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Pac-12 Championship Game: Gameday Q and A with Rule of Tree

Stanford defeated the USC Trojans back in September but the two teams play again on Saturday with the Pac-12 Championship on the line. We spoke with randalthor from Rule of Tree to get the inside information on the Cardinal.

Harry How/Getty Images

1) Stanford's secondary was very shaky last weekend against Notre Dame's Will Fuller, an explosive receiver. With a playmaker like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers stepping up, is Stanford's defense in trouble this weekend?

Potentially. USC has some outstanding receivers, and even a healthy Stanford defense couldn't contain Smith-Schuster in September. Stanford's secondary looked rough against Notre Dame last week, and against Oregon three weeks ago. In between, it did a good job of containing Cal's dynamic receivers—it gave up a lot of yards, but no big plays.

Part of the problem last week was that Stanford was unable to get pressure without blitzing. Look for defensive coordinator Lance Anderson to make some adjustments to try to get after Cody Kessler a little more aggressively. If Stanford can do a better job getting to the quarterback, it should take some pressure off the inexperienced secondary. There also appeared to be communication issues among the defensive backs last week: on multiple plays, it looked like Stanford's cornerbacks were expecting safety help but didn't get it. That might be a fixable issue.

Additionally, Stanford's backs have consistently had problems with over-pursuing the ball-carrier on those big plays the past couple weeks. Against both Notre Dame and Oregon, taking less aggressive angles to the ball would've held a couple huge plays to much more reasonable yardage. That's another change I'm looking for Anderson to make.

2) Notre Dame was able to contain Christian McCaffrey last weekend. Will Stanford rely on Hogan's arm more this weekend or continue to make McCaffrey the go to guy?

It depends on USC's defensive strategy. Notre Dame made a conscious decision that they wouldn't be beaten by McCaffrey. They keyed on him and focused on stopping the run, daring Hogan to beat them over the top. The result was that Hogan beat them over the top. This is the fundamental difficulty in playing against Stanford this year: you have to pick your poison. Gang up on McCaffrey? Hogan will beat you by throwing to Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, Austin Hooper, Dalton Schultz, and Trent Irwin. Even if Hogan is having a bad day throwing the ball (see Washington State), Stanford will adjust by running more zone reads and options and changing pace with Bryce Love and Barry Sanders.

So Stanford's offensive strategy will depend somewhat on how USC's defense sets up. If USC attempts to smother McCaffrey, I expect reliance on Hogan's arm. If USC plays a more balanced defense to make Hogan hit tight windows down the field, be prepared for a heavy dose of McCaffrey. Finally, it's important to note that McCaffrey will still have success, even if you focus on him. McCaffrey has 22 rushes of 10 or more yards against eight or more defenders in the box. The runner up among Power 5 backs has 16.

3) Over the last four games USC has averaged 195 yards a game on the ground, including Justin Davis averaging 110 yards a contest. With Davis leading the way, Jones' tough running ability, and Madden getting back in the mix, how will Blake Martinez and this defensive unit match-up?

This is another potential worry for the Stanford defense. Tre Madden had a pretty good game against Stanford earlier this year, averaging over seven yards per carry, and Justin Davis averaged almost six. But each of them got a significant chunk of yardage from one long run (30 yards for Madden, 15 for Davis). Outside those big plays, each back averaged fewer than 4.5 yards per carry.

So if Stanford can tighten up against the big plays—something it's been good at historically but struggled with against Notre Dame and Oregon—the defense might have a chance to bottle up USC's ground game. Stanford's corps of linebackers is probably the defense's strongest and deepest unit, which should definitely help. In addition to Martinez, keep an eye out for Kevin Anderson, Peter Kalambayi, and Joey Alfieri.

4) This game will be won at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball this weekend. Does Stanford have any key advantages on offense and defense in the trenches?

Stanford's offensive line has been dominant since the Northwestern game. Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy are absolute beasts, and the rest of the line isn't far behind. These guys have allowed the second-fewest sacks of any unit in the conference (1.5 per game) and permitted McCaffrey, Remound Wright, and Stanford's other tailbacks to do pretty much as they please. That said, a couple of drive-killing penalties likely cost Stanford the Northwestern game, and a few more penalties coupled with two crucial but inexplicable bad snaps cost Stanford the Oregon game.

The o-line has cleaned things up, though, and I'm hoping it'll enforce its will on the USC defense. On the other side of the ball, Stanford runs a 3-4. Its defensive line is talented but thin (it was thin even before Harrison Phillips tore his ACL against Northwestern). Behind starters Brennan Scarlett, Aziz Shittu, and Solomon Thomas, there's not much experience. If USC can do a better job controlling the clock than it did in September, it might be able to wear out Stanford's defensive linemen.

5) Stanford allowed a kickoff return touchdown early in the first quarter against the Fighting Irish. With a playmaker like Adoree Jackson on special teams will the Cardinal risk giving him an opportunity to score?

I think a player like Jackson is always a risk to bust a big return, even against the best coverage units. That said, Stanford has been good in coverage all year, the big return last week really the sole exception. After getting torched to open a game on national television, I expect the coverage team to refocus and plan around stopping Jackson from beating them. After the opening return last week, Stanford did a good job adjusting; it held C.J. Sanders to 17.8 yards per return after the initial 93-yard burst. Stanford isn't typically willing to trade yards to avoid kicking the ball to anyone, but with Jackson on the field, the return from last week on their minds, and the Rose Bowl at stake, there's a chance Stanford will be more cautious than usual.

6) Can we expect Ronnie Harris and Alijah Holder to be back for the championship game? Or will Terrence Alexander and Alameen Murphy continue to be the starters at corner?

David Shaw said earlier this week that he's hopeful Holder will be ready to go on Saturday. He didn't mention Harris, which worries me. Harris is the veteran leader of the defensive backfield, and Stanford has really missed him the last three weeks. He got injured early in the Oregon game, and his absence has transformed this defense. If number 21 is suited up and ready to go on Saturday, I think Stanford fans will be a lot more optimistic. Regardless, you should also keep an eye out for Quenton Meeks, a true freshman corner who's really impressed so far this year.

7) What is your score prediction for this game? Any bold predictions to add?

Despite all the changes that have happened since September, I see this game playing out similarly to the first one. I think Kessler will connect with Smith-Schuster, Davis will make some plays, and the USC offense will put up some points. But no one has been able to stop the Stanford offense all year (contra Northwestern), and I don't see this game being an exception. By contrast, Cal, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon all managed to hold USC under 30 points, something no Pac-12 defense has done to Stanford. I think this game comes down to which team makes a few more critical stops during the third and fourth quarters and does a better job controlling the clock as the game winds down. I think that team will be Stanford. I see Stanford pulling this one out, 42-33 or so.