Four wrinkles USC can use to beat Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images /

USC and Stanford will face off Friday night in Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship. Here are some wrinkles the Trojans can use to help win the rematch.

USC Football has had the most agonizing 10-2 season a 10-2 team who is playing for its conference title can have.

There has been everything, from talk that they could have a cakewalk to a 13-0 record and a College Football Playoff appearance, to fears of going 8-4 with the whole coaching staff fired, and even the faint –but weird– calls for backup quarterback Matt Fink.

But the bottom line at 10-2 is everything USC set out to accomplish before the season –win their division and the conference championship– is right before them.

If the Trojans can pull out another victory over Stanford and win the Pac-12, the season as a whole looks a lot better. Here are four wrinkles that could help USC secure the title…

Spread the Cardinal out

Stanford is going to do what every team USC has faced this season has attempted: force Sam Darnold to beat them, not Ronald Jones II and  Stephen Carr. One way to keep the Cardinal from successfully keying in on the run is to spread them out.

Like USC, Stanford plays a 3-4 front, though they look a lot less comfortable when they have to adjust and bring on a nickelback.

Against Notre Dame, they adjusted but kept using their three-man front, continuing to slow the Fighting Irish’s run game. Stanford won’t be able to use that same look effectively against USC as one, Sam Darnold is a much better passer than Brandon Wimbush, and two, the Trojans’ RPOs and screen game would put a lot of pressure on Stanford to make tackles in space.

The goal would be to get Stanford into their 2-4-5 look, where USC was able to effectively run the ball against them in Week 2. If they opt to stay with their three-man front, then let Deontay Burnett work the middle, while Tyler Vaughns works outside.

Free Pili/Super 3-man front

When USC first played Stanford, we suggested they play Josh Fatu together with rising nose tackle star Marlon Tuipulotu. They did, with some success while Tuipulotu was in the game before he suffered an injury.

Now, the Cardinal are still going to run the ball, even if quarterback K.J. Costello has emerged as a better passer. Therefore USC should use a front of Brandon Pili, Josh Fatu, and Christian Rector.

The best part is if Stanford goes three-wide, or has personnel a grouping requiring the nickel package, the Trojans can change who gets subbed out and still match up well against both the pass and run.

For example, Jordan Iosefa could come out for Ajene Harris, so USC could still stop the run on third down with Pili, Fatu and Rector. They would also be able to get pressure, because Fatu and Rector can both rush, while Uchenna Nwosu can still come off the edge.

This allows Clancy Pendergast to mix and match his line combos depending on the situation. In third-and-medium, perhaps you stay with Pili, Fatu, and Rector because it’s a running down. If Iosefa is having success getting off the edge on his match up, then take Rector off, and let Pili and Fatu collapse the pocket and force Costello into a bad play.

Don’t get cute, don’t over think it

Stanford knows they have to stop Ronald Jones. We know Stanford has to stop Ronald Jones. USC knows that Stanford has to stop Ronald Jones. So don’t come out with five wide receivers and trying to sling it all over the field.

Dance with who got you here. That is its Ronald Jones.

Run the ball and force Stanford to prove they can stop it consistently. Not just one series, where the next thing you know, Darnold has put the ball up 25 times in the first half and Jones only has six carries for 20 yards.

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Also, force Stanford to prove that they can rush the passer. Do not start rolling Darnold out and cutting the field in half before you actually need to.

There’s no problem if you want to call the quick sprint-out in short yardage, wanting to get Deontay Burnett open quickly. But there is when USC starts calling the rollout passes like they did against Washington State, making it extremely easy for the defense to defend receivers and pressure Darnold.

If the Trojans want to change the launch point for Darnold, they must use play-action.

Defensive discipline

This could be in the wrinkles every weak, but it becomes more important when facing a player like Bryce Love. Stanford lines him up a few different places, typically in the backfield but occasionally in the slot to take the handoff on the jet sweep. USC needs to be wary of the reverse off of this play, along with other trick plays David Shaw is going to throw at them. Also, Stanford is the tight end king of the Pac-12, which means the throwback is coming. USC needs to be ready for it.

Committing more people to the box to stop the run also means one-on-one matchups on the outside. USC’s secondary has to be disciplined about staying with their men and not getting penalties against these big Stanford receivers and tight ends. Perhaps playing a little bit more zone than normal can help the Trojans in certain down and distance situations. That would allow Jack Jones and Ajene Harris to be playmakers without too much fear.