Six Points: Stanford meets USC for the Pac-12 crown
When USC and Stanford play for the Pac-12 Championship in Santa Clara on Saturday teams that have had strikingly different seasons will meet.
Stanford has become a juggernaut, returning to the Pac-12 title bout for the third time in five seasons. Meanwhile, USC fights for a Rose Bowl berth after starting the season with a 3-3 record.
Here are the three keys to victory for both schools:
1. Capitalize on momentum
After dropping two of its first three conferences games, few expected USC to make the Pac-12 title game.
Despite four regular-season losses, however, the program rallied behind its interim head coach Clay Helton — reminiscent of the 2013 season behind Ed Orgeron. Unlike with Orgeron, however, Helton earned the nod as USC’s permanent head coach after defeating UCLA to win the Pac-12 South.
Since losing to Notre Dame on the road in October, the Trojans have won five of their last six, including a victory over then-No. 3 Utah.
But the hard work is not over. If USC can take advantage of recent momentum and beat Stanford, a trip to the Rose Bowl could be waiting.
2. Believe in the rushing attack
In four losses, USC averages 33.8 rushes per game and 37.3 passes. However, in eight victories, USC averages 41.5 rushes and 30.5 passes.
USC has a dominant rushing attack and quarterback Cody Kessler is not the Heisman candidate some expected. The Trojans’ have adjusted accordingly. According to the OC Register, Helton-led USC averages nine more rushing attempts per game (42.7) than under Steve Sarkisian (33.6) this season.
USC’s time of possession has increased from 25:08 minutes per game with Sarkisian to 33:47 under Helton.
Stanford limited USC to a season-low 28 rushing attempts in their first meeting. Stanford also nearly doubled USC’s time of possession totaling 39:29 minutes with the bal.
Last week vs. UCLA, meanwhile, the Trojans notched a season-high 59 rushing attempts and an impressive 40:01 time of possession. The 235 rushing yards USC recorded was bettered only by its effort against Idaho.
USC junior RB Justin Davis has averaged 110 yards during his last four games. With 890 rushing yards, Ronald Jones II set the program record for most by a freshman. Senior Tre Madden returned from injury vs. UCLA and remains healthy vs. Stanford.
3. Limit McCaffrey’s productivity
For the Trojans to win, big plays need to come from the likes of Adoree’ Jackson or JuJu Smith-Schuster — not Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
Stanford boasts one of the most electric playmakers in the country in McCaffrey. Last time the Cardinal played USC, McCaffrey lit up the Trojans’ defense and special teams unit. According to an ESPN report, McCaffrey averages 4.7 yards per rush in losses compared to 5.9 yards per rush in wins.
If USC has any chance, stopping McCaffrey is an absolute must. USC’s offense scored 31 points on Stanford, but the Trojans’ allowed 41.
"I remember how back-and-forth it was," said McCaffrey, via LA Times. “They are a fast, athletic, physical team, and so are we."
1. Stanford is familiar with Pac-12 title games
Do not underestimate the importance of experience when it comes to title games. As far as Pac-12 title game experience goes, Stanford is in a class by itself.
The 2015 Pac-12 championship will the Stanford’s third in five seasons. It’s also valuable to know that the Cardinal won their previous two.
Stanford QB Kevin Hogan led Stanford to both of those Pac-12 titles in 2012 and ’13, winning MVP honors in the 2012 game.
The Cardinal will have the pressure on them as they are favorites and have a long-shot hope of a spot in the College Football Playoff. The experience that Hogan and head coach David Shaw with Pac-12 title games should give Stanford confidence.
2. The unstoppable McCaffrey has to do his thing
While USC comes in sporting the No. 30 ranked rushing defense in the country, it’s going to be hard for the Trojans to contain the amazing McCaffrey.
The Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year ranks first with 3,035 all-purpose yards and is closing in on Barry Sanders’ single-season record of 3,250. With a Pac-12 title game and a bowl game or two ahead, McCaffrey is a near lock to set the all-time record.
McCaffrey also ranks No. 6 in the country in rushing yards with 1,640 — which ranks second in the conference.
The sophomore sensation can beat an opponent in a variety of different ways: rushing, receiving, returning and even passing.
If USC can somehow find a way to slow down McCaffrey, something no team has done since Pac-12 play began, then the Trojans will have a shot to pull off the upset.
That being said, when McCaffrey last faced the Trojans he gained 249 all-purpose yards, including 115 on the ground.
3. Kevin Hogan needs to find his groove
No quarterback has played in more big games than Hogan has over the past four seasons.
Not only has Hogan played in two Pac-12 title games, but also he’s led the Cardinal to two Rose Bowls, including one victory, and has faced Notre Dame, Oregon, USC and UCLA every season. Those are high-pressure situations and Hogan has thrived.
Hogan is having the best season of his Stanford career, throwing for for 23 touchdowns and averaging 9.2 yards per attempt — both career highs.
When asked about how Hogan stacks up with other Stanford greats, Shaw said that Hogan ranks right up there with Andrew Luck, John Elway and Jim Plunkett.
“There’s no question about it,” Shaw said, per USA TODAY Sports.
“He has the most wins for a quarterback. Three Pac-12 championship games. Two Rose Bowls, hopefully going on a third. He’s in the top however many in yards, in completion percentage, he’s in the top two (with Luck) in quarterback rating.”
Jason Gold covers the Pac-12 for Fox Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33. Bryan Kalbrosky also covers the Pac-12 and tweets about other things, too. You can follow him @Bryan Kalbrosky.