On September 19, Stanford entered the Coliseum as heavy underdogs, and left as contenders to win the PAC 12 title after their impressive 41-31 win over USC.
Stanford had struggled mightily on offense the first few games, and were facing a Trojans squad that many considered to be a contender for the College Football Playoff.
This game changed the directions of both programs; Stanford went on an offensive roll en route to a 10-2 record and their 3rd PAC 12 North title in 4 years. The Trojans lost their coach and their way for a few weeks, and had to struggle to get back to the top of the PAC 12 South. It took the combined effort of newly minted Head Coach Clay Helton and a very talented USC squad to rebound and make it into the PAC 12 title game.
This rematch will be a different style battle.
USC will still look to push the pace, but has relied upon their running game for success the past few weeks. USC still has the services of Senior QB Cody Kessler and top WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, but recently, the Trojans have utilized the talents of Junior RB Justin Davis. Davis torched Oregon and UCLA in the past two weeks for 271 yards on the ground. USC has fully developed a simpler offensive philosophy under Coach Helton, and will look to use this as a way to take down the Cardinal.
With this new philosophy in tow for the Trojans, the Cardinal will have to adapt and utilize these keys to victory:
Dominate the clock - Stanford will have to utilize their strengths of running the ball, and dominating the time of possession battle. Kevin Hogan will need to keep the offense rolling and manage the clock with precision as he has accomplished for much of the 2015 season. The more time that Stanford holds onto the ball, the less chance that the high-powered USC offense can put points up on the board.
Bend but don't break - Stanford has been hit hard by injuries in the defensive secondary for the past few weeks. Senior CB Ronnie Harris is still questionable this week, and CB Alijah Holder is nursing a few injuries as well. David Shaw knows that his defensive backfield is young, and prone to mistakes, so he will again employ the "bend, but don't break philosophy" that he has used the past few weeks. Stanford will play off coverage to try and limit the big play ability of Trojans star WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. This tactic has been exploited a few times in the last few weeks, and it will be up to the men up front to get in Trojans QB Cody Kessler's face, and for the "Tackling Machine" Blake Martinez to make the big tackles for the defense to be successful.
Follow the "Smash Brothers" - Guard Joshua Garnett and Tackle Kyle Murphy flat out mauled the defensive front of the Trojans in the first matchup. Garnett and Murphy have improved dramatically throughout the year, and has been the key to the success of the Cardinal offense in 2015 and the stellar play of star RB Christian McCaffrey. For the Cardinal to be successful on the ground, they will need to follow the lead of the "Smash Brothers" into the end zone.
Diversify the offensive game plan - Super Sophomore Christian McCaffrey has been nothing short of phenomenal all season. Every program in the country knows of the talent, and it will be up to Head Coach David Shaw to diversify the offense to spread the wealth around in the title game Shaw will need to utilize a healthy balance of the pass and rush attack. Do not be surprised if you see Coach Shaw spread the ball around the field in this game to the WRs and TEs - and maybe to fellow RB Bryce Love - that will open the ground game up for McCaffrey.
Limit mental mistakes - In the two losses for the Cardinal this season, Stanford made several mental errors with easily avoidable penalties, and committed turnovers that led to their opponents posting points on the board. Stanford will need to play a mistake free game against USC, and will have to limit their penalties as USC will look to capitalize on any mistake made by the Cardinal.
This is sure to be an exciting rematch, and will surely come down to the wire.