• John Skinner

2017 Pac-12 Championship Game Preview

Updated: Aug 27, 2018

The final exam- The consistently inconsistent Trojans will face a Stanford team that has improved tremendously while having revenge on their mind since SC’s 42-24 destruction of the Cardinal at the Coliseum in September. The Cardinal have upgraded at quarterback with redshirt freshman K.J. Costello and junior running back Bryce Love (90.8 Pro Football Focus rating) is having an All-American type season.  The Cardinal defense is much better against the run and will not give up over 300 yards on the ground like they did in the first meeting.  SC will have to play disciplined football to prove worthy of finishing the season ranked in the top 10.

Keys to a Trojan Victory:

A Pac-12 championship rests on Sam Darnold’s shoulders- Though SC should have some success running the ball, Stanford is playing at a much higher level than when the teams originally met and defending the run much more efficiently.  Darnold will need to make some big plays. His best performance of the season was against Stanford (21-26, 308 yards, 4 TD’s/2 INT’s- 97.3 adjusted QBR), and he will need to match/exceed that for SC to come away with the victory.  The Cardinal have one of the best defensive backfields in the conference and he will need to stay away from a multiple interception game while making some plays with his feet.  The Trojan passing game should be in good form with the growth of Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman to compliment the ever steady Deontay Burnett and a healthy set of tight ends.

Limit turnovers and penalties- Stanford is #1 in the Pac-12 with a turnover margin of +14.  SC has struggled away from the coliseum with multiple turnovers and they will have to avoid that.  Stanford will also look to bait SC into penalties with the SC averaging a whopping 10.3 penalties per game in their last four contests.

3rd and 4th down efficiency- The Trojans have struggled in this area recently and with Stanford focused on limiting SC’s big play ability, driving the ball consistently and converting on short-yardage 3rd and 4th down plays will determine the success of the offense.  This was a priority at practice this week.

Defensive secondary has to play better- K.J. Costello gives Stanford a vertical threat they did not have when the two teams met earlier this season.  On passes 20+ yards downfield, Costello is 13/26 with 4 touchdowns and 135.4 passer rating.  Cornerbacks Inman Marshall and Jack Jones have been disappointing lately (see Marshall’s startling below average Pro Football Focus rating later in the report) and Stanford will look to challenge and frustrate them.   Making tackles in the open field against Love will also be extremely important to help limit his big-play capabilities.

**Check out Tom Haire’s in-depth preview of the Pac-12 championship via trojanfootball.com

Geller’s Pac-12 Championship Take- Different game this time around- When the Trojans took on the Cardinal at the Coliseum back in week 2, the game plan was take away Bryce Love since Stanford’s quarterback play was underwhelming with Keller Chryst.  This time around it will be different.  After an abysmal offensive performance against lowly Oregon State, David Shaw made the decision to handover the offense redshirt freshman quarterback K.J. Costello. In Costello’s four starts, he has only had one game with a passer rating less than 120: Washington State, a team known for blitzing opponents heavily, this year. It is clear that he can manage a game and make some incredible throws—see performance against Notre Dame—but it should also be noted that he is much less effective under pressure. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and the USC defense will need to dial up a number of blitz packages against Stanford, or Costello could torch a Trojan secondary that has struggled as of late. If they can apply pressure, the Trojans will have a higher chance to win the Pac 12 title game. -Austin Geller is a senior at St. Monica Catholic High School and has interned for uscfootball.com

The real reason why Chip Kelly is a great hire for UCLA- Though his accomplishments at the collegiate level make this look like a home-run hire for UCLA, the key to this hire is they now have an extremely bright and completely focused leader who truly only cares about being a trendsetter when it comes to  developing an elite program.  People close to Kelly and even his ex-wife, will tell you that nothing personally will get in the way of his football pursuits and his failure in the NFL will only fuel that fire. He is a grinder who doesn’t have a family to worry about (Jim Mora’s divorce was a contributing factor to UCLA’s struggles and Jimbo Fisher is going through similar trials at FSU).  Kelly is also in the process of hiring an elite staff that will most likely include ace recruiter Ken Norton Jr. who was just let go as the Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator and Jerry Azzinaro (highly regarded Cal defesnive line coach). One of the major knocks on Mora was that his overall coaching staff was considered weak outside of new offensive coordinator Jeff Fisch and Cornerbacks coach Demetrice Martin.

Why UCLA hiring Kelly is not a bad thing for USC- Great competitors want to beat their rival at its best.  This will make SC work harder in every area of the program to maintain their elite status while also raising the sinking profile of the Pac-12 on a national level.  Expect SC to look at upgrading the coaching staff and the athletic department will have more administrative pressure to provide the program resources Clay Helton has been pushing for, and in some cases denied, when it comes to recruiting and staffing.  Also, as long as SC maintains their identity as a pro-style program, they should have a bigger edge when it comes to recruiting top pro-style quarterbacks and wide receivers.  Josh Rosen probably doesn’t end up at UCLA under Chip Kelly.  Also, current defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done well schematically against fast type read/options offenses.

