As No. 10 USC prepares to face No.12 Stanford for the fifth time in three years, some of the veteran Trojan players reflected on the last time they clashed with the Cardinal in a Pac-12 Championship.
After going 5-2 as interim head coach in 2015, Clay Helton was promoted to permanent head coach leading up to the conference title game. It was a move that delighted the roster, but ultimately, the team was unable to deliver, losing to Stanford 41-22.
“We were head over heels for him, but at the same time, we didn’t come out and perform like we wanted to,” redshirt senior safety and defensive captain Chris Hawkins said.
USC now seeks redemption two years later, with the program in a much more stable position than before. In his first two full seasons, Helton has gone 20-5 with a Rose Bowl victory and a Pac-12 South title. After two brief, yet controversial tenures turned in by former head coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, it was the un-flashy, unflappable Helton who brought USC back to national prominence. Yet in order to silence all doubt that he was the right hire in 2015, and cement this season as a successful one, Helton requires one more win at Levi’s Stadium this Friday.
“I feel like last year if we would’ve went [to the Pac-12 Championship], we would’ve won it then too, and I feel like everybody in the country thought the same thing,” Hawkins said. “But this is a big step moving forward for this program and Coach Helton as well.”
Playing Stanford is always a difficult task, with its hard-hitting, physical style of play on both sides of the ball. Playing the Cardinal twice in the same season is even tougher. In the two teams’ first meeting in Week 2, USC trounced Stanford, winning by three touchdowns and rushing for over 300 yards. At the time, even Helton was surprised at the way his squad man-handled a David Shaw-coached team.
But this Friday, the Trojans are expecting a different Cardinal squad. They’ve finally settled on K.J. Costello as starting quarterback, and the returns have been encouraging. He’s thrown for nine scores and just two interceptions, with an efficient four-touchdown performance against Notre Dame last week being his career highlight. Shaw won’t ask Costello to do too much against USC; at the very least, he provides balance to an offense that placed too much pressure on Heisman-hopeful running back Bryce Love early on.
There is perhaps no other college football player more valuable to his team than Love is for Stanford (in the one game he’s missed all year, Stanford struggled to beat lowly, 1-11 Oregon State). When healthy, he’s one of the best athletes in the nation. When hurt — which he has been for nearly all of November — he’s still one of the best athletes in the nation. The junior is averaging 115 yards per game since suffering an ankle sprain, proving that he possesses durability to match his explosiveness. He’s been an essential ingredient in his team’s three-game, Pac-12 North-clinching run to close out the season.
“I’ve been impressed with him all season,” Hawkins said. “Usually, you think it’s the O-line that’s doing the job, but he’s really making people miss now.”
Much like USC’s offense, which churned out over 600 total yards against Stanford in September, the defense also wouldn’t mind a repeat performance. Save for a 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter (which the coaching staff chalked up to an alignment issue), the unit did a nice job of containing Love, forcing Stanford to throw: The Cardinal’s 28 pass attempts are the second-most they have thrown all year.
To again prevent Love from taking over the game, USC will rely on senior nose tackle Josh Fatu (eight tackles for loss) to clog up holes inside and hope inside linebackers redshirt sophomore John Houston Jr. and junior Cam Smith are able to wrap him up in open-field situations.
“You try to make the quarterback win the game because runners and offensive linemen rarely have bad days,” Helton said. “Sometimes you’ll catch a quarterback having a bad day, but when you force a team to be one-dimensional, it’s a lot harder to move the ball.”
For the offense, the group’s biggest transformation since Week 2 is redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold’s improved chemistry with his receiving corps. Over the past few weeks, redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. have gone from afterthoughts to bonafide offensive weapons. Their emergence helped Darnold rattle off three of his best performances of the season following the loss to Notre Dame before the offense sputtered against UCLA (the Bruins rank 123rd in FBS total defense). The group will need both the passing game and the ground attack — behind junior running back Ronald Jones II (1,346 yards) — to fire on all cylinders and down Stanford for the second time in 2017.
“Our skill positions have so much improved,” Helton said. “From a Tyler Vaughns developing to a Michael Pittman coming onto the scene, plus the health of some guys.”
A win in Santa Clara on Friday would be USC’s first conference title victory since 2008. Since the Pac-12 Championship’s inception in 2011, a Pac-12 South team has yet to win the game, while Stanford has won three of the six Pac-12 titles.
In USC’s last appearance in the Pac-12 Championship the program was in a state of flux, but in Helton’s return to Levi’s Stadium with the team back in the national spotlight, the pressure is heightened.
“The expectations when you’re at USC are championships,” Helton said. “I knew that going in.”