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2017 Pac-12 Conference Championship: Stanford vs USC Gameday Q and A with Rule of Tree, Round 2

We spoke with Nick Dempsey from Rule of Tree to get some insight on the Stanford Cardinal since the last meeting.

UCLA v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

After the USC Trojans thumped the Stanford Cardinal in the second game of the season, Stanford went on to lose to SDSU the following week but bounced back from a 1-2 start to win the Pac-12 North. USC on the other hand seemed to under perform at almost every turn but still managed to win the Pac-12 South. Tonight is the rematch and while the Trojans failed to make the College Football Playoffs they can still win the Pac-12 Conference, their first in almost a decade. To get some insight on Stanford we spoke with Nick Dempsey from Rule of Tree.

-Last week spoke, Bryce Love was still the “rebound” from a departed Christian McCaffrey. Now, he’s arguably the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. What makes him so special?

Unfortunately Love is no longer the Heisman front runner, the award seems locked up by Baker Mayfield at this point. What makes Love so special is a couple of things. The first is his blinding fast speed. The second is his explosiveness, it takes him maybe a step or two to get up to speed. He also is on the smaller side as far as a prototypical NFL style running back goes but he is surprisingly powerful but his smaller size also means he only needs a very small crease to break out a touchdown run.

For a good comparison, imagine Ronald Jones II with all of the excellent games he’s had and all the explosive plays he’s made, only faster. Now imagine if Jones had a healthy offensive line, wide receivers who effectively are not allowed on the field unless they are excellent blockers, and a coaching staff with an obsessively dogmatic belief in the importance of winning the line of scrimmage. Now imagine he also had a quarterback that did not have turnover problems and an offensive coordinator that knew best how to use him. That is effectively what you have in Bryce Love.

-Other than Love, which player on offense should USC fans know about?

I’m going with three here: K.J. Costello, Trenton Irwin, and Kaden Smith.

Last meeting Keller Chryst put in a pedestrian performance at QB with about half of the receiving production going to Connor Wedington and JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Stanford has switched QB’s, however, and K.J. Costello has the offense moving more effectively under center. Costello is a sophomore, and far from perfect to be sure but he has hit his stride particularly in the last three weeks with steady improvement in each of those weeks.

Stanford’s last three opponents were Washington, Cal and Notre Dame. Costello in those three games is 47 of 75 (62.6%) for 572 yards with 5 touchdowns and one interception. Most notably, Costello is coming off a 4-touchdown performance against Notre Dame. The statistical totals overall are down, but the per play stats and overall efficiency are up, with Costello in the last few weeks as well. Most concerning for USC is that Costello is throwing the ball further down field, and is playing much sharper in the Red Zone. If the USC defense continues to have trouble on the longer passes (ranked 67th in opponents trips to the red zone this season) but make up for it with state red zone defense (ranked 5th in opponent RZ scoring percentage) then Costello’s latest efforts are exactly the what the USC defense does not want to see.

Arcega-Whiteside is the deep threat who should see plenty of targets. Junior Wide Receiver Trenton Irwin had a quiet day against USC last time but he has become a reliable receiver and has been thrown to the most out of all the pass catchers this season. A defense that has a problem with big passing plays the WR trio of Arcega-Whiteside, Irwin, and Wedington could cause some serious problems, especially now that the Stanford offensive staff has a lot more confidence in their QB which leads to mixing up the play calling, less predictability, and more shots down field. It also means less reliance on Bryce Love. Even i

While we are on the topic big pass plays, TE Kaden Smith had 2 catches for 25 yards in the last meeting. Since then he is averaging 19.5 yards per catch. He does not get many targets, but when he does he can take them for big gains. He’s had catches go for at least 20 yards in six games this season. He has only been thrown to three times in each of the last two games. He has caught all six of those passes, however, for 108 yards (18 per catch) and two touchdowns. He’s quiet, you almost might not notice him, but when he gets the ball he makes great things happen.

-Which player on defense should USC fans know about?

Everyone looks at Harrison Phillips as the successor to stud defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. To be sure, Phillips causes plenty of problems for opposing offenses. He leads the Cardinal with 19 run stuffs and will need to be dealt with if USC wants to get the running game goings. Phillips also is third in total tackles and the leader in tackles for loss and sacks. If you get away from Phillips ILB Bobby Okereke is second in total tackles and in run stuffs. OLB Peter Kalambayi is tied for second in run stuffs and 6th in total tackles. USC needs a plan for these three to get the run game established.

-Who's one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for Stanford?

Ok this is probably the least sexy answer possible but the Stanford kicking units have been an underrated and under appreciated part of Stanford’s success. More specifically Stanford is one of the best teams in the nation in average starting field position. When they go on offense they have the 12th best average starting field position. When Stanford kicks it away and goes on defense, they have the best average starting field position. Field position is one of the Five Factors in the S&P+ advanced metrics and goes a long way towards winning a football game. In fact if you win the field position battle you will win about 7 out of 10 times. The Trojans for comparative sake are 41st on offense and 51st on defense.

-What must USC do in order to beat Stanford again?

  1. Run the ball efficiently and effectively all game long
  2. Don’t turn the ball over possessions matter so much against Stanford
  3. Get the passing game working effectively (whether the run is working or not)
  4. Contain Bryce Love (and appreciate that he may still break open a big play or two)
  5. Defend against K.J. Costello’s ability to take advantage of the exploitable USC secondary
  6. Continue to ball out on defense in the red zone where Stanford has shown improvement

USC has to get the running game going. There may be no other greater factor than that. If USC is running the ball well they can cruise right along and all of their other shortcomings can be smoothed over.

If they cant then they need an efficient passing offense that can move the ball down the field, point points on the board, and not turn the ball over. That rarely happens for the offense if the running game isn’t going.

USC also needs to contain Bryce Love. This means getting penetration from the DL to take away running lanes and linebackers who can hold their gaps, take proper angles and wrap up properly. With his explosive speed, if Love gets even a little bit of a crease to get through the line and the linebackers are even a half a step off they won’t be able to catch up to him and a 3-5 yard run turns into a 25+ yard run.

Do not expect an a similar offense to what they saw last time. Stanford has a new QB who is excellent at passing the ball, the efficiency is up for the Cardinal passing offense. Costello has shown the ability to pass for big gains and looked sharp in the red zone. That could turn into a nightmare scenario for the Trojans if they are expecting the same bland predictable offense that showed up last time.

-What’s the biggest change in this Cardinal team that can benefit them this time around?

They actually have an effective passing attack, they are not as bland on offense and they have probably figured out the correct defensive approach for taking on the Trojans.

-What would capturing the Pac-12 Title mean for this Stanford Football program?

Stanford was clobbered by both Washington Schools last season, then thumped by USC earlier this year when the Trojans looked more like Stanford than Stanford did. Then the loss to SDSU starting off 1-2, losing to Washington State again, and barely defeating Oregon State, it was all starting to feel like maybe the rest of the Conference had not only figured out what Stanford was doing but was starting to pass them by. So on the one hand a win here would be a sign that Stanford still has it. On the other hand this will be the seventh Pac-12 Championship game. Of those seven Stanford has been to now four. The first three they won. So in many ways it can almost feels like business as usual for Stanford.

-How do you see this game going?

This game will come down to who wins the line of scrimmage, who makes the most of their possessions, and execution in the red zone. In a matchup of discipline, brutality on the line of scrimmage, and good decision making Stanford would seem to have a substantial upper hand. Also, frankly, the USC coaching staff has shown little to no ability to make improvements. Stanford on the other hand has shown immense adaptability and ability to improve. I like Stanford to take this one, but I’m prepared for high drama, however as Sam Darnold has a healthy line, and a full compliment of weapons which means there is a good chance he lights up the scoreboard tonight.