Before Stanford’s Sept. 19 meeting with USC earlier this season, Stanford head coach David Shaw asked every player in the Stanford locker room that had played in two Pac-12 Championship games to stand. Nearly half the team rose.
It was a move meant to show the team that even though USC was ranked No. 6 at the time and Stanford was unranked, the Cardinal were no underdog — while USC’s status was anointed through preseason hype and speculation, Stanford had earned the right to be confident through its track record of big wins in big games.
We thought the stage was big then, but three months later, the stage has never been as big as it will be on Saturday for Stanford at Levi’s Stadium.
As the Pac-12 season comes full circle with the two teams that began conference play set to close it out, a Rose Bowl berth lies at stake for both the No. 7 Cardinal (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) and the No. 24 Trojans (8-4, 6-3) in the Pac-12 Championship Game as Stanford seeks a return to Pasadena for the third time in four seasons and USC looks to salvage what once looked to be a lost season.
“It’s been a tough road, a hard road,” said head coach David Shaw. “Our guys have fought every single week. We’ve got one game left in our season before bowl season starts so we’re going all-in.”
What’s more: For the first time in a very, very long time, Stanford will be playing with national title hopes at stake this late in the season, with the Cardinal needing just one loss by Clemson or Alabama to have a clear shot at the College Football Playoff.
Not that the Cardinal will be checking those other scores, of course.
“I’m not on the committee and nobody on our team’s on the committee,” Shaw said. “We’re a football team. We have to try to win a football game. If we’re easily distracted by stuff that happens off our field, then we don’t deserve to win.”
Even though Stanford outdueled USC 41-31 on the road earlier this season, the Cardinal can’t be caught looking ahead in the most critical juncture of their year; these are two very different teams from the squads that took the field in September in Los Angeles.
“You have to treat them like completely different games,” Shaw said. “There’s no carry-over outside of looking at what worked and what didn’t work.”
“You’ve got to look even more intently at what they’ve done since we played them and what we’ve done since we played them. We’re a different team emphasizing different things since we played them back then.”
While Stanford ran a balanced, pro-style offense and USC ran a spread in that September game, both Stanford and USC have since re-found their identities as power-run teams — in fact, Shaw believes that the Cardinal and Trojans are the only two power-run teams left in the conference.
That USC game was the first in a stretch of a school-record nine consecutive games in which sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey eclipsed 100 rushing yards. Since then, all McCaffrey has done is become the centerpiece of the Stanford offense and presumably cement his status as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Meanwhile, with the firing of Steve Sarkisian and the hiring of Clay Helton as head coach, the Trojans have also returned to their roots as a run-first team behind the two-headed rushing attack of Justin Davis and Ronald Jones, taking a lot of the onus off of the right arm of quarterback Cody Kessler.
“Both very, very talented running backs,” Shaw said. “[Jones] is just explosive. He’s so fast and so quick. It’s a great 1-2 punch. They’ve got a couple of other backs that they roll in there too, but those two have had really good seasons.”
Even with the running game likely to be the focus of USC’s offense, make no mistake: The Trojans’ absurd talent at wide receiver, led by stud sophomore JuJu Smith-Schuster, is poised to continue the recent streak of big plays that have plagued a Stanford secondary playing without its two best corners in Ronnie Harris and Alijah Holder.
“I know USC is watching our last couple of games and getting excited, because we’ve given up a lot of explosive plays in the last couple of games,” Shaw said. “We have to limit those with a very talented USC team.”
Luckily for Stanford, news on the injury front is promising for both Holder and Harris: Shaw said this week that Holder would likely play as part of a rotation at the very least, and that Harris was ahead of schedule in his recovery and could return as soon as Saturday.
Given that Smith-Schuster had a 153-yard day against a healthy Stanford secondary in September and the talented Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell, Jr. have also had successful seasons, the welcome injury news couldn’t have come soon enough, particularly with Stanford having allowed 100-yard receivers in each of its last two weeks.
“The biggest thing that we need to do is eliminate big plays,” said senior safety Dallas Lloyd. “If we can do our job and eliminate those big plays and make offenses work to move the ball incrementally down the field on us, then we’ll have a lot more success.”
Stanford’s front seven will also have a tall task ahead of it, as the Trojans’ running game has found its rhythm despite losing three starting offensive linemen to injury (Max Tuerk, Toa Lobendahn and Kahliel Rodgers) since the teams last met.
That very same battle on the other side of the ball might well dictate the game.
Although McCaffrey was held to below 100 rush yards for the first time in 10 weeks last Saturday by Notre Dame, the Trojans will be playing without two of the key pieces of its run defense in linebackers Cameron Smith and Lamar Dawson, giving McCaffrey and the Stanford offensive line a more favorable matchup to work with as the Cardinal will look to dictate the tempo of the game and hold the ball.
With fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan coming off of the best game of his career and finding his best rapport of the season with receiver Devon Cajuste, all phases of the Cardinal offense are clicking at the right time.
It’s just a matter of whether the Cardinal can show up on Saturday and play a big game on their biggest stage of the season — and if history is any indication, they’re absolutely prepared to do so.
“We know that’s what’s going to happen this week,” Lloyd said. “It’s going to be head-to-head, physical football. That’s what we live for; that’s what we train for all year.”
In 2012 and 2013, that determination was enough to give Stanford the edge in rematches against UCLA and Arizona State to give the team one last push into Pasadena. With another Rose Bowl — and possibly a Playoff berth — at stake, the Cardinal will no doubt have their eyes on the prize.
Stanford and USC will duel with the Pac-12 title at stake at 4:45 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.