Two of the most dominant teams in the Pac-12 since the turn of the century meet for the second time in the Pac-12 Championship game this Friday.
For the second time this season — and the second time in the Pac-12 Championship game — the Stanford Cardinal will square off against the USC Trojans, but this time it will be at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara this Friday, Dec. 1. In their earlier meeting this season, USC blitzed Stanford, 42-24, at the L.A. Coliseum, rushing and passing for over 300 yards each. This time, Stanford will have a new signal caller under center, as sophomore KJ Costello has taken over for Keller Chryst. Both teams come in to the game on the back of winning streaks and will look to carry their momentum into this game and propel themselves into a guaranteed New Year’s Six Bowl.
Storylines Heading Into the Game
The Health of Bryce Love
Bryce Love is Stanford’s most indispensable player, but has been hampered by an ankle he injured more than a month and a half ago against Oregon. Against both Notre Dame and California the past two weeks, Love has taken numerous plays off to try and nurse his ankle whenever he can. Of course, anyone watching the Stanford vs. Notre Dame game could see that even at 75% or wherever he is at health wise, he is still one of the most dynamic players in all of college football.
Dominance of the North vs. Dominance of the Favorite
Six times, the Pac-12 North and South Champions have met in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and six times, the North has emerged victorious. And all six times, the betting favorite to win came out on top. This year, for the first time, one of those two trends will break, as USC comes in to the game as a three-point favorite over Stanford. Stanford is making their fourth appearance in seven seasons, while this is just USC’s second appearance (although it would have been their third if not for a postseason ban in 2011).
Home Field Advantage?
Although technically not a home game for Stanford, the journey to Levi’s Stadium will only take Stanford fans about 45 minutes in the car on Friday, while USC fans will either have to trek six hours up the coast, or take a plane flight to make it. While the trip is still not a long one for USC, and may seem inconsequential, the Trojans are 7-0 at home this season, and just 3-2 on the road, with one of those road losses coming in their only Friday night game of the season. Certainly the stadium will be close to a 50-50 split between fans given how well USC fans travel, but it is something to keep in mind if the Trojans don’t seem settled in right away.
Stanford is 10th in the nation with 16 interceptions this season. For all the hype, Sam Darnold has not been too careful with the football this year, throwing a total of 12 interceptions, and only making it through three games this year without giving one away. In all six previous iterations of the Pac-12 Championship Game, the team that lost the interception battle has also lost the game. For an opportunistic defense like the Cardinal, Darnold will need to minimize the mistakes and make good, quick decisions.
USC is first in the nation with 41 sacks on the season, just under 3.5 per game. On the other side of the ball, you have Stanford, who have conceded only 14 sacks all season. Stanford is a team built around their offensive line, but the previous time they met, USC managed three sacks and another three tackles for loss. USC has multiple defensive lineman and linebackers who can get to the quarterback from anywhere, and if they can force Stanford into third and long, they will be salivating at the chance to get after KJ Costello.
USC commits eight penalties per game, a mark that puts them at fifth-worst in the country. Stanford, on the other hand, is one of the more disciplined teams, with only five penalties per game. Championship games, especially between two teams that hate each other like Stanford and USC, can get out of hand, and it’s important that this young and somewhat inexperienced USC team doesn’t handicap themselves with unnecessary penalties.
KJ Costello (Quarterback, Stanford)
In a perfect world, head coach David Shaw would love to have Costello throw about 10 passes on the night, and just turn around and hand it off to Bryce Love on every other snap. However, because of Love’s injury combined with USC’s defense, this will likely not be the case. Costello must continue to manage the game efficiently, as he has shown in leading Stanford to an 8-1 record since taking over the starting duties from Keller Chryst. The one time Costello failed to complete more than 50% of his passes was in his one loss to Washington State. His 176 yard, four touchdown performance last week against Notre Dame showed that he is capable of carrying the offense if need be, and if Love goes down, he might just be called upon to have a repeat performance.
Rasheem Green and Christian Rector (Defensive Line, USC)
USC’s offense has been firing on all cylinders recently, but their defense has left a little bit to be desired. Green and Rector are both 6‘4”, 275 lbs. and an absolute nuisance for opposing offenses when they are “on.” Together, they have amassed 15.5 sacks and 22 tackles for a loss, but both have been prone to injury, missing multiple games this year. Assuming they are both healthy, they will need to play a big role in clogging up the running lanes for Bryce Love, who only needs the tiniest crevice to shimmy through before he is gone.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside (Tight End, Stanford)
Following in the footsteps of a tight end pipeline that has produced Zach Ertz, Austin Hooper, Coby Fleener, Ryan Hewitt, and Levine Toilolo, all who currently play in the NFL, JJ Arcega-Whiteside is the current tight end who the Stanford passing game seemingly over-relies on. Arcega-Whiteside leads the team by a significant margin with 633 receiving yards and six touchdowns. If Stanford gets into the redzone and decides to throw the ball, it is almost certainly because they have isolated him in man-coverage on the outside, where he can use his 6‘3” frame to overpower pretty much any quarterback.
For Stanford, the implications of this game are clear: win, and you’re in to a New Year’s Six Bowl; lose, and you can have fun at some second-tier bowl like the Alamo Bowl. For USC, things are slightly more interesting. A loss and they are obviously out of contention for the College Football Playoff as well as a New Year’s Six Bowl. However, a win with some help could get them into the College Football Playoff. The winners of the ACC and SEC Championship games are guaranteed spots in the final four, and if Wisconsin and Oklahoma win the Big Ten and Big 12 respectively, they are also in. However, if Ohio State beats Wisconsin, and TCU beats Oklahoma, realistically, you have a one-loss Alabama team, along with three two-loss conference champions (USC, TCU, and Ohio State), all competing for two spots. It’s hard to see the committee taking USC over two of those teams, but with a dominant performance Friday night against Stanford, you never know what could happen.
This year’s Pac-12 Championship Game pits the slow, grind-it-out nature of the Stanford Cardinal against the dynamic USC Trojans. Stanford has a coach and team that has been there before on this stage, and gotten the job done, and they also have the best player in the game in Bryce Love. But with Love’s health a big question mark, Sam Darnold has the chance to bring a statement win back to Southern California, and show the College Football Playoff Committee just what they would be missing out on by excluding the Trojans from this year’s four. Ultimately, USC has too many playmakers on both sides of the ball, even if Stanford should be able to keep it close until the end.
USC 31-24 Stanford.
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