe it as much as you guys, but I just have a really, really, really bad feeling about this game. Stanford heads to the Holiday Bowl.
Red zone, red zone, red zone. That’s what this game is going to come down to. Offenses thrive when they have space, and the exact opposite happens when defenses are backed up inside their own 20. Can Stanford continue to weather its overall defensive troubles by holding strong in Stanford territory?
Stanford did very well against Cal and Notre Dame by holding its rivals’ offenses to field goals in the red zone. Now, I give props to Stanford for what it did in the red zone against Cal: Cal scores touchdowns inside the 20 at a 65 percent clip. But Sonny Dykes also made many questionable decisions to kick on fourth-and-short against Stanford. And Notre Dame’s had problems winning in the red zone all season — they’re only a 56-percent team. Stopping USC will be harder.
USC’s red zone touchdown percentage is a sparkling 68 percent. The Trojans will be going up against what seems like an immovable object — Stanford’s defense only gives up red zone touchdowns a mind-numbing 44 percent of the time, a figure that’s likely unsustainable. I don’t know whether Stanford will be able to keep USC from getting into the end zone in the first place, but when the Trojans do get inside the 20, Stanford had better be able to hold them from there.
Oh, and the score? The game’s a coin flip. But I’m not picking against Stanford. Not when this is the last Stanford-USC game I will ever cover for The Daily. I don’t normally do sentimentality. But this one’s for all the Stanford teams that could never beat USC. How many seniors on the Stanford football team have the chance to go out with a winning record against the University of Southern California? The first Stanford loss I ever attended in person was against USC and I hope Stanford never loses to USC again. Certainly not on Saturday night.
This game, like almost every installment of this rivalry, is quite difficult to get a handle on. As much as I criticized the Trojans at the beginning of this season for being an incomplete team (most of which, I might add, turned out to be quite well-merited), I’ve been impressed with how well they handled the difficult circumstances they faced and still managed to look like the clear champions of the Pac-12 South. Furthermore, I think the Trojans have finally found a good coach in Clay Helton, and I have no doubt that they will continue to improve under him in the coming seasons and eventually deliver in the way their fans expect.
This game, however, isn’t about how future years will play out. This game is about which team is better right now. From what I’ve seen, that answer is still the Cardinal. The bottom line is that –Stanford is just playing too well to allow the Trojans a serious shot at the upset this weekend. Just watch the team’s game-winning drive against Notre Dame last weekend – everyone thought the game was over when the Irish took the lead with 30 seconds remaining, but Stanford’s players simply refused to lose. One Cardinal player after another stepped up, and somehow the team walked away with the victory.
I haven’t been David Shaw’s number one fan this year, but I think his remarks before the September Stanford-USC matchup perfectly encapsulate the Cardinal’s advantage. Before kickoff, Shaw made every player who had won two Pac-12 Championships stand, driving home the point that, regardless of Stanford’s low-ranking at the time, the team knows how to take care of business in big games. Though the Trojans and the Cardinal have effectively flipped positions since then, I think the basic point still holds: USC deserves the chance it’s been given, but Stanford has the experience, the will power and the wherewithal to come away with a solid victory. Ultimately, I’ll be surprised if the Cardinal don’t let the Trojans know it.