2015 Pac-12 Football Championship Game: USC, Stanford clash to feature potent offenses
Powerhouse programs Stanford and USC will face off on Saturday in Santa Clara in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game. No. 7 Stanford, the Pac-12 North champion, looks to keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive, while the No. 20 Trojans, who’ve won five of their last six, will look to top the Cardinal and punch a ticket to the Rose Bowl. Let’s take a look at some keys for each team.
No. 20 USC Trojans | 8-4 (6-3 Pac-12)
After struggling early on, USC recovered from a 3-3 start to capture the Pac-12 South title. The offense has been clicking of late, thanks in large part to a huge season from receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Despite suffering a fractured hand against Cal earlier in the year, Smith-Schuster led the Trojans offense – and the Pac-12 - with 1,302 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Smith-Schuster and USC will hope to exploit Stanford's passing defense, which finished fifth in the conference, allowed an average of 231 yards per game, and has surrendered 30 or more points in four games this season, including the first matchup between these two teams (a 41-31 Cardinal win in Week 3).
[Related video: Relive USC's 2015 season with highlights, interviews and more]
But perhaps the most efficient way for the Trojans to get on the board is on the ground. Stanford’s defense gave up 299 rushing yards to Notre Dame last week, the most it's surrendered all season. Senior Tre Madden and junior Justin Davis, who Clay Helton praised earlier in the week, both have five scores on the year. Davis seems to be hitting his stride at the right time, going for more than 100 yards in each of his last two games.
After finishing the season 5-2 and capturing a berth in the Pac-12 title game, USC officially dropped the interim tag from Clay Helton's head coaching title this past Monday. He took “about 30 seconds” to celebrate before gearing up to face the Cardinal. The Pac-12 championship will be his first game as the full-time head man for the Trojans. No pressure, coach.
No. 7 Stanford Cardinal | 10-2 (8-1 Pac-12)
Named Pac-12 Co-head Coach of the Year earlier in the week, David Shaw knows that he can’t rely on strategies from the Cardinal's first meeting with the Trojans to carry into Saturday’s game, saying he wants to guard against the ‘what worked last time is going to work this time’ mentality.
After opening the season with a 16-6 loss to Northwestern, the Cardinal offense has since hit its stride, scoring 36.9 points per game. Quarterback Kevin Hogan capped a solid senior season with an incredible 38-36 comeback win over Notre Dame last week to keep Stanford’s College Football Playoff hopes alive. Hogan’s 27-yard pass to Devon Cajuste with 10 seconds left led to Conrad Ukropina’s 45-yard game-winning field goal. The USC defense will need to contain Hogan, who finished with the second-highest passer rating in the conference (168.6) and also the fourth-most rushing yards for a quarterback (294).
[Related video: Relive Stanford's 2015 season with highlights, interviews and more]
The Trojan defense, which allowed 137.6 rushing yards per game, will face the enormous task of trying to contain Heisman-hopeful Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey finished head and shoulders above the rest of the conference – and the country – with 3,035 all-purpose yards.
Combine the sophomore McCaffrey with senior Remound Wright, and Stanford is maybe, as Helton said, “the best short-yardage team in the country.” Wright became the go-to guy on the goal line for the Cardinal, finishing the season with 15 touchdowns. If the Trojans want to come away with the Pac-12 title, they’ll need to contain those two players.
If Stanford hopes to make it into the top four for the College Football Playoff, Saturday’s game is a must-win. With No. 4 Iowa and No. 5 Michigan State playing in the Big Ten title game, at least one team ahead of the Cardinal will fall out of playoff contention. No. 6 Ohio State is also idle, so a Stanford win would probably move them up two spots. They’ll need some help from North Carolina (against No. 1 Clemson) and Florida (against No. 2 Alabama), but the Cardinal still has an outside shot to sneak into the top four.
With both USC and Stanford are coming off of huge wins in Week 13 with USC topping rival UCLA for the first time since 2011 and Stanford completing the thrilling comeback over Notre Dame, the two teams are hoping to carry that momentum into the Pac-12 Football Championship Game. While the Trojans are making their first appearance in the conference title game, Stanford brings plenty of experience with its third Pac-12 North title in the last four seasons. Will the Cardinal make one final push for a spot in the CFP or will USC rally under Helton to claim its first championship game victory? We'll find out Saturday at Levi's Stadium.