Here we are: Stanford and USC, meeting in the Pac-12 championship for the second time in three years. Though many an expert predicted this match-up, the respective paths to this ultimate game are a bit of surprise.
Many picked USC as a College Football Playoff favorite coming in to the season, riding the seemingly-unstoppable wave of QB Sam Darnold’s stellar play. USC fell victim, however, to Darnold’s turnovers and overall offensive inconsistency. They eeked out unnecessarily close games with inferior opponents before dropping a tight one to Washington State and getting smoked by Notre Dame. The Trojans ride a 4-game winning streak into the championship, having beaten the Cardinal early in the season, 42-24.
But it’s a much different Stanford team that awaits USC. A trendy preseason pick to play spoiler, Stanford sputtered to start the season, as their traditionally dominant defense showed leaks, and junior QB Keller Chryst couldn’t generate enough offense to balance RB Bryce Love’s record-setting efforts on the ground.
The injury bug struck the Cardinal in the middle of the season: both QB Keller Chryst and RB Bryce Love missed time–but the production vacuum led to the emergence of redshirt freshman QB K.J. Costello. Costello, who didn’t win the starting job outright and has taken his lumps as a young starter, has proved to be a far more dynamic playmaker than Chryst, and he marshalled Stanford to a tough win over Washington and a beat down on Notre Dame to secure their spot in the Championship bout.
Stanford is my pick to pull off the upset. That defense has really come together over the back stretch of the season, while Bryce Love gets healthier and healthier with every passing week. This team plays a far more physical, disciplined brand of football than the Cardinal squad that the Trojans steamrolled in Week 2. Despite losing CB Alijah Holder for the season, Stanford’s secondary play has improved–led by junior safety Justin Reid, I think they can force Darnold into a turnover-heavy game, control the clock, and keep USC winless in the Pac-12 Championship.
Prospect Battles To Watch
USC QB Sam Darnold v. Stanford S Justin Reid: As I alluded to above, this is the big one. Justin Reid has had a breakout season for the Cardinal, with the physicality and frame to play in the box, as well as the instincts and range to play from a single-high alignment. He has 5 INTs on the year–T-3rd in FBS–and Darnold has a penchant for turning the ball over. A lot of Sam’s game is predicated on making tough throws with natural talent, despite the fact that they may be ill-advised. Reid, from my viewings, does very well to bait QBs into throws they shouldn’t be attempting. Darnold must keep a weather eye on #8 for four quarters if he intends on keeping the ball safe.
Stanford OG David Bright + RB Bryce Love v. USC LB Cameron Smith: Good matchup here. I love watching LBs handle this Stanford rushing attack. You must be true to your keys, as the Cardinal will pull multiple linemen and force you to flow; you’ve gotta play physical, as you’ll often be tasked with meeting guards/H-backs/fullbacks in the hole and you better clog that up if you don’t want Bryce Love to sneak through. Smith is one of the smarter ‘backers in college football right now, but he isn’t the best athlete. David Bright is quite similar: a heady, but athletically limited guard. I expect them to have some fun battles in space, and the result of those contests will determine how productive Love is this week.
USC WR Deontay Burnett v. Stanford CB Quenton Meeks: The hype train has petered off a tad for Burnett, who exploded onto the scene early as a reliable target for Darnold with quickness to burn and sure hands. As the young WRs for the Trojans–Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman Jr.–have grown more accustomed to the system by the week, Burnett has lost some of his impressive volume. Undersized but incredibly explosive, he’ll likely see some Quenton Meeks on Friday evening. Meeks plays a great press at the line of scrimmage, and will bully Burnett if he can land his punch–but be wary pressing Burnett, as he can get on top of you in a hurry. They may not see too many reps across from one another, but those that they do will be fun.
Other Notable Prospects
Stanford DT Harrison Phillips: A shockingly productive NT (he’ll be a DT at the next level) Phillips could have seen a great matchup against USC OG Viane Talamaivao, who lost the season to a torn pec. Instead, Phillips will look to play his brand of football: gap-shooting, disruptive, physical–and throw a wrench in the Trojan’s dangerous rushing attack.
USC RB Ronald Jones II: Speaking of USC’s rushing attack, RoJo powers this Trojan offense. He’s shockingly dynamic and took Stanford for 116 rushing yards in Week 2. But this defense is far improved, and Jones will see much tougher sledding this time around.
USC EDGE Uchenna Nwosu: Nwosu is an intriguing hybrid player for the Trojans, as he spends almost as much time in space as he does rushing the edge. He’ll feel the full brunt of his size disadvantage (240 lbs) when going toe-to-toe with Stanford’s large bodies up front–but Nwosu is a tough and heady player. He also had an excellent performance against Stanford in their first battle: 1 sack, 1 TFL, 5 (FIVE?!) passes defended–he’ll need a repeat performance come Friday.
Stanford WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside: One of my early season sleepers, Arcega-Whiteside has the opportunity to produce far better numbers with Costello under the helm. A physical specimen jump-ball specialist at 6’2, Arcega-Whiteside averages more than 15 yards/reception over his career, and has earned the young QB’s trust when the ball’s in the air. He could be in for a national breakout against the Trojans.
USC DB Ajene Harris: Ajene Harris came out of nowhere in my first viewing of him against Colorado: two interceptions, physical play, and excellent closing burst. A key for the 190 lb nickel corner: he played physically and downhill when filling against the run as an alley defender. He may see limited playing time against Stanford’s more traditional, “pro-style” sets–but when he does see the field, I want to watch him fill against the run with the same tenacity and effectiveness.