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Extensive USC vs. Stanford game preview

After tumultuous trip, USC and Stanford come to the end of the line – the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Game 13: ‘Well, It’s All Right, Even When Push Comes to Shove’

The USC Trojans (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12 South), No. 20 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 24 in the Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls, meet the consensus-No. 7 Stanford Cardinal (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12 North) in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 5 at 4:45 p.m. PST at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., and in front of a national ESPN audience. Though USC became the first team to finish atop the South Division standings twice in the Pac-12’s five-year history of divisional play, the Trojans will be making their first appearance in the title game (USC was barred from participating in the 2011 contest due to NCAA sanctions). This is Stanford’s third appearance in the championship game – the Cardinal topped UCLA in 2012 and Arizona State in 2013.

It’s the 95th meeting between the schools – USC and Stanford first met in 1905, making the Cardinal the Trojans’ longest-tenured rival – with USC holding a 61-30-3 margin. This is the first meeting since a 1942 contest at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium (a 14-6 Stanford victory) that USC and Stanford have not faced off at either the Coliseum or Stanford Stadium. On Sept. 19, Kevin Hogan threw for 279 yards and a pair of scores as the Cardinal rallied from an 11-point first-half deficit to top then-No. 6 USC, 41-31. The Trojans had won the two previous meetings – 13-10 at Stanford in 2014 and 20-17 at the Coliseum in 2013.

Last weekend, USC scored the game’s final 20 points in a 40-21 thumping of then-No. 22 UCLA at the Coliseum. A punt-return TD by Adoree’ Jackson just before halftime and a 31-yard fumble return TD by Rasheem Green midway through the third quarter turned the game, and USC physically dominated the Bruin defense in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Stanford kept its flickering College Football Playoff hopes alive in a thrilling 38-36 victory over then-No. 6 Notre Dame on the Farm. Hogan tossed four TD passes and senior kicker Conrad Ukropina nailed a 45-yard field goal at the gun.

On Monday, USC removed the “interim” from Head Coach Clay Helton’s title, announcing a new five-year deal with the 43-year old career assistant. Helton (6-2 at USC as the interim coach, including a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl win) initially replaced the fired Steve Sarkisian on Oct. 12. Meanwhile, Stanford headman David Shaw (52-14, 36-9 Pac-12) helmed the Cardinal to their third North Division crown in four years, bouncing back from a tough 2014 and an inauspicious 2015 debut – a 16-6 road loss to Northwestern on Sept. 5.

A Dozen Things You Must Know About Stanford

My preview of the Sept. 19 contest contained a full breakdown of Stanford’s offensive, defensive and special teams personnel:

This time around, let’s look at 12 things everyone must know about the Stanford team that will take the field Saturday night.


1.     Powerful Efficiency: The Cardinal offense returned to its grindingly efficient ways in 2015. Stanford leads the Pac-12 in third-down conversions (.509) and fourth-down conversions (.909), tackles for loss allowed (4.5 per game), passing efficiency (167.89), and time of possession (35:09 per game). In the first meeting, Stanford held the ball for 19 minutes more than USC. Also, the Cardinal are third in the Pac-12 in rushing (222 yards per game). And Stanford has committed just 12 turnovers (No. 13 nationally). Its five fumbles lost rank 12th nationally.

2.     Points, Points, Points: Since the opener at Northwestern, Stanford has scored at least 30 points in each game. The Cardinal rank second in the Pac-12 in scoring (36.9 points per game), and in nine Pac-12 games that number jumps to 40.9. Stanford is fourth in red-zone offense, scoring on 47 of 53 chances, including 37 touchdowns.

3.     Christian for Heisman: Running back Christian McCaffrey should be in New York next weekend for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. McCaffrey broke Reggie Bush’s single-season conference record for all-purpose yards (he has 3,035) and leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 252.9 per game. He set a school record with 389 all-purpose yards in a North Division-clinching win vs. Cal. Nationally, he ranks third in combined kick return yards (960), seventh in kickoff return average (29.7), sixth in rushing (1,640), and seventh in rush yards per game (136.7). He’s also Stanford’s top pass catcher (37 receptions) and has 11 total TDs (seven rushing, three receiving, one kickoff return). His scoring production has been cut into by goal-line back Remound Wright, who has 13 rushing TDs on just 69 carries.

4.     Hogan’s a Hero: QB Kevin Hogan’s outstanding 2015 – second in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency; fourth nationally in pass yards per attempt (9.2); No. 11 nationally in completion percentage (67.3); and 25th nationally with 23 TD passes – helped him reach 34 career wins, tops among all Stanford QBs.