Tee Martin to Tennessee?- We have heard unsubstantiated stories that Tennessee was in contact with  Tee Martin and his agent as early as Sunday evening after Tennessee backed out of hiring Greg Schiano. Martin’s contact was through his old head coach Phillip Fulmer, who was just named the new athletic director.  Though Tennesee spoke to multiple coaches this week, I get the sense that Tee Martin may have always been the guy they wanted after the Schiano fiasco.  Martin quarterbacked Tennessee to their last national championship and despite not having any head coaching experience, he is recognized as a potential future star in the coaching world and would be considered an acceptable hire.  At USC’s request, even if an agreement was reached, it would be kept top secret until after the Pac-12 championship game.  The timing of Clay Helton’s extremely appreciative and extremely complimentary statement about how great of a head coach Tee Martin will be was also interesting as SC heads into a championship game.

Further coaching staff rumors- As we have stated the past few weeks, rumors of coaching changes within the program continue to gain steam.  Even if Martin does not get the head job at Tennessee, he will be heavily recruited as an offensive coordinator and his frustration with the lack of full play-calling responsibilities may lead him to another job, especially if Sam Darnold enters the NFL draft.  Martin is well-liked within the administration and with several boosters so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.  Offensive line coach Neil Callaway and Defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford are said to be intrigued about other opportunities and some believe that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast might try and get back to the NFL if an opportunity presents itself.  Current UCLA offensive coordinator and interim head coach Jedd Fisch would probably be a strong candidate to join the offensive staff should Martin leave.

How Trojans have graded out via Pro Football Focus this season- Here is a quick look at SC’s top performers and disappointments when it comes to being graded on every snap this season.

Grades 85 or higher are considered NFL ready, 80-84 are very good while grades 50-60 are below average and below 50 is poor. Running Back Ronald Jones II- 91.2 (2nd in the country); WR Deontay Burnett- 87.5; OLB Uchenna Nwosu 85.9; OT Chuma Edoga 84.7; S Chris Hawkins 83.4; WR Tyler Vaughns 82.5; OG Chris Brown 82.5; LB Cameron Smith 81.2; WR Steven Mitchell 80.2; OT Toa Lobendhan 80.0 QB Sam Darnold79.9 (was over 90 last season)—The most disappointing grades this season- TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe 49.8 (though very limited snaps); OLB Jordan Iosefa 48.4; CB Inman “Biggie” Marshall 47.7.

Betting info- SC opened as a 2-5 point favorite and it quickly jumped to 3.5 points.  Stanford has won eight of its last nine and is 5-6-1 against the spread (ATS) on the season.  SC is 3-8 ATS on the season.  In their last ten neutral site games, Stanford is 8-2 ATS while SC is 0-5 ATS in their last five played at a neutral site.  The North division has beaten the South in all six previous Pac-12 title games, and there have been four rematches with the team that won the first game prevailing three times…Ironically, Stanford is the team that prevailed in all those season sweeps.  The total is 58.5 and the under is 7-0 after a straight-up win by the Cardinal. The over has hit in five of the last six SC games.

Quick-Hitters-

*This is the 16th time in SC football history they have recorded back-to-back 10 win seasons.  They were also unbeaten in the Coliseum for a second straight year…not a bad way for Clay Helton to begin his coaching tenure at SC.

*Freshman tailback Stephen Carr is finally 100% and will be incorporated back into the offense like he was prior to his foot injury. He has looked fantastic this week with several big plays in scrimmage situations.

*Will we see Carr and Ronald Jones in the backfield at the same time? A few of these scenarios popped up in practice and led to some intriguing possibilities.

*Offensive lineman felt lost against the new defensive scheme that UCLA presented and some openly complained as to why the coaching staff didn’t anticipate changes.

*Guard Viane Talamaivao and outside linebacker Porter Gustin are the only starters who played in the first game that will be unavailable for the rematch.

*November has been a rough month for Pac-12 teams coming off a bye- Washington State got blown out by Washington after their bye and Colorado was destroyed by Utah.  The only team in November to win coming off a bye was Oregon.

Basketball Note- SC was physically outmatched by a very good Texas A&M team (Great 8 level) in a 75-59 loss at the Galen Center this past Sunday.  The Trojans only shot 4-24 from 3-point range and much of that can be attributed to the coaching staff admittedly running the players too much after the Thanksgiving holiday.  The good news for Trojan fans is that as bad as they played on Sunday (shooting 28% from the field), they were still in the game with 8:00 minutes left and that is without D’Anthony Melton who should be eligible by conference play.  Sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic has greatly improved and played the best of any Trojan (11 points/7 rebounds in 20 minutes) against an Aggie frontline that is one of the best in the nation.  His development is critical since the Trojans weakness is on the interior and rebounding the ball.  The next two games at SMU (12/2 7pm ESPNU) and Oklahoma (12/8 7:30 @ Staples Center) are critical for SC and the Pac-12 which looks like it might only get three teams into the NCAA tournament based on the conferences poor play thus far.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-Bit- USC is undefeated in games in which Ronald Jones II carries the ball 15 or more times.

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