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From the Vault: 2015 Stanford-USC in the PAC-12 Championship Game

Examining Stanford football’s last appearance at Levi’s Stadium.

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Hello everybody, welcome to an extra edition From the Vault, made possible by Stanford’s North Division title which has placed the Cardinal into the 2017 PAC-12 Championship Game. I think it’s only fitting to take a look back at the last time that Stanford played for the PAC-12 title, a game featuring the exact same opponent.

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I wrote about the 2015 Stanford Cardinal last week so to avoid redundancy I’ll shorten up my summary of the season. The offense was one of the best to ever grace The Farm and was led by senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, but the biggest name was all-world running back (and receiver, and kickoff/punt returner) Christian McCaffrey who became the most electrifying player in the game. The defense wasn’t quite the bruising incarnation that fans were used to in the 2012 and 2013 title runs, but with standouts such as Blake Martinez, the Stanford D was capable of shutting down most anyone.

A bad start to the season put a huge dent in Stanford’s title hopes before the Playoff race truly began, but the 16-6 loss to Northwestern proved to be merely a glitch in the system. Once the Stanford offense found its form, the Cardinal were unstoppable. Stanford scored more than 30 points in every game after their initial loss to the Wildcats. Flashy wins over USC and UCLA propelled Stanford into the top ten, but a last second home loss to Oregon finally knocked the Cardinal out of the Playoff picture. Still, Stanford ended the year 10-2 after a dramatic come from behind victory over #5 Notre Dame. The Cardinal won the North with an 8-1 record, and they’d face a familiar foe in the PAC-12 Championship Game.

Stanford v USC
Stanford’s handling of USC in September set the stage for the Cardinal’s 2015 run.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

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The 2015 USC Trojans took the long way to win their first PAC-12 South title. SC began the season ranked 8th in the country and favored to win the conference. After two easy wins against bad opponents, the Trojans fell to Stanford 41-31 at home to dent their national championship hopes. Two weeks later, USC lost to Washington at home 17-12. Head coach Steve Sarkisian was placed on indefinite leave and eventually fired for various indiscretions related to an alcohol problem. Clay Helton took over and began to right the ship. The Trojans lost to Notre Dame but then reeled off four consecutive victories, the first of which came against #3 Utah. A loss to a hot Oregon team towards the end of the season kept SC from winning the South outright, but with a win over UCLA (ending a three game losing streak to the Bruins) and the tiebreaker over Utah, the Trojans were headed to Santa Clara. #20 USC would face 10-2 #7 Stanford in a rematch against the first team who beat them that year.

USC’s 2015 roster was absolutely loaded despite their 8-4 regular season record. Senior Cody Kessler was one of the top QB’s on the West Coast. Kessler’s favorite target was speedy wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, who was first team All-PAC-12. Running backs Justin Davis and Ronald Jones shared time in the backfield. Linebacker Su’a Cravens and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson gave the Trojans a difficult secondary to deal with. It would require a player of immense talent to make headway against the Southern Cal defense.

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As it turned out, Stanford had that player. The Cardinal received the football first, and Christian McCaffrey moved the ball into Trojan territory on a couple of first down runs. The drive took nearly six minutes but stalled all the way