Two very different teams from their Sept. 9 meeting face off Friday night at Levi's Stadium
Temperatures inside the visiting team media tent within the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum tunnel get sweltering; especially on a late summer night. Despite this, and a 42-24 loss to Pac-12 rival USC, Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips was not sweating.
"We have a lot to improve on, and a lot of weeks to get there," Phillips said. "So, we'll see who's a better team at the end of the season."
Phillips' statement looks more like a prognostication now that the Cardinal are in their fourth Pac-12 Championship Game in the past six seasons. Stanford has the opportunity to stack up with USC again, head-to-head, with a conference championship at stake.
Two much different teams face off Friday night at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara compared to the squads that took the field at the Coliseum in early September. How much different may well determine the outcome of this championship clash in a budding rivalry.
Stanford's need for improvements were evident from that early juncture. USC ran the ball at will against a typically stout Cardinal defense, with running backs Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr both going over 100 yards. Conversely, after a 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Stanford's potent rushing attack was held in check.
"Honestly, this could be the best thing that happens to us," said safety Justin Reid, who had an interception in the September meeting. "Because it gives us a chance to lock in on some details. All the preseason hype, it lets us know exactly where we are, and be critical of ourselves."
Some more opportunity for internal reflection followed with a loss in the final minutes the next week at San Diego State, dropping Stanford to an uncharacteristic 1-2. The program that, along with Oregon, replaced USC as the conference standard bearer in the 2010s fell from the Top 25 by Week 4 and spent a good portion of the regular season as an afterthought.
But then, come November, Stanford landed right back where it typically resides at this time of year under head coach David Shaw: in the hunt for the Pac-12 title. So what changed?
"I love saying this: We have a better sense of who we are; what we can do, and what we probably shouldn't do, because it isn't just results oriented," Shaw said. "At the beginning of the year, we were still figuring it out. Some guys were playing in new spots. Now we have a better handle of who we are and what we are."
What Stanford is coming into the Pac-12 Championship Game is a team that won eight of nine, including a dominant fourth-quarter performance to rout Notre Dame. In that win, perhaps the most obvious change central to Stanford's turnaround became evident; that being the play of quarterback K.J. Costello.
Keller Chryst started in the first half of the season, but an injury forced Costello (right) into the lineup. Leaning heavily on the nation's leading rusher, Bryce Love, Costello eased into the job. He was ready in big moments against top 10-ranked opponents in two of the last three weeks, passing for 211 yards against Washington's stellar defense, spreading the Huskies to open rushing lanes for Love in a win critical to Stanford winning the Pac-12 North.
In the romp against Notre Dame, Costello threw four touchdown passes, including a few impressive darts under pressure.
"Our wide receivers have made plays, our tight ends have made plays and our quarterback has made plays, which takes a lot of the pressure off the offensive line," Shaw said.
The Notre Dame win marked a high point for the Cardinal's season, the exact opposite of an encounter with Notre Dame in October for USC. The 49-14 loss on Oct. 21 was a decided low point for the Trojans not just in the 2017 season, but since Sept. 30, 2016, when Sam Darnold stepped in as the starting quarterback.
USC is undefeated since, rolling off three wins by double digits, and playing its best football since... well, since beating Stanford on Sept. 9.
"In the last few weeks, they're getting back to running it with Ronald [Jones]," Shaw said. "The quarterback's back to being what we know he could be, which is an unbelievably accurate, competitive quarterback [who] almost plays better when he's in crunch time."
Indeed, Darnold has come alive down the stretch. He's thrown just three interceptions from Oct. 14 on, and played with an air of confidence resembling the record-setting show he put on at last January's Rose Bowl Game — or against Stanford earlier this season.
Darnold threw four touchdown passes against the Cardinal, and his mobility in the pocket extended the type of plays that typically result in a patented Stanford #PartyInTheBackfield.
"They had a lot of slides dialed up to eliminate the stunts we wanted to run. That kind of goes to Sam Darnold," Phillips said. "We got home a lot of times, but he was able to make plays with his feet, as well as his hands."
As good as Darnold looked that night, he has even more weapons around him now. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns has stepped up as a consistent No. 2 target behind Deontay Burnett, catching 48 passes for 664 yards with four touchdowns. In the final four games, sophomore Michael Pittman became a regular in the passing attack, as well, making 10 of his 13 grabs down the stretch. He also caught his first career touchdown pass in the South division-sealing win Nov. 11 at Colorado.
For USC head coach Clay Helton, the emergence of this diverse and talented receiving corps is the greatest development of the Trojans' 2017 season.
"The most in the offensive skill [positions]," Helton said. "I see our young wideouts really performing over the second half of the season — the development of Tyler Vaughns, the development of a Michael Pittman on the outside, to get Daniel Imatorbhebhe back to complement Tyler Petite, getting Steven Mitchell back healthy — the most growth we've had is in the outside skill position."
New stars in new roles on both sides of the ball should make for a new game in this championship installment of USC vs. Stanford. Will the outcome differ this time around?
As Harrison Phillips said in early September, we'll see who the better team is at the end of the season.