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Stanford Uses Athleticism to Beat USC in Pac-12 Championship

Stanford used great tactics, physicality and execution to beat USC for the second time this year. But don't ignore the most compelling ingredient in the Cardinal's success: It's athleticism.

                Stanford and USC jogged into their respective locker rooms with reasons to be upset at the way the first half played out at Levi’s Stadium.   The Trojans’ defense had been pushed around and dominated at the line of scrimmage, and the cursing in the USC coaches box was audible through the adjacent wall to the press box.  Stanford, for its part, had failed to finish three trips into the Red Zone, which was as uncharacteristic as it was nauseating to its fans.

                Then the Trojans burst out of the locker room and played as if their hair was aflame.  Two terrifying touchdown drives put USC in the lead and left the Cardinal and its fans staring straight into an Alamo Bowl Abyss.  Once more, the Cardinal’s mettle would be tested, as it had been on a sloggy Halloween night in Pullman, and on a chilly night in Stanford Stadium the week before against Notre Dame.

                And that’s when Stanford took USC through the looking glass.

                For decades, Stanford has been able to muster up a decent fight against USC, only to have the Trojans find another gear and leave Stanford trudging off the field with shrugged shoulders.  Time and again, it was like, “Well, they’re USC, and we’re Stanford.  We hung in there for a while, but what can you do?”

                In 2004, J.R. Lemon ended the half at Stanford Stadium with an 82-yard touchdown run and the Cardinal went into the locker room up 28-17.  Matt Leinart and LenDale White scored in the second half while the Trojan defense found another gear and shut the Cardinal out in the final two quarters.  SC won 31-28.

                In 2008, Stanford’s Toby Gerhart ran wild on the Trojans in the first half, and the Cardinal once more appeared headed into the Stanford Stadium field house with a halftime lead, but a C.J. Gable 93-yard touchdown kick return started a 28-0 USC run punctuated by the Trojans going for it at the Stanford goal line already up 38-17 with 1:23 remaining (this is what provoked “What’s Your Deal?” the next year, though nobody ever mentions it).  Once more, Stanford put up a fight but was eventually left in the dust trampled under foot.

                So now it’s 2015, and the Trojans are surging, and Stanford faces a 3rd and 6 with 4:25 left at its own 26-yard line.  Up to this point Kevin Hogan is 3/6 for 11 yards.  The Cardinal comes out in its favored Trips Left Single Back Single Right formation.  USC overloads the left side of Stanford’s offense with two rushers and ultimately brings five.

                Stanford’s spread formation combined with the fifth rusher means the only safety help over the middle, Chris Hawkins, is lined up in Campbell to prevent the deep pass.  And that means that it’s the responsibility of a linebacker, in this case USC’s Olajuwo Tucker, to handle McCaffrey out of the backfield.

Good luck, Bro.

                McCaffrey darts out at a 45-degree angle, jukes Tucker’s jock into six knots, then slants in at the same 45 degree angle.  Hogan finds him, delivers a strike, and it’s off to the races.  McCaffrey spins Hawkins all the way around, gets a great downfield block from Cajuste, and finally gets taken down 67 yards later at the seven-yard line.  Stanford would finish the drive when a pulling Joshua Garnett gets Cravens and a leading Remound Wright blocks the play-side linebacker, after which Hogan breaks a Marvell Tell tackle and scores.

                With 9:40 in the 4th quarter, Stanford has a 2nd and 5 comes out in a Twins Left Twins Right Single Back Formation.  USC is in man non-press coverage, with Rector wide right getting a huge cushion.  For how many years have Stanford fans watched its DBs miles off SC’s endless fleet of five-star receivers?  You know why SC was playing so soft on Rector?  To quote Henry Hill in Goodfellas….

“It was outta respect.”

                That’s right, SC had to respect Rector’s speed, and this is a week after SC’s DB’s were lauded for playing physical bump and press coverage against UCLA’s receivers.  This coverage all but makes the play for Stanford, and it’s not the first time the Cardinal has had an opponent checkmated by formation this year.  But what’s most compelling is the respect for the Cardinal’s perimeter speed, respect SC was right to pay, by the way.

                From the slot right, Cajuste creates a natural pick by running straight up the field.  With Rector’s man off of him, he squares in underneath Cajuste and Hogan delivers another perfect pass (Hogan didn’t have an incompletion in the second half by the way).  The whole play was triggered by SC’s defense respecting Rector’s speed.

                After USC responded with a touchdown of its own, Stanford faced 3rd and 2 and comes out in a Pro Set Shotgun Backfield with Stacked Twins Left and Single Right.  Schultz is in the backfield, another great utilization of base personnel in a spread formation.  Su’a Cravens blitzes the edge, where Schultz steps up to meet him.  Hogan cagily steps left and creates a great angle for Schultz to run Cravens pass him and out of the way.

                At this point in the play, McCaffrey has slipped past the first wave of Trojan defenders is surrounded by three more at the second level.  SC sends one of the three on a delayed blitz, but all three are staring into the backfield watching Hogan.  McCaffrey slips past them as Hogan begins to scan right, and here’s where the “graduate level” play goes to “tenured professor” level. 

As McCaffrey drifts right towards the numbers, Hogan steps left and pulls the entire defense left with him and away from McCaffrey.  This subtle move and the patience required likely turned a sure first down into a touchdown, and it was just one of many expert plays Hogan made in putting together the Pac-12’s best season of quarterbacking. 

McCaffrey then receives the pass from Hogan takes it in for six. It was 34-22 at that point, and McCaffrey’s sixth third down conversion of the game.  Hogan would complete another big pass to Cajuste on a fourth down to set up the game-sealing McCaffrey touchdown.  That play featured a great blitz pick-up, which leads us to the offensive line, whose dominance started in the first half and continued in the second half.

But the real story in this game was a continuation of what happened in the Coliseum on September 19.  Stanford confronted USC with real deal athletes, true game breakers, like the ones SC has been trotting out for decades.  It’s so appropriate that Reggie Bush was in the building, because the game breaker who idolized him was at his best.  The flip of the script is that the player in question played for Stanford.

Stanford is never going to have as many top notch athletes as USC, but we are in an era now where it has more than enough to put USC on its heels.  Devon Cajuste broke Adoree Jackson’s ankles in the first meeting so badly that the Trojan radio announcers assumed he must have pushed off of Jackson.  Austin Hooper spent that day going around, through, and over hapless SC defenders.  Last Saturday Marvell Tell got his ankles rolled by Christian McCaffrey, then got trucked by Hogan.

There is no team Stanford loves to beat more than USC.  As Troy Clardy so eloquently stated, “The only thing better than beating Notre Dame once is beating USC twice.”  And beating them feels so good because they’ve been so good for so long.  In a very real way the games against USC were the alpha and omega moments of 2015, and what makes them so indelible wasn’t just that they beat USC, but the way they did it.  Standing toe to toe and matching them juke for juke and burst for burst.

Up is down, down is up, and we are through the looking glass, people.  Enjoy it.


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