5.     They’re Not Alone: McCaffrey was named to the All-Pac-12 first team as a running back and return specialist, while Hogan is the second-team QB. However, tight end Austin Hooper, left guard Joshua Garnett (an Outland Trophy finalist), and left tackle Kyle Murphy also earned first-team All-Pac-12 notice. Garnett and Murphy are among a quintet of offensive linemen who’ve started each game in 2015.

6.     Stingy in the Red Zone: In 2014, Stanford’s red-zone defense slipped to No. 47 nationally in red-zone TDs allowed. However, in 2015, the Cardinal have returned to form, allowing just 18 TDs in opponents’ 41 red-zone trips (43.9 percent), ranking 15th nationally. Against Oregon, Cal, and Notre Dame, they were even better, allowing four TDs in 12 trips (the Stanford offense scored 10 TDs on 13 trips in those contests).

7.     Giving Up Big Plays: However, the Cardinal defense has been hurt by big plays, especially of late – Notre Dame scored on a 93-yard kickoff return, a 73-yard pass, and a 62-yard run. Oregon scored on a 75-yard run, and passes of 49 and 47 yards. (On Sept. 19, USC had a 54-yard TD pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster – capping a 92-yard drive.)

8.     Statistically Sound: Still, Stanford is tops in the Pac-12 in first-down defense, allowing just 224 this season. It’s third in the conference in scoring defense (23.2 per game), total defense (376 yards per game), and third-down conversion defense (37 percent).

9.     Not Forcing Mistakes: Two other areas where the Cardinal defense has stumbled – pressure and forcing turnovers. Stanford ranks No. 11 in the conference (74th nationally) in sacks (23) and No. 91 nationally in tackles for loss (5.4 per game). Stanford is dead last in the Pac-12 with just seven interceptions (nickel back Quenton Meeks leads them with two).

10.All-Conference Defenders: Two Cardinal – defensive end Aziz Shittu (team-leading nine tackles for loss) and linebacker Blake Martinez (the conference’s leading tackler with 121 after notching 102 in 2014) – earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors. Cornerback Ronnie Harris (third in the Pac-12 with 10 pass breakups) gained second-team notice.

11.Kicking Teams Are Special: The Cardinal rank second in the conference in kickoff returns (25 yards per), thanks to McCaffrey. Stanford also ranks second in the Pac-12 (behind USC) in kickoff coverage. Stanford has not had a kick or punt blocked in 2015, and Ukropina, the hero last week, has made 15-of-17 field goals overall (and all 56 PATs).

12.Health Maintenance: After losing DT Harrison Phillips in the season opener with a torn ACL and OLB Kevin Anderson for four games in late September and October, the Cardinal remained free of crucial injuries – until recently. Fullback Daniel Marx, a key to Stanford’s rushing attack, is out for the season after suffering a lower-leg injury vs. Cal. All-Pac-12 second-team CB Harris has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, while fellow cornerback Alijah Holder missed the Notre Dame. Holder appears closer to suiting up Saturday than Harris. Sophomores Alameen Murphy and Terrence Alexander started in their places last week.

USC Offensive Gameplan

How did USC turn the tables on UCLA? Some of the answers could be found in my preview last week. The Trojans thumped a below-average UCLA rushing defense for 235 yards and held the ball for an astounding 40:01, driving UCLA’s national time-of-possession ranking down to No. 122. Additionally, after averaging just 295 total yards against the UCLA defense in 2013 and 2014 – and allowing six sacks in each game – the Trojans posted 410 total yards and allowed Cody Kessler to be sacked just once, opening him up to throw second-half TD passes to Darreus Rogers and Taylor McNamara.

For USC to have a chance Saturday, the Trojans’ late-season shift into an efficient, clock-controlling, run-based attack must continue. The Trojans must also win the third-down battle, something they struggled with in September. This is, obviously, a tall task – but not impossible. Stanford is not the same, overwhelming defense as in recent years – Notre Dame rolled up 533 yards last week, and Stanford has allowed an average of 488 yards to its past three opponents.

Look for USC to try to maintain its recent personality – using Justin Davis, Ronald Jones II, and Tre Madden liberally (USC had 59 rushing attempts vs. UCLA last week). On Sept. 19, it was the Cardinal that held the ball for 39 minutes, allowing USC just 60 offensive plays – if this happens again on Saturday, it will be lights out for the Trojans’ Rose Bowl hopes. However, don’t be surprised to see USC take some shots downfield. With Stanford’s effectiveness in the red zone – and its struggles in containing big plays, especially lately – getting a long TD or two from the likes of Jones, Smith-Schuster, and/or Jackson would be a tremendous boost.

USC Defensive Gameplan

The Trojans surprised UCLA with an aggressive man-to-man secondary look – a big gamble for anyone who watched USC’s defensive backs against Oregon the week prior. But with Jackson flourishing in one safety spot, Su’a Cravens locking up Bruins’ TD machine Thomas Duarte, and freshman cornerback Iman Marshall having his best game as a Trojan – two interceptions while holding Jordan Payton in check – USC flustered freshman QB Josh Rosen, forcing three Bruin turnovers.

Two other keys, noted in this space a week ago, helped USC: first, the Trojans were able to sack Rosen three times, including one that turned into Green’s scoop-and-score in the third quarter. Previously, UCLA had allowed just 11 sacks in 2015. Additionally, the Trojans’ conference-leading third-down defense swallowed up the Bruins’ previously outstanding third-down offense, allowing UCLA to convert just one-of-seven opportunities.

With the Cardinal tops in the conference in both third- and fourth-down conversions, that matchup becomes crucial once again. In USC’s 2013 and 2014 wins over Stanford, the Trojan defense was effective on third down – mainly because, more often than not, it was able to keep Stanford out of its preferred short-yardage situations. In September, the Cardinal converted eight-of-12 third-down opportunities. USC’s defense will key on McCaffrey and must have success limiting his breakout plays. The Trojans will also likely mix more zone and man secondary coverage this week, but the real test against Hogan and Co. will be how much players like Marshall have grown in recent months. Stanford’s big receivers – Hooper, 6-foot-4 Devon Cajuste – hurt USC, even when apparently well covered. The Trojans must break up those plays this time around, while also accounting for dangerous speedster Michael Rector.

The Pick

In USC’s first season off of the draconian NCAA sanctions it faced for the first half of the decade, somehow the Trojans will be in Santa Clara this weekend. In a season when, after its fifth game (and second loss), USC faced the upheaval of suspending then relieving its head coach for problems surrounding apparent alcohol abuse, somehow the Trojans are the South Division’s entrant in the Pac-12 title tilt. In a season that featured massive injury problems across the offensive line and at linebacker, a complete shift in offensive personality, and a defense that seems to alternate between looking spectacular and clueless, USC will play 60 minutes against Stanford – a team it’s beaten in two of the past three meetings – for a chance at the school’s unprecedented 34th Rose Bowl appearance.

While this flawed but lovable Trojan team is playing with house money on Saturday night, under Jim Harbaugh and Shaw, the Cardinal have used the old Trojan blueprint to ascend to the conference’s elite. Stanford isn’t out to fool anyone – and the Cardinal’s run during the past six seasons has been one based on physicality, continuity – and dominating its home state. Since 2010, the Cardinal has won 22 of 24 contests against California-based colleges. Those two losses? Does Andre Heidari ring a bell?

Can USC stick it to Stanford for the third time? It’s doable – the Trojans, under Sarkisian and about as far away from establishing their running game as you could imagine – led Stanford 28-24 more than midway through the third quarter in September. Just as I noted in that preview, when most were discounting the Cardinal because of their early loss to Northwestern, there’s not a whole lot that separates these teams when they get together. And, though the Cardinal are 10-2 – with, perhaps, the most efficient offense they’ve fielded under Shaw – the same rings true for Saturday.

For USC to get it done, though, there are three keys. The Trojans must hold their own on third-down defense, getting off the field more often than they have to stay on it. Second, contain McCaffrey. Yes, he will get his yards, but if the Trojans can make him get them on the maximum number of touches, avoiding big plays, so much the better. Finally, USC must win on both sides in the red-zone. This might be the toughest task. While both teams have allowed 37 scores by opponents inside the red zone (Stanford on 41 trips, USC on 42), the Cardinal have allowed more field goals (19) than touchdowns (18). USC, on the other hand, has allowed 27 TDs and 10 field goals. In a closely matched game, against a Stanford team that turns the ball over almost as rarely as USC, those red-zone results must flip USC’s way for the Trojans to win the Pac-12 crown. Can the Trojans do that? Certainly. Will they?

Stanford 35, USC 27

Tom Haire has been writing for for 15 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both and He can be reached at or followed on Twitter at (@THrants) Top Stories