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Pac-12 Championship Game: Key Takeaways- USC vs. Stanford

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USC's sluggish start and poor execution cost them a shot at a Pac-12 title and a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

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The Pac-12 championship game was full of familiar faces, new records, a new champion, and costly mistakes. The USC Trojans fell to Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal 41-22 in Levi Stadium to take the Pac-12 championship and advance to the Rose Bowl. USC's fate is now in the air, as they will find out which bowl game they will be receiving a bid for. The Trojans will have plenty to learn from once again as they were outmatched, outcoached, and out-played by Shaw and company. Here's a few take-aways from Saturday evening's contest.

The Trojans' defense can't stop a one-man show

Wilcox and the Trojans' defense allowed one player to put on a highlight reel while breaking records, in Stanford's Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey finished with 207 rushing yards, 105 receiving, and 149 return yards with three touchdowns (pass, rush, receiving). McCaffrey also reached new heights within the record books, breaking Barry Sanders 27-year old single-season all-purpose yards record and finishing with 461 all-purpose yards.

USC had too many missed tackles and missed assignments. Missed assignments and blown tackles allowed McCaffrey to run for multiple 15+-yard plays. Stanford forcefully took the game over in the trenches. The battle in the trenches was one that USC needed to win in order to be successful but the Cardinal took that  away as early as the first possession when McCaffrey attacked the Trojans right side.

Due to the creativity and physicality of the Cardinal, they held the ball on offense for 35:42 and at one point in the first half had 191 yards to the Trojans' 20 total yards. USC had no answer for McCaffrey and the Cardinal kept feeding him the ball, watching him run through not only USC's defense but also to the top of Heisman voting.

USC's offensive problems start at third down

The Trojans were only 4-11 (36%) on third down and it came mainly from the first half. As USC struggled to move the ball against a physical Cardinal defense, Kessler and his unit couldn't get anything going as he only threw for one yard going into the second quarter. Stanford's starting corners Alijah Holder and Ronnie Harris returned, which allowed them to key in on Justin Davis and the run game. Aziz Shittu and Blake Martinez were busy in the backfield and plugging up gaps consistently, as they allowed only 19 yards on the ground halfway into the second quarter. Kessler continued to feel the pressure on third down, throwing the ball to a covered receiver or getting rid of it as soon as he was touched. Kessler did manage to make things happen with his feet at times but it wasn't enough to keep a Stanford defense off guard. USC's mixture of poor play calling and lack of execution ultimately silenced the offense and led to punting the ball away.

Adoree continues to be silent on offense

USC ran into a lot of problems on offense and limiting Adoree is a main reason why. Adoree Jackson is a true playmaker, but his ability has been highlighted only on special teams and defense. Jackson was given only one touch on offense, which resulted in a big gain that came in the fourth quarter. Given that Adoree is a full-time cornerback for the Trojans defense, he is still capable of being an offensive weapon that would allow USC to become more creative within the playbook. When Adoree has scored or given multiple touches USC has soared as we've seen against Cal, UCLA, and Arizona State. Kessler only averaged 5.9 yards a pass tonight with eleven of his receptions going to Smith-Schuster for 87 yards. If Helton's offense could've utilized Adoree Jackson more we possibly could've seen a better outcome performance-wise.

Conclusion

USC let this game go by them early and had no answer for Christian McCaffrey. A slow start, critical penalties, and lack of execution put the Trojans in a hole they couldn't fully get out of. Stanford took advantage of the Trojans costly mistake throughout the game, taking any points they could. Despite USC's chippy red zone defense early on, it wasn't enough to keep the Cardinal from knocking on the door of opportunity. USC will have to watch this film and determine if they can become a four-quarter team or continue to fall behind early within games.