8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: USC -3.5, Over/Under: 58
The Pac-12 will be decided tonight at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, as the Twelfth-Ranked Stanford Cardinal and the Tenth-Ranked USC Trojans meet for the second time this season, this time with conference bragging rights, along with a trip to most likely the Fiesta Bowl on the line. Stanford (9-3, 7-2 in Pac-12) overcame early season struggles (a 1-2 start) to win eight of their final nine contests, including each of their last three, highlighted by a 30-22 upset over then Ninth-Ranked Washington, and most recently 38-20 drubbing of Notre Dame, who also happened to be ranked Ninth at the time. David Shaw’s charges welcomed the Fighting Irish to Paolo Alto, with last Saturday’s affair being nip and tuck through three quarters of play, before the hosts exploded in the final stanza, Twenty-One unanswered Points. Though they were outgained 415 to 328 in Total Offense, the Cardinal managed to force the visiting side into three decisive Turnovers, intercepting Brandon Wimbush twice. In contrast, Sophomore Quarterback KJ Costello (61.7%, 132.7 Y/G, 7.4 Y/A, 9 TD, 2 INT) enjoyed arguably the finest day of his collegiate career, tossing a career-high Four Touchdowns, while Heisman Candidate Bryce Love (215 CAR, 1,848 YDS, 16 TD) rushed for a game-high 125 Yards on Twenty Carries. Offensively, this has looked like a completely different unit with the transition to Costello, who finally replaced Keller Chryst (53.8%, 133.9 Y/G, 6.6 Y/A, 8 TD, 4 INT) due to the upperclassman’s struggles. The younger Quarterback has made five starts this season, including each of the last three, which have given him the confidence to take command of the position. In the last three games, Costello has been a modicum of consistency, completing 62.7% of his Attempts for an average of 190.7 Yards per Game on a solid 7.62 Yards per Attempt, with Five Touchdowns and One Interception. However, he didn’t see the field in his team’s previous meeting with USC earlier this season, a a 42-24 debacle at Los Angeles Coliseum. Perhaps it was for the better that he didn’t, for the Cardinal were overrun back on September 9th, giving up a staggering 623 Total Yards of Offense, including a 307 on the Ground, both of which represented season-worsts. Despite throwing a pair of Touchdowns, Chryst didn’t make much of an impact, connecting on just 15-of-28 Passes for a meager 172 Yards. Love, however, performed admirably in defeat, rushing for 160 Yards and a Score on just Seventeen Carries, including a spectacular 75-Yard Run. It should be noted that he’s unlikely to be at full strength for tonight’s tilt, due to a nagging ankle injury that has dogged for weeks now. With a shot week to rest up, it will be interesting to see how heavily Shaw will lean on him. With that said, the Nation’s Second-Leading Rusher figures to be the focal point of the attack once again, as Shaw looks to build off that rushing success with Play-Action, which could be the key to loosening up the Trojans’ Defense. And speaking of Defense, Stanford has managed to turn things around largely on the strength of Takeaways, totaling Twenty-Four thus far, coming up with at least a pair of them on eight occasions. And it’s a good thing they have, for they’ve only gained an average Three more Yards than the opposition, with a stellar Turnover Differential (Plus-14) more than making up for that. For all intents and purposes, the Cardinal have been the proverbial Bully on the Block since the Pac-12 expanded to twelve teams back in 2011, winning the conference in three out of the last six years. The last time they met USC in the Conference Title Game, they hammered the Trojans in a one-sided 41-22 affair back in 2015.
Meanwhile, a season that could largely be described as disappointing, USC (10-2, 8-1 in Pac-12) still has an opportunity to end up right where they were a year ago, which was a New Year’s Six Bowl. However, the difference between 2016 and 2017 has been expectations, which were outrageously high coming into this season, largely on the strength of returning Sophomore Quarterback Sam Darnold. Simply put, the kid wowed as a Redshirt Freshman, completing 67.2% of his attempts for 3,086 Yards on 8.4 Yards per Attempt, with Thirty-One Touchdowns and Nine Interceptions, all the while leading the Trojans to nine consecutive victories to close out the campaign en route to toppling Penn State in an epic Rose Bowl in which he went 33-of-53 for 453 Yards and Five Touchdowns earning the game’s MVP. Needless to say, heading back to College for another at Southern California meant the hype train was going to be in full swing for Darnold, who was easily one of the front-runners for the Heisman Trophy at the outset of the year, with many predicting that he would be the first Quarterback selected in the NFL Draft (should he decide to declare). If it seems like we’re setting you up for a fall, then you would be correct, for despite their record, Clay Helton’s charges have put together an uneven 2017, marred by Injuries and Turnovers, along with some close wins and some ugly losses. First and foremost, it seems that we were all guilty in evaluating just how much talent this team lost to the Draft, while a number of starters have been lost to injury on both sides of the ball. Second, Darnold (63.3%, 288.5 Y/G, 8.4 Y/A, 24 TD, 12 INT) has been sloppy this year, particularly during the first half of the term. There’s just no other way to say it. The Sophomore tossed Nine Interceptions in the first six games alone, with some frustrating performances against the likes of Texas (28-of-49, 397 YDS, 3 TD, 2 INT) and Washington State (15-of-29, 164 YDS, 0 TD, 1 INT), with the latter handing them their first defeat. That notion can also be applied to the team as a whole, for despite registering a solid Twenty-Four Takeaways, they’ve committed Twenty-Two, including at least two in each of the first eight games of the season. However, it should be noted that he’s been considerably more efficient over the last six outings, with Twelve Touchdowns in comparison to Three Interceptions. While he can certainly be maddening at times, this kid’s talent cannot be denied, with his performance in the Trojans’ previous meeting with Stanford going a long way towards summing up his season thus far; there were the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for Darnold in the 42-24 victory, as he completed a stellar 21-of-26 Passes for 316 Yards, averaging a whopping 12.2 Yards per Attempt in the process, while slinging Four Touchdowns, but also tossing a pair of early Interceptions. And speaking of that Early September Affair, USC steamrolled the Cardinals’ beleaguered Defense, rushing for 307 Yards on 48 Carries, with Tailbacks Ronald Jones (212 CAR, 1,346 YDS, 16 TD) and Stephen Carr (56 CAR, 321 YDS, 3 TD) combining for 235 Rushing Yards on Thirty-Four Carries. For unknown reasons, the latter has featured rather sparsely for Helton’s outfit over the second half the season, while Jones on the other hand has caught fire, averaging 168.5 Yards over the last four games. With Stanford being gashed for over 170 Yards and 4.6 Yards per Carry, expect the Trojans to keep things grounded for the most part, with Darnold taking his shots when available. While it would take a miraculous turn of events for USC to get into the College Football Playoff, they still have an opportunity to do something that they haven’t done in quite a while, which is win the Pac-12, a conference that they absolutely dominated throughout the previous decade, earning seven consecutive Pac-12 Championships from 2002 to 2008. Since the league expanded to twelve teams they’ve only competed in this game once, which as we said earlier, ended in a Stanford rout.