Pac-12 Championship Game Preview: USC Defense vs. Stanford Offense


The USC defense gave up 41 points to the Stanford offense in their first meeting. Ten weeks later, how do the two units match up heading into the Pac-12 Championship Game?

David Shaw’s offense is chugging along like a well-oiled machine, while Justin Wilcox’s defensive philosophy has undergone a shift thanks to the influence of new head coach Clay Helton.

RELATED: 5 Things To Watch For In The Pac-12 Championship Game

Stanford enters this contest with an unchanged starting line up from the one they fielded in September.

The Trojan defense on the other hand has undergone major changes — few of them voluntary. Cameron Smith and his back up Lamar Dawson were both lost to season-ending injury against Colorado, leaving USC to start either Olajuwon Tucker or Michael Hutchings at middle linebacker.

Cornerback Kevon Seymour has been replaced in the starting line up by freshman Iman Marshall, while Adoree’ Jackson was deployed as a safety last week against UCLA because of an extended injury to Leon McQuay III.

The Kevin Hogan Question Answered

When last we had occasion to evaluate the Stanford offense, the Kevin Hogan question — could he lead Stanford at an elite level? — stood out as one of the big story lines of the season.

From a USC perspective, the question was well and truly answered by the end of their 41-31 loss at the Coliseum.

Oct 31, 2015; Pullman, WA, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) drops back for a pass against the Washington State Cougars during the first half at Martin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

That Saturday, two weeks removed from perhaps the worst performance of his career against Northwestern, Hogan completed 78.3% of his passes en route to 279 yards and three touchdowns through the air. He posted a 208.85 passer rating.

Since then Hogan’s play has not dipped. This season in total he has thrown 23 touchdowns, is completing 68.3% of his passes and has thrown for 2,500 yards on the dot.

Accurate, poised in the pocket and protected by a strong offensive line, Hogan has only taken 18 sacks this season. He’s also proven capable of using his feet as a secondary weapon by scrambling for 294 yards and four touchdowns.

USC forced three sacks in the last match up. As has been the case for the Trojan pass rush for most of the season though, pressure on Hogan outside of those statistical blips was hard to come by.

Considering Hogan’s ability to protect the football — he has thrown just seven interceptions this season and has not thrown more than one in any game — and USC’s reliance on forcing momentum-changing turnovers, the Trojans will need to find better ways to unbalance the Cardinal quarterback than they did last time.

If not, Hogan has some big time targets and built-in mismatches to aim for. USC is already familiar with the difficulties of matching up with the likes of Austin Hooper and Devon Cajuste.

Hooper, the Mackey Award finalist at tight end, had four catches for 79 yards and a touchdown last time around. Though the 6-4, 227-pound Cajuste only logged two catches against the Trojans, one of them was for a score.

The Heisman Candidate

Last year, for the first time since 2008, Stanford did not have a 1,000-yard rusher. Christian McCaffrey had emerged as a threat as a freshman, but there was no guarantee he would be able to convert his explosive 7.14 yards per carry average into consistent production as an every-down back.

Like Hogan, McCaffrey’s sophomore coming out party came against USC. No one was talking Heisman after he totaled 124 yards rushing over the Cardinal’s first two games.

At the Coliseum it was a different story. The Heisman-hype would come later, but the foundation for that was built on his 249 all-purpose yards against USC.

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McCaffrey is now as much of a house-hold name as a Stanford running back could be. He is second in the Pac-12 with 1,640 rushing yards, though his seven rushing touchdowns put him behind the pack at the top of the conference.

He makes up for that by leading the conference in yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards. In fact, in the latter category he recently broke Marqise Lee’s conference record for all-purpose production in a single season. He leads the Pac-12 in kickoff return average and has scored a touchdown in that capacity.

USC’s kick off specialists Alex Wood and Matt Boermeester have not proven capable of consistently hitting touchbacks, so the Trojan kick coverage will have to be at their most diligent.

Besides McCaffrey, Stanford has utilized the strength of senior Remound Wright, who’s 13 touchdowns with just 185 yards on the season explains McCaffrey’s lack of scoring plays relative to his peers.

What The Stats Say

[table id=71 /]

  • Though the Cardinal have an excellent standard downs sack rate, their adjusted passing down sack rate is surprisingly poor given the raw number of sacks they have actually given up — 18. That is likely a reflection of the fact that Stanford rarely find themselves in “passing down” situations with a strong rushing attack setting up shorter yardage to gain situations. That adds intrigue to the match up between a Cardinal rushing attack which averages 5.07 yards per carry against the Trojan rush defense which has limited opposing running backs to a 3.84 yards per carry average.
  • Stanford’s final three drives of the game in September went like this: 10 plays for 77 yards and a touchdown, 11 plays for 46 yards and a touchdown, 11 plays for 52 yards and a field. Each of those drives took more than five minutes off the clock as well, so it is not wonder that the Cardinal rank so highly in terms of methodical drives and time of possession. What is different this year from last is the improved rate of explosive drives.

Projected Starting Lineups: USC football vs. Stanford

Stanford Offense[table id=72 /]

USC Defense[table id=73 /]