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Pac-12 Championship Game Preview and Prediction: USC vs. Stanford


Prior to Stanford's Sept. 19 game against USC, head coach David Shaw asked all Cardinal players with two conference championships to stand in the locker room before kickoff.

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Shaw's pregame, motivational tactic was meant to rally Stanford, a sizable underdog against what was then a top 10-­ranked USC team. The Cardinal responded resoundingly, as their 41-31 victory not only snapped a two-game losing skid to the Trojans it also set the foundation for a third Pac-12 North title in four years.

Saturday when Stanford and USC meet at Levi's Stadium in the Pac­-12 Championship Game, it will be USC seeking pregame motivation as the underdog. Those league titles Shaw invoked at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum a few months ago give Stanford an inherent edge this weekend. The Cardinal are tested in championship contests.

For USC and newly minted head coach Clay Helton, this is unfettered territory. The Trojans have never played in the Pac-12 Championship Game. When the program last won a league title (2008), most of the players on the current roster were in elementary or middle school.

An outside, albeit realistic shot at the College Football Playoff is on the line for Stanford. USC is playing with the proverbial house money.

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USC vs. Stanford (Santa Clara, Calif.)

Kickoff: 7:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Stanford -4.5 

Three Things to Watch

1. A Much Different USC

Various factors contribute to a team's evolution over the course of a football season: injuries, players maturing into new roles, chemistry. USC's evolution came under particularly unusual circumstances, as Clay Helton replaced Steve Sarkisian amid a 3­-2 start.

Shaw said playing the same opponent twice in a season is a challenge in and of itself.

"When you play [a team twice] in the same year, you guard against thinking what worked last time will work this time," Shaw said. "It's a bit of a chess match."

Add to that a coaching change and stark change in philosophy, as USC underwent in the move from Sarkisian to Helton, and the chess match is all the more intense. Stanford can expect a much different strategy compared to September, when quarterback Cody Kessler passed more times (32) than the Trojans ran (28).

"They're running the ball more. They've got the backs to do it. They've got a big, physical, offensive line," Shaw said.

Indeed, under Helton's watch, USC has embraced a run-first offensive approach, relying on a talented platoon of backs to carry the ball an average of 42.7 times per game in the seven since the coaching change. Junior Justin Davis and freshman Ronald Jones II have broken out in that time.

2. A Foot Race to the Finish

The implementation of a more run-based offensive approach at USC mirrors the Stanford philosophy in many ways. Shaw called it, "football that I appreciate and have a lot of respect for."

Stanford's style this season has fostered the rise of running back Christian McCaffrey, a Heisman Trophy contender and the 2015 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year. McCaffrey's meteoric ascent to the upper echelon of college football unofficially began against USC, when he rushed 26 times for 115 yards. He also caught three passes for 37 yards, primarily on short passes that functioned like runs.

With one more opportunity to make a splash among Heisman voters, look for McCaffrey to come out with added motivation against a USC defense that's been up-and-down in its rush defense. The Trojans limited Utah to just 99 yards in one of Helton's two signature wins on the season.

In USC's other marquee victory, last week over UCLA to sew up the Pac-12 South, the Bruins finished with just 140 yards on the ground. However, running backs Paul Perkins and Nate Starks were ripping off 8.8 and 5.6 yards per carry respectively. UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone abandoned the run and called for more pass plays.

Stanford won't give up the run easily. Against both Utah and UCLA, the Trojans forced both teams' hands by generating turnovers, a strategy USC must replicate Saturday to keep the ball away from McCaffrey as much as possible.

3. Scaling the Tall Trees

Among Stanford's favorite offensive weapons throughout Shaw's tenure is a receiving corps loaded with tall targets - wide receivers and tight ends who range from 6-foot-4, to as tall as 6-foot-8, as in former tight end Levine Toilolo.

This season, the Cardinal have Devon Cajuste and Austin Hooper continuing that tradition. Cajuste and Hooper, both 6-foot-4, combined for six receptions and two touchdowns in Stanford's win over USC in September.

Stanford's collective size does pose matchup problems, but Helton has confidence after USC's strong showing against UCLA.  

"We kind of faced that last week. You see it in [Jordan] Payton, who we feel is a big man, and we've got Iman Marshall," Helton said. Marshall is USC's 6-foot-2, freshman cornerback.

Appropriately nicknamed "Biggie," Marshall is a sizable defensive back in the vein of Richard Sherman, coincidentally a Stanford product. Marshall played the best game of his collegiate career against UCLA, holding Payton to 60 yards, but more importantly, keeping him out of the end zone.

Marshall also read a Josh Rosen pass for a key interception. He'll need to duplicate that effort against Cajuste Saturday. That leaves Hooper as the other big, primary target USC must contend with.

Once again, the Trojans can look to the UCLA win for inspiration defending Stanford.

"I'll tell you who did a great job last week was Su'a Cravens," Helton said. "He went against an incredible tight end in [Thomas] Duarte and really followed him around all day and limited him to two catches."

"I'm looking forward to that matchup," Cravens said. "He's a first-round [NFL draft] tight end, so I don't shy away from competition."

Final Analysis

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USC-Stanford matchups have routinely been among the most exciting of any Pac-12 season, dating back as far as the Cardinal's colossal upset in 2007. The Pac-12 could not have asked for a more appropriate championship game matchup, even if each team's road to Levi's Stadium was unusual.

Stanford overcame a Week 1 loss to play some of the conference's most dominant football for the duration of the campaign. USC endured turmoil, but came out of it stronger as a result. These are two much different squads than the two that faced in September.

Nevertheless, the outcome is likely to be the same. Stanford's veteran savvy is a decided advantage, as is the Cardinal's longtime marriage to the brand of football USC is now transitioning to under Helton. Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy and rest of Stanford's stout offensive line should dictate tone early to help the Cardinal win their third Pac-12 championship since 2012.

Prediction: Stanford 34, USC 24

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.