Pac-12 football coaches teleconference: USC's Clay Helton, Stanford's David Shaw prep for championship
Pac-12 North Division champion Stanford squares off with South Division winner USC on Saturday in the conference title game in Santa Clara, Calif. With that, Cardinal coach David Shaw and Trojans coach Clay Helton, who this week lost his interim tag by signing a multi-year contract, met on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
USC's Clay Helton
Helton said the first game against Stanford, a 41-31 loss for USC, gave him an idea of how to match up his athletes with the Cardinal skill players. "In the first game, I just remember the personnel matchups and how talented they were skill-wise. I was extremely impressed with (tight end) Austin Hooper. Obviously, (running back Christian) McCaffrey is as special as anyone out there," Helton said.
There was hardly time for Helton to celebrate inking a new contract and permanently becoming USC's head coach. He hugged his wife and then got back to work. "You can have about 30 seconds off when you're getting ready for Stanford. It's time to put blinders on -- all ball, all the time," Helton said.
Helton won't stray from his weekly schedule to celebrate his long-term job. But he'll savor USC's usual Tuesday night family and team dinner. "We usually cater it in. I think we're doing steaks tonight. I always look forward Tuesday nights."
Stanford's short-yardage package poses problems for anyone. Without sounding defeated, Helton said the Trojans must focus on winning first and second downs, thus putting the Cardinal in third-and-long situations. "They might be the best short-yardage team in the country," Helton said. "They do a tremendous job when you look at them on tape of pad level and the leverage they get on defenders. Usually, that means knocking people back."
On freshman cornerback Iman Marshall, who two weeks ago struggled in USC's loss to Oregon but reacted with a two-interception performance against UCLA to help the Trojans win the division: "I'm extremely proud of Iman. The work that he put in that following week, not getting down or lacking in confidence. He just went back to work."
Alongside inexperienced freshman Ronald Jones II and senior Tre Madden, who has dealt with injury problems, junior Justin Davis has been a rock at running back this season. He heads into the Pac-12 Championship with 776 total rushing yards (second on the team behind Jones' 890) on 5.5 yards per carry. "(He) kind of reminds me of when (Javorius) 'Buck' Allen got his opportunity," Helton said. "Justin has kept working, week in and week out, for his opportunity to carry the load. Now, he's the kid that's always been someone who can carry the ball 20-plus times."
Stanford's David Shaw
In their third game of the season, Stanford beat USC in The Coliseum to open Pac-12 play. That helped the Cardinal get over a season-opening road loss to Northwestern. "It was going to a hostile environment," Shaw said of the USC game. "That stadium's a tough place to play, they're a great football team. That as much as anything helped the guys (say), 'Hey, we can do this.' "
Playing an opponent the second time in a season adds depth to the chess match between two teams. Shaw has experience doing so. In 2013, the Cardinal beat Arizona State 42-28 at home in the Pac-12 opener and then beat the Sun Devils 38-14 in Tempe for the Pac-12 Championship. "You guard against 'what worked last time is going to work this time,'" Shaw said. "The hardest chess match is the one that you have with yourself, not necessarily the one you have with your opponent."
College Football Playoff scenarios won't be on the tips of the Stanford coaches' or players' tongues around the Pac-12 Championship game. "I'd say talkers talk and players play. I'm not on the (selection) committee," Shaw said. "None of my players are on the committee. We're not in the decision-making deal. Stating your case doesn't mean anything."
Shaw admitted he was hoping USC would name Helton its permanent head coach. He heard many good things about Helton from friend John Morton, who spent time as Trojans receivers coach and offensive coordinator from 2007-2011 (Morton moved on to work with the San Francisco 49ers and Shaw's former boss, Jim Harbaugh). "I know I'm happy for him," Shaw said of Helton. "I was honestly hoping he would get the job because of the stability. I'm a coach's kid. I'm a lifer football coach, and I love when there's stability in the coaching profession."
Stanford's third-and-short jumbo package with Remound Wright at running back has been incredibly successful this season. "He's got a great low center of gravity, he's got powerful legs, he drives his legs on contact," Shaw said of Wright. "He has a feel for the blocks. To have a guy with such great vision and instincts has made that world go so well. He's the best in the country, of what I've seen, in what he does."
On USC's changes under Helton, who took over for Steve Sarkisian midseason and went 5-2: "They're running the ball more. They've got good backs to do it. They've got a big and physical offensive line. Not as many of the spread concepts, but they're still there. They always mix those other plays in there."
Shaw explained the changes he's seen on the recruiting front since he joined the Cardinal as an assistant coach in 2007, a year after Stanford went 1-11. "I had a lot of East Coast areas to recruit. I had to make sure I enunciated 'Stanford' because they thought I was saying 'Stamford,' " he said. "(Now) they know we're coming before we're there. And a lot of times they're looking for us."