2015 Pac-12 Championship Game

Stanford vs. USC
December 5, 2015 at 4:45pm
Levi’s Stadium: 58,476 (of 68,500)
Total Time: 3 hours 17 minutes

On 4th-and-17, the Trojans’ last shot at the Pac-12 Championship hit the ground in front of an open Steven Mitchell. Even if Cody Kessler had landed that ball perfectly into Mitchell’s hands, it would’ve been an uphill battle to close the 12-point deficit in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

The offense failed not only to convert a 4th down on that drive, but also failed to score on the following one to make the score a little more respectable. Aided by penalties, the USC offense made it to the Stanford 19-yard line looking for a desperate heave into the end zone. Kessler would not get that opportunity after taking a sack with no timeouts remaining. The result looked all too familiar for weary SC fans.

The pregame featured All-Century Pac-12 picks basked in applause (and some in boos). The Trojans dominated these picks, composing nearly half the All-Century team and Reggie Bush being the only player to be selected at two positions. That dominance did not translate to the current players and staff on the field. Instead, another #5 put on a show at running back.

Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s #5 and Heisman finalist managed to compile 461 all-purpose yards. It’s probably no coincidence that he looks up to another player that put up big numbers in the all-purpose yards and was a Heisman finalist. That player happens to be Reggie Bush.

McCaffrey put up so many yards that he broke Barry Sander’s NCAA single-season all-purpose yard record. The he went and sat down next to Barry Sanders Jr. Poor USC. Poor Bush. And poor Sanders family. It was not a good loook for Helton’s debut as the official head coach of USC.

The look of someone that only gets 1 yard on 1 carry while he goes to the same school as the guy that broke his dad’s record.

The mistakes started early, but the Trojans still had plenty of chances to take the game. In the end, they could not recover.

The USC defense started out with some costly penalties and being able to hold McCaffrey to marginal gains. The Stanford offense quickly made it to the red zone before the USC defense stiffened up and held the Cardinal to a field goal. The trend continued throughout the first half as a USC’s offense was unable to get anything going. Stanford made it to the red zone for all four of their meaningful first half drives, but came away with only 13 points. I would consider it a victory for USC’s defense, considering USC’s offense left them out to dry with under 9 minutes of possession in the first half.

Basically, Stanford did to USC what USC did to UCLA. They won the turnover battle, ran the ball well, and drained the clock. USC’s most promising drive in the first half came away with only a field goal. Like I’ve said, slow starts aren’t going to win you very many games against top 10 teams.

Whatever Helton puts in their Gatorade Powerade during halftime really works—at least temporarily.

Don't tell them it's just water.

Don’t tell them it’s just water.

For the first ten minutes of the half, they played like they deserved to be in a championship game, scoring 13 points to take the lead. That made 16 unanswered points spanning from the end of the first half to the beginning of the second. Sadly, that could not be sustained. Even when things were going right, things went wrong, like having their PAT blocked.

Just when you thought the Trojans might have a chance at winning it, Stanford rolls through on a 78-yard drive for the touchdown. On 3rd-and-6 with a chance to stop Stanford deep in their own territory, USC’s defense has a linebacker guarding McCaffrey out of the backfield and only one deep safety. McCaffrey outsped the defense to take it 67 yards before being stopped at the USC 7. Hogan scored on a rushing touchdown one play later.

No matter. USC can just turn that around with offensive production similar to what they did the past two drives, right? Wrong. Before they even get possession back, the mistakes stack up. Justin Davis and Adoree’ Jackson run into each other at the USC 5 trying to get the kick-off, then Soma Vainuku’s penalty takes them to the 3. At least they didn’t fumble it—but there’s still time for that.

USC’s offense now had the unenviable job of moving the ball out from under the shadow of their own goal post. They nearly got to mid-field before the mistakes hit a breaking point. The strip-sack followed by the scoop-and-score gave Stanford a two-score lead and the final piece of a huge momentum swing.

The Trojans’ possibility of winning continued to slim down as they were playing from behind with time against them. However, credit to them, they fought on. A big run by Adoree’ and handful of other plays had them in the the red zone. Then a curious thing happened. USC ran a zone read play to perfection. Kessler took the ball in from 12 yards out, untouched. If you saw it, you quite possibly witnessed the first zone read play ever run by USC. Stanford was so woefully unprepared for it, the defensive end crashed down on the running back immediately. Simply beautiful. It was followed by an ugly 2-point conversion play that broke down and failed. Such is life as a USC fan these days.

This brings me back to the beginning of the post. The Trojans could not score again and could not stop the Carindal from scoring. USC could bring Stanford to a 3rd down, but then fail to guard McCaffrey out of the backfield or allow some guy wide open in a seam between two zones.

All in all, Stanford scored on all but two (out of nine) of their meaningful drives, whereas USC failed to score on six (out of 10) of them. The game went down a lot like the one against Oregon. It was a forced fumble that was the beginning of the end and ending in a 3-score loss. It was also saddening to see continued failure in the 2-minute drill even after the head coaching change.

With that the Pac-12 North is 5-0 in Pac-12 title games. No one other than Stanford or Oregon have won the conference since USC’s 2008 title.

CommBro Breaker

While the loss was bad and the 41-22 final looked even worse, the College Football Playoff Committee seemed to think that performance was enough to keep the Trojans in the rankings at #25. It’s something. A win against a solid 9-3 Wisconsin would cement a spot in the final rankings.

Also, Reggie Bush, out of some perfect combination of technicalities, managed to find his way into the stadium and cheer on his college team. As part of the NCAA sanctions on USC, the school must disassociate with Reggie Bush—forever. So in some ways, the sanctions never really end. The reason he was able to attend was because he was invited by the Pac-12 as a member of the All-Century team. It also happens to be his home stadium since he is a 49er running back. Being witness to this and the zone read play might have made the trip up to Santa Clara worth it, despite the nasty loss. It was for me at least.

The coaching changes made on Sunday were a step in the right direction. I hate seeing people lose their jobs, but it was probably necessary moving forward. This leaves both the former assistants and USC more time to find what they need. During Helton’s presser, he managed to answer two of the questions I had from The Helton Hire post:

  • Does he have the contacts and evaluation ability to assemble a good coaching staff?
  • Does he have the personality to fire any or all of his assistants if they underperform even if they are his friends and have been there for years?
  • Can he consistently replace assistants that move on from the program?
  • What kind of offense and defense would he install now that he has control?
  • Will he be effective at creating his own playbooks for offense and defense?
  • Can he effectively develop players over a span of four years?
  • Will he retain playcalling duties on gameday?

Outside of losing the Pac-12 title game, he has said the right things and made the right moves. Let’s hope he can figure it all out before the 2016 season opener.

Misleading Stat of the Week: Jahleel Pinner averaged only one yard per reception against Stanford.

Context: Pinner only had 1 reception which went for 1 yard and a touchdown. With all those ones, he should just trade numbers with Darreus Rogers!

Real Stats:

Rush  Rush 40+ 50+ 60+ 70+
Name Team Yr Pos G Attempts Yards TD Yards Yards Yards Yards
Ronald Jones II USC FR RB 13 145 940 8 4 2 2 1
Christian McCaffrey Stanford SO RB 13 319 1847 8 4 2 1 1
Derrick Henry Alabama JR RB 13 339 1986 23 5 4 2 1

Ronald Jones is actually on par with Heisman finalist Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry in longer runs. What’s crazy is that did it in less than half the carries! If he continues to develop and gets more carries, he could become a Heisman finalist someday.

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