Historically speaking, a notable dislike has long troubled the relationship between the Stanford and USC football programs, and it didn’t start with the “what’s your deal” game six years ago when the Cardinal’s Jim Harbaugh and the Trojans’ Pete Carroll faced off at the Coliseum.
No, the antipathy goes way back before the 2009 afternoon when Harbaugh went for two points late in a game Stanford won by 34, to draw the query from Carroll.
The series first took a nasty turn more than 90 years ago, in 1924, when Stanford lodged accusations that USC paid its players and didn’t really care if the boys failed to hit the books as hard as the tackling dummies. It heated up again in 1932, when Stanford’s freshmen, mired in disdain for USC, declared they would never lose to the Trojans. Damn if the “Vow Boys” didn’t pull it off.
The disagreeableness peaked in the early 1970s, when the Trojans’ legendary coach, John McKay, accused Stanford players and fans of verbally assaulting him and his players with racial epithets. The Stanford fans were so bad in 1972, McKay said, they made his son cry. Rich McKay dried his tears and later became team president and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons. John McKay’s best team beat undefeated Stanford that year 30-21. The coach was upset the margin wasn’t 2,000.
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Now the schools are prepared to engage in one of their biggest confrontations. Saturday’s game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara will be the second time they’ve played this year and the first time they’ve ever been opponents in the Pacific-12 Conference championship.
Even though the blood has been bad, the two schools lately have been demonstrating the plausibility of the yin and yang. Each has taken on the kernel of the opposite: USC has become more like Stanford in its aspiration to attain world-class university status, while the Cardinal has challenged and even surpassed the Trojans as the better football program.
Along the way, an element of respect appears to have taken form. You got a sense of it earlier this week, when Stanford’s David Shaw talked warmly about USC, and the Trojans’ new coach, Clay Helton, expressed fondness for Stanford’s approach. They sounded nothing like McKay from 43 years ago when he called Stanford “the worst winners I ever saw,” or when Stanford coach Jack Christiansen responded with, “I don’t want to get into a urinating contest with a skunk.”
In the softened relations, Shaw, in this week’s coaches’ teleconference, liked USC’s redefinition of itself as a power-running team under Helton, who on Monday got the coaching job on a permanent basis.
“I’m happy for him,” Shaw said of Helton. “I’ve heard Clay’s name for a long time. One of my good friends, John Morton, coached there with him at USC and raved about him, as a football coach and as a guy. So I was honestly hoping he would get the job, just because of the stability. I’m a coach’s kid. I’m a lifer. I love when there is stability in the coaching profession. USC having that stability with the guy there and the job he’s done and the respect he has, I think it’s positive for him, and I think it’s positive for all of us.”
Helton showered praise on Stanford’s short-yardage running game, fabulous offensive line, tight end Austin Hooper (who dominated USC in Stanford’s 41-31 victory on Sept. 19), the pass-catching pair of Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector, the king of all-purpose in Christian McCaffrey, and the soulful efficiency of quarterback Kevin Hogan.
“I think David does a tremendous job not only of being a power football team, but they’re doing a great job with the skill kids, too, putting them in positions to make big plays down the field,” Helton said. “I’ve always thought Coach Shaw was a brilliant, offensive-minded coach.”
Emotion can never be completely extracted from football, and this game will be played with plenty of it, even if it is not one of contempt for the opponent. Both teams will play with feeling – Stanford to regain the conference championship it lost last year to Oregon and to keep alive a chance for a spot in the College Football Playoff, and USC to get back into the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day for the first time in seven years.
Expect this one to be lower scoring than the September game. USC, with its new emphasis on the run, will try to control the ball for more than the 20 minutes Stanford allowed before. Stanford’s defense the last three weeks has given up an average of 488 yards, and there’s not much reason to believe USC will do a whole lot worse. The trick for the Cardinal will be to hold the Trojans to field goals instead of touchdowns, as it did in wins over Notre Dame and Cal. The bigger question will be whether USC’s defense can slow Stanford’s offense, and that means keeping McCaffrey out of the end zone, matching up better with the Cardinal’s receivers and not letting Hogan scramble for big gains.
The sense of abhorrence Stanford and USC once held for each other may be gone, but the determination to win remains, and that should be enough to make Saturday’s game one of their best ever.
- Who: No. 7 Stanford (10-2) vs. No. 24 USC (8-4)
- When: Saturday, 4:45 p.m.
- Where: Levi’s Stadium
- Line: Stanford by 4 1/2
- Series record: USC leads 61-30-3
- TV/radio: ESPN, 1320
- What’s at stake: Stanford still has hopes of squeezing into the College Football Playoff with a conference championship and an upset or two in other title games. The Trojans are trying to cap a drama-filled season with a title in Clay Helton’s first game as USC’s permanent coach.
- Key matchup: Stanford uses a ball-control offense that is keyed by its success on third down. Stanford leads the Pacific-12 Conference and is fifth in the nation with a 50.9 percent conversion rate. The Cardinal converted 8 of 12 third downs in a 41-31 victory over USC in September, but the Trojans have been stingy, with a Pac-12 best 34.4 percent conversion rate.
- Player to watch: Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, is the third player in Football Bowl Subdivision history with at least 3,000 all-purpose yards in one season. McCaffrey needs 216 yards Saturday to break boyhood idol Barry Sanders’ record of 3,250 in 1988. McCaffrey is averaging 252.9 all-purpose yards this season.
The Associated Press