Saturday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game will see USC get a second chance against Stanford, who beat them 41-31 back in September.
Reign of Troy caught up with Hank Waddles from Go Mighty Card to talk about how the Cardinal looks going into the big game with the Trojans.
Here’s how the Q&A went down…
RoT: What is the biggest difference for Stanford from the first game until now?
Waddles: That first game back in September was critical to Stanford’s season. Back then, there were still tons of question marks surrounding the team, which entered 1-1, with a disappointing loss to Northwestern in the opener and a ho-hum win over Central Florida, a team that ended up going winless this season. Against the Trojans, though, the Cardinal began to find an identity. Christian McCaffrey had the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, Kevin Hogan was incredibly efficient, and Conrad Ukropina hit a big field goal to ice the win.
Sep 6, 2014; Stanford, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) throws a pass against the Southern California Trojans at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
In many ways, that’s the Stanford team that continued for the rest of the season. Like most teams, though, the health status of several players have changed since then.
Wide receiver Devon Cajuste, who caught just two passes that day, has finally declared himself fully healthy, and he had one of the best games of his career against Notre Dame last week.
Other players, however, have gone in the other direction. The team’s top two cornerbacks, senior Ronnie Harris and sophomore Alijah Holder, have both missed the last two weeks, but there have been positive signs coming out of practice this week, and there seems to be a chance that at least one or maybe both will play on Saturday.
Even if they do, they obviously won’t be 100 percent, which is a concern. Fullback Daniel Marx was recently lost to a season-ending injury, and this was probably one of the contributing factors to the team’s decreased run production last week.
RoT: The Stanford rush defense was gashed by Notre Dame for 8.54 yards per carry. With USC going all-in on the running game last week against UCLA, rushing 59 times, how much of a concern is that for the Cardinal?
Waddles: The concern isn’t so much the run defense in general, but a troubling recent trend in giving up more big plays. Sure, Josh Adams had 168 yards on just 18 carries, but more than a third of that yardage came on one run.
Stanford has also been burned by running quarterbacks Vernon Adams and DeShone Kizer (Kizer had 128 yards rushing last week), but I’m guessing Cody Kessler won’t be running that much.
Stanford’s rush defense isn’t nearly as formidable as it’s been, but it’s not quite as bad as the recent numbers make it look.
Stanford’s rush defense isn’t nearly as formidable as it’s been in recent years, but I don’t think it’s quite as bad as the recent numbers make it look.
Even so, this is still an area of concern and something to watch closely .
RoT: Stanford has played in the title game a couple of times before and both games were a rematch with Stanford sweeping both games both times. How did those games against UCLA and ASU play out differently than the first matchups and do you think that rematch experience gives David Shaw an advantage?
Waddles: That’s hard to say. The UCLA rematch was kind of ridiculous, because the teams played twice in six days, rendering the first game almost meaningless.
There was even talk that UCLA might have been motivated to lose the regular season finale, because a Stanford loss would’ve given the North Division to Oregon, a team the Bruins weren’t interested in playing.
That being said, David Shaw has spoken about his time in the NFL and cited that as an advantage in preparing to play a team for the second time in the championship game.
He did it four teams a year when he was coaching in the NFL, so he’s felt comfortable with all aspects, not only breaking down film of the previous game, but also maintaining his team’s focus as they prepare for a team they had already faced and beaten.
What does that advantage count for? Who the hell knows.
RoT: Any tips on how USC can stop Christian McCaffrey? Thought we’d ask.
Sep 25, 2015; Corvallis, OR, USA; Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) runs the ball against the Oregon State Beavers at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Waddles: It’s interesting, because I’m sure not a single Trojan fan was concerned at all about McCaffrey prior to that first matchup, and I can’t imagine anyone walked out of the Coliseum muttering about him.
During the two months since then, however, he’s become a viable Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the most electric players in the country. I’m pretty certain the Trojans know exactly what to do to slow him down — stack the box.
He’s been getting a huge percentage of his carries against an eight-man box, and last week Notre Dame’s commitment to stopping him was so complete that he was held under 100 yards rushing for the first time since the second game of the season. That Irish commitment extended even to the kicking game, as they played several defensive starters for the first time on kick return.
So the Trojan defense will have to make a choice — do they stack the box and take their chances against quarterback Kevin Hogan (he had possibly the best game of his career last week against Notre Dame), or do they play a more standard front and risk a big day from McCaffrey?
The easiest way to keep him down, though, will be to keep him on the sidelines. USC’s recent commitment to the power running game will be their best defense against McCaffrey. I’m guessing that whichever team wins time of possession will end up winning the game.
RoT: The series has been tight of late, though the game earlier this year was somewhat of a shootout at 41-31. How do you see Saturday playing out in terms of style?
Waddles: I alluded to this above. I think this will be the most rush-heavy game in the Pac-12 this season, with both teams attempting to establish the run and hold onto the ball for long stretches of time.
While most conference games push past the four-hour mark, this one could be over in two and half. Even so, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a lot of points scored.
Sep 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans linebacker Su’a Cravens (21) sacks Stanford Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (8) at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
RoT: USC has thrived on creating and capitalizing on turnovers this year, and while Stanford has limited turnovers this year, both of the Cardinal’s losses have been marred by turnovers. Is this a result of Stanford not forcing enough turnovers?
Waddles: Stanford’s defense plays with a philosophy of keeping the ball in front of them and making tackles in space. One of the drawbacks to this style of play is that Stanford has been near the bottom of the country in forcing turnovers.
From 2012-14, the Cardinal defense was dominant and ranked among the top teams in the nation in yards allowed per game — 16th, 14th, and 3rd in those three years. During those same years, however, they ranked 36th, 103rd, and 121st in takeaways.
Even though the defense has slipped this season, that turnover trend continues. Stanford currently ranks 40th in yards allowed per game, and 121st (again) in takeaways. This is just the way things are.
RoT: Lastly, what’s Stanford’s key to winning the game and do you have a prediction?
Waddles: Time of possession will be the key, as mentioned above. The defensive line has been paper thin all season long, with only three defensive linemen getting significant playing time.
It’s critical that the Stanford offense remain on the field for long stretches, not only to score points but also to keep that defensive front as fresh as possible.
If the situation is reversed, and the Trojans are able to control the clock, the Stanford front seven could pay the price. But I think the Stanford offense has become diverse enough that even if the Trojans gear their defense towards stopping McCaffrey, Kevin Hogan will keep the offense humming.
I think Stanford wins a close one, 31-24, and wins its third Pac-12 championship in four years.