Levi Stadium will get to experience real, hard-nosed football this Saturday as it plays host to a rivalry as old as time and as bitter as the bicep-kissing quarterback who once led the San Francisco franchise. No. 7 Stanford meets No. 20 USC on the Pac-12 Championship gridiron, where more than just a conference title is at stake. A thorough routing of the Trojans could potentially earn David Shaw and his Cardinal a coveted College Football Playoff spot.
But before dreams of the desert can manifest, eyes must be kept on the Pac-12 prize. Shaw believes the game will be reminiscent of the USC-Stanford games your grandfather attended.
“It’s going to be an older-school USC-Stanford game to where we’re playing a similar style,” said Shaw in a media luncheon on Monday. “It’s a physical style with play-action passes, two very efficient quarterbacks who are well-traveled and been through a lot, and two defenses with a lot of young players who can make some great plays and can give up some plays.”
The key to winning this game lies in the personnel matchups — at least according to USC head coach Clay Helton, who dropped the “interim” from his title earlier this week.
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He recalled impressions Stanford made on him in Los Angles at the start of the season.
“In the first game, I just remember the personnel matchups and just how talented they were skill-wise, especially on the outside,” said Helton on the coach’s conference call Tuesday. “The biggest thing you take away is maybe some of the personnel matchups — knowing exactly how athletic a kid is and who you may need to match up on him with rather than it being a guessing game.”
In the spirit of Troy’s new-ish leader, we give you five key matchups to watch in Saturday's Pac-12 Championship game.
USC QB Cody Kessler & WR JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Stanford’s Secondary
Senior quarterback Cody Kessler and his receiving corps have been paramount to USC’s success. Kessler is 258-of-377 for 3,128 yards, 27 touchdowns, only six interceptions and three rushing touchdowns. His 2015 passing efficiency mark of 158.6 and 68.4 completion percentage this year are both near the USC season records he set last year (167.1, 69.7%).
Kessler possesses the accuracy and ability to place the ball in the outstretched hands of receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has a team-best 75 receptions for 1,302 yards and 10 touchdowns, all while averaging 17.6 yards per catch. Kessler also utilizes sophomore Adoree Jackson, who has 24 receptions for 382 yards and two touchdowns and averages 15.9 yards per catch.
Stanford’s secondary will likely have Alijah Holder back but may still be without senior Ronnie Harris. The Cardinal back line was solid against Notre Dame but will need to be even better against a USC team that favors the pass.
“The biggest thing we need to do is eliminate big plays,” said Stanford safety Dallas Lloyd. “If we can do our job, and make offenses work to move the ball incrementally down the field on us, we can have more success. That’s what we’ll be working on.”
Stanford RB Christian McCaffrey vs. a Cameron Smith-less USC Linebacking Corps
The WildCaff was relatively tame during Stanford’s game against Notre Dame last Saturday, finishing with 27 carries for 99 yards, three catches for 19 yards and six returns for 115 yards. He still ranks first nationally in all-purpose yards (252.92), and he is 42.58 yards away from breaking Barry Sanders' all-purpose yards per game NCAA record.
But first, he will have to avoid the linebackers who have replaced freshman Cameron Smith after his season-ending knee injury — sophomore Olajuwon Tucker and junior Michael Hutchings.The two linebackers combined for eight tackles, one sack and one quarterback hit against UCLA last week. Only Hutchings saw time against Stanford when the two teams last met, a game in which Smith contributed 12 tackles, the second most on the team.
USC OLB Su’a Cravens & DT Claude Pelon vs. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan
“We’ve got to run the football with efficiency,” Shaw said. “If they load the box, we have to make plays outside. And we have to be able to change field position with the passing game. Kevin Hogan’s got to play a great game as a decision maker, as a thrower and as a runner.”
The kind of pressure a head coach puts on a veteran quarterback is the kind Kevin Hogan can handle — he is 14-6 against AP top 25 teams and boasts a school-record 34 wins. He also has a passing efficiency rating of 168.6, which ranks him fifth nationally. But USC’s pass rush is mean, and Su’a Cravens is downright scary.
Cravens has 73 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss for 51 yards and leads the team with 5.5 sacks for a loss of 33 yards. He has also grabbed two interceptions. His teammate Claude Pelon is equally scary, recording 16 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. The kind of pressure USC’s defense brings could cause problems for Hogan.
Stanford K Conrad Ukropina vs. USC K Alex Wood
The last time these two teams met, Stanford’s offense was on fire. Hogan showed out, the receivers were impressive and the run game could not be stopped. But what solidified Stanford’s victory that day was a 46-yard field goal from kicker Conrad Ukropina that put the Cardinal up 41-28 with 2:27 left to play.
Ukropina is 15-17 on the year with career-long 52-yard field goal against UCF. He also just nailed a 45-yard walk-off field goal to give Stanford a 38-36 win over Notre Dame.
USC’s kicker, Alex Wood, is 12-16 on the year with his longest kick coming from 43 yards out. But Wood and Ukropina do have one thing in common: Both were at one time walk-ons who received scholarships this fall.
— Emily Van Buskirk (@Emilnem) November 29, 2015
USC CB Iman Marshall and FS Chris Hawkins vs. Stanford WR Devon Cajuste
Matchups on the outside are particularly important in this game, as both coaches mentioned this week. Stanford’s receiving corps may not have been feeling as much love due to the success of the run game, but the receivers make catches when Shaw needs them to. Matching up against big, athletic guys like Devon Cajuste, who has 25 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns, and Austin Hooper, who has 29 catches for 406 yards and six touchdowns, is difficult for anyone. But USC’s secondary has the talent to do just that. Freshman cornerback Iman Marshall leads the team with 10 passes defended and seven pass breakups. Redshirt sophomore safety Chris Hawkins has made 54 tackles, grabbed two interceptions and recovered two fumbles for 94 yards.
As for the aforementioned playoff possibility that has woven itself into the fabric of this game, Shaw had exactly seven words to say about it.
“I say talkers talk and players play.”
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.