Pac-12 turns all hard-nosed here

Who'd a thunk it . . . the two teams to make it to the Pac-12 Championship game Saturday -- Stanford and USC -- aren't the wide-open, fancy, new-look uptempo offenses but a pair of old-fashioned, power-running physical-type teams.

Justin Davis was talking about his role now as USC's slasher, the power runner behind Zach Banner, the guy who slashed for 100 of his 130 yards in the fourth quarter against a "no mas" UCLA defense that just wanted the Trojans to go away.

And then it occured to a questioner after Tuesday's practice that with power-running, physical Stanford the other team at the Pac-12 Championship Saturday (4:45 p.m., ESPN) at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, the high-flying, quarterback-centric, uptempo, wide-open, offensive-minded, spread-heavy Pac-12, now has the two teams survive to the title game that are going the other way on offense.

Going, as some would say, the old-fashioned way. The hard-nosed, hit-'em-at-the-line-of-scrimmage, knock-'em-back way now that USC pulled off its course correction in that direction eight weeks ago under then interim, now new head coach Clay Helton.

"Weird, huh?" the questioner commented at his own realization of where this was going.

Or maybe not so "weird" as Helton would note later ticking off the likes of "Alabama and Ohio State" who have also done pretty well powering the ball.

"You look around the country, it's the physical teams, not the finesse teams, that win championships," Helton said, sounding for all the world like the reincarnation of Marcus Allen and Ronnie Lott, two of the Hall of Fame Trojans very much in Helton's corner to get a shot to show what he can do as head coach here.

Helton said Justin was a great example of where this Trojans team wants to go, recalling how when he was recruiting Justin, he saw him carry it 34 times on game, 36 times another at Stockton's Grant High.

Helton's word of the day for this 8-4 USC (6-3 in the Pac-12, 5-0 in the South) team was "confidence . . . not cockiness . . . they're confident they can compete at a high level, confident they can compete for the Pac-12 Championship."

Among the players, the word of the day was "trust." Davis is feeling it, from Helton. "I'm starting to feel that feeling," Davis said. "The first time we played Stanford, we didn't have an identity. Now we do. Now it's playing hard-nosed football. It's our best chance against Stanford.

Darreus Rogers, after his 20-yard catch-and-pivot touchdown around and through a UCLA defender inside the 5-yard line, is feeling it too.

"I always thought I could be an impact player, someone beside JuJu [Smith-Schuster] who could make those plays," Rogers said. "My confidence is way up and I'm getting the trust for Cody.

And with Darreus joining JuJu, that "gives us big, physical receivers," he says. And "if we're going to pound the ball first, that's great, it just sets up the play-action pass so we can go over off that."

So how much better is this team from the last time it played Stanford, Banner was asked. "What are we, eight games better? . . . I love it . . . I want more of it . . . when you run right 10 times in a row, you gotta' love it . . . on both sides [Saturday], it's going to be nitty and gritty."

That's the consensus. USC has found its way, the Trojans say, and Clay Helton is the guy who did that for them. The difference this time around, Su'a Cravens said, is obvious.

"Physicality," Su'a said. "Look at that fourth quarter against UCLA . . . what USC is all about now is competing" and they know now what they're up against, and what they weren't ready for the first time in the 41-31 loss in Game 3 to Stanford.

"We don't have all the same guys," Cody Kessler said of the injured Trojans out for the season like All-American center Max Tuerk and his replacement Toa Lobendahn. "But the new guys have really stepped up.

No one more so than center Nico Falah, a relative lightweight at 280 pounds who tried center for a week a year ago and ""it didn't work out." He didn't get into that first Stanford game and didn't start snapping until the Utah game.

And now, here he is, fresh off his starring performance stepping in for the injured Khaliel Rodgers in the UCLA game and running with the first team this week. Not an envious task against a Stanford team that made life awfully difficult for then backup center Cyrus Hobbi when he was forced into duty in 2012.

"I'm not going to lie, the first play I was freaking out," Nico said, after not saying a word or making a call on his first snap "before Zach settled me down . . . I'm actually having fun out there now . . . I hope Khaleil is in there but I'm preparing like I will be. That's how I've done it the last couple of weeks."

"Nico has a lot of confidence," O-line coach Bob Connelly says.

What a difference a game makes. Confidence, toughness, trust, physicality.

Saturday, those are qualities that teams lining up on both sides of the ball will be calling on, USC players and coaches say.

TUESDAY QUICK HITS: Another shorts, shoulder pads and helmets practice Tuesday and parents day as the Trojans offense in white jerseys, the colors USC will wear Saturday against Stanford . . . Viane Talamaivao back and concentrating on backup center role as Nico Falah gets the first-team work with Khaliel Rodgers out the next couple of days with a high ankle sprain and a PRP injection to speed healing . . . Trojans concentrated on first and second down efficiency for Stanford knowing that's the way to get the job done on third down . . . Clay said the Trojans were "laser-focused" on the task at hand and "made it easy on the coaches" Tuesday . . . Clay said as for this being his first practice as head coach, "not one thing" has changed -- "what tou see is what you get" . . . S Marvell Tell back and ready to go after playing Saturday . . . LB Osa Masina also back and running much better on his hamstring . . . S Leon McQuay not all the way back with the PCL tear as it's now diagnosed a four- to eight-week rehab . . . CB Jonathan Lockett still not back with a sprained knee . . . after practice, Pac-12 releases 2015 football awards naming Su'a Cravens, Adoree' Jackson and Antwaun Woods first team on defense, Banner and JuJu Smith-Shuster first team on offense with Chad Wheeler second team on offense and Delvon Simmons second team on defense . . . Adoree' was second team as a return specialist and Soma Vainuku as a second team special teamer . . . and finally, for the fourth time in the last five years, USC LB Cameron Smith was named Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year joing Adoree', Su'a, Leonard Williams and Dion Bailey.

CHECK THIS OUT: For Tuesday's practice report, check out TUESDAY PAC-12 CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK GHOST NOTES.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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