Pac-12 Championship Game: Clay Helton previews USC vs. Stanford

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 25: Head coach David Shaw of the Stanford Cardinal gets ready to lead his team onto the field for their game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Stanford Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 25: Head coach David Shaw of the Stanford Cardinal gets ready to lead his team onto the field for their game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Stanford Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

With Pac-12 Championship Game on the horizon, head coach Clay Helton broke down the matchup of USC vs. Stanford, whose passing attack and defense are hitting their stride.

USC’s quest for a Pac-12 title will end in joy or heartbreak on Friday night when the Trojans take on the Stanford Cardinal at Levi’s Stadium.

As USC got back on the practice field on Monday, head coach Clay Helton offered his first, second-impression of David Shaw’s squad ahead of the game.

“Looking at the film, you see a team that’s really extremely hot right now, winning eight at the last nine games, beating two Top 10 teams in the last three games,” Helton said.

Stanford upset Washington and Notre Dame in recent weeks and are looking to take down their third ranked opponent in four weeks.

Though the Trojans bested the Cardinal 42-24 nearly three months ago, the challenge will be at another level on Friday.

“You’re talking about a very class program and a consistent program and it’s going to bea lot of fun to compete against them,” Helton said. “We’ve looked forward for this opportunity to be back in this game and to be able to face Stanford is a heck of an opportunity.”

Not just Bryce Love

Looking at Stanford’s offense, one name stands above all else: Bryce Love.

The junior running back is second nationally with 1,848 rushing yards in 2017. An explosive homerun hitter, he has 16 touchdowns to his name, is averaging 8.6 yards per carry and has more plays of 30 or more yards than any player in the country.

Love accounts for 39 percent of Stanford’s offense this season, so it’s no surprise that USC’s top priority is to simply tackle No. 20.

Still, there is a big change which has made the Cardinal offense more formidable than it was in Week 2.

“What has really stood out the last three or four games is the play of K.J. Costello and the outside receivers,” Helton said.

Redshirt freshman K.J. Costello did not play against USC last time around, with Keller Chryst leading the offense. Since taking over the starting job, however, he has added a more dynamic dimension behind center.

His poor play against Washington State, going 9-of-20 for 105 yards and one interception, helped contribute to that loss, but he has gotten progressively better each week.

“I thought K.J. played an unbelievable game against Notre Dame last week,” Helton said.

Against Notre Dame, Costello posted a passer rating of 190.84. He spread the ball around to targets like J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Trenton Irwin at receiver while also utilizing tight ends Kaden Smith and Dalton Schultz. All four caught touchdowns.

“When you have that two-headed monster, that balance of both run and pass, it’s hard todefend,” Helton said.

Strong spine

In September, Stanford allowed 444 yards per game and 6.17 yards per play. In seven games since then, the Cardinal have cut those numbers to 351 yard per game and 5.41 yards per play.

Stanford has made some schematic changes, particular in run defense, according to Helton, but the real difference has been the natural progression that seems to occur in David Shaw’s teams each year.

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It all starts down the veteran spine of the defense.

“That middle of their defense has always been a strength for them in the eight years that I’ve been here and you look up and it is once again,” Helton said.

Upfront, nose tackle Harrison Phillips sets the tone by playing in the backfield, using his strength and “quick twitch” effort to disrupt an offense. He has 16 tackles for loss on the season himself.

“Harrison does an unbelievable job of being able to keep your interior linemen off the inside linebacker where they can run the lanes,” Helton said. “He’s an elite player in our league. He’s a guy that you have to know where he’s at at all times.”

Behind Harrison, senior middle linebacker Bobby Okereke and junior safety Justin Reid make up the rest of the spine.

Okereke pitches in all over the field with four QB hurries, four sacks, six tackles for loss and an interception, while Reid has picked off five passes this season, broken up four passes, hurried the quarterback twice and added one sack.

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Reid, Phillips and Okereke are Stanford’s three leading tacklers with 88, 85 and 88 stops respectively.

One of the keys for the Trojans when facing the Cardinal is limiting devastating, drive-ending mistakes.

“One of the things that you do learn when you play Stanford is don’t turn the ball over,” Helton said, referencing how the Cardinals rank fourth nationally in turnover margin.

Turnovers are a particular concern because each possession holds extra value against Stanford’s ball-control offense.

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“They’re one of those teams that you’re not going to get very many opportunities,” Helton said. “If you have a turnover you’re setting yourself back.”