USC Football: Pac-12 title game Q and A with Go Mighty Card

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: K.J. Costello
PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: K.J. Costello /

USC Football’s rematch with Stanford will feature a changed Cardinal team. Go Mighty Card gives the Stanford perspective on the Pac-12 title game.

Months ago, USC Football welcomed the Stanford Cardinal to the Coliseum and put in their best performance of the season in a 42-24 victory.

Much has changed for both the Trojans and the Cardinal since that day, with running back Bryce Love emerging as a Heisman Trophy candidate for Stanford while USC put together a double-digit total of mostly ugly wins.

Here’s our Q&A with Hank Waddles of giving the opposing perspective on the battle in Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship:

Q: What are the biggest differences in Stanford since losing to USC back in September?

A: The biggest difference is certainly the promotion of K.J. Costello to quarterback. I’ll talk more about him specifically later on, but his success has also led to increased opportunities for Stanford’s tight ends and wide receivers.

Wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has become Costello’s favorite target, and his size makes him a difficult matchup for most cornerbacks. When USC’s Clay Helton spoke this week about Stanford’s love of the end zone fade, he was no doubt referring to Arcega-Whiteside, who is option number one in the red zone. Watch for him to post up in the corner of the end zone and wait for Costello’s pass as if it were an alley-oop.

Tight end Colby Parkinson — all six-foot-seven of him — also joins in the fun here. Costello’s roommate, tight end Kaden Smith, has also benefited from the change, and has enjoyed success under Costello.

In general, you’ll see an offense that is much more diverse than it was back in September.

Q: How concerned are you about Stanford playing on short rest?

A: The biggest concern about the short rest, honestly, has to do with Bryce Love. His ankle is so tender right now that every 24 hours counts. Aside from Love, there any number of other players who are dinged up at this point in the season, so it’s definitely not ideal to be playing so early.

The good news, though, is that the Cardinal won’t really have to travel for this game, so they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.

Q: This week Clay Helton complimented the spine of the Cardinal defense including Harrison Phillips, Bobby Okereke and Justin Reid. Who else has been essential for Stanford’s defense? Who needs to have the biggest day for Stanford to come out on top?

A: Those three players have definitely been huge for the Cardinal defense. Phillips is one of the team captains and an emotional leader of the defense, and his production this year from his nose tackle spot has been amazing.

Okereke has come on strong over the last half of the season and should be at least a second-team All-Pac-12 selection. He has a knack for shooting through the gaps the linemen create in front of him and getting into the backfield.

Justin Reid is probably the most talented member of the secondary, able to play both safety spots, both corners, and even a little nickel when necessary, but you should also watch defensive back Quenton Meeks, one of the top cover corners in the conference.

Q: Is Bryce Love capable of putting in a Christian McCaffrey-esque performance on Friday? How much of a concern is his ankle injury at this stage?

A: Bryce Love’s ankle has been a concern for more than a month now, and so it will be on Friday night. If there’s good news for Stanford on this front, it’s that his playing status was announced much earlier in the week than for any of the previous four games, when he was typically a game day decision.

Those who have been watching him regularly through the season can see the effects of the injury. His cuts aren’t nearly as sharp, and his top end speed has diminished. When healthy, Love is almost always the fastest man on the field, but that isn’t the case right now.

But what Love’s shown during this stretch is that even at 70 percent, he’s still better than most running backs in America, if not all of them. He has the toughness to run between the tackles, the patience to find the holes, and the strength to bull through the first defender.

CHECK OUT: Clay Helton Breaks Down Stanford Matchup

He’s still a lock to be invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony, but if he had remained healthy I think his numbers would’ve been so stratospheric that voters would’ve had no choice but to put him on the top line of their ballots. As it is, he’ll likely finish in the Stanford spot again and go home as the runner-up.

Q: USC fans got to see Keller Chryst in the last matchup, but K.J. Costello is now the man leading the offense. How different is he from Chryst and what has he done to impress in November?

A: Even when Keller Chryst was the starter, K.J. Costello often looked better in his brief appearances. He was more accurate, the ball seemed to come out of his hand with a little more zip, and he was touch more athletic. Since taking over as the starter a few weeks ago, his growth has been steady.

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As we’re always hearing, there’s an awful lot of responsibility put on the Stanford quarterback, so his improvement has been about more than just the physical aspect of the game. Each week it’s looked like the playbook has opened up a bit more for him, and as he’s become more comfortable, the coaches have become more confident in his ability to run all the plays and lead the offense.

Last week against Notre Dame, he finally looked a Stanford quarterback. (Chryst never quite got there during his tenure.) Shaw raved about his performance after the game, and admitted that there had been very few direct play calls from him. Instead, Costello was following the Andrew Luck/Kevin Hogan protocol. He’d get three different play calls from sideline, relay them in the offensive huddle, and then check into the correct play at the line of scrimmage. It was fun to watch on Saturday, and it certainly bodes well for Stanford’s future.

Q: Who do you think will win and why?

A: I think Stanford wins. They’ve been improving steadily over the past few games, and the offense is playing its best football of the season. With the home run threat of Bryce Love lurking in the backfield, Costello will force the Trojan defense to honor him as well. That’s going to be difficult for USC.

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I expect a great game, but Stanford will ultimately prevail, 31-27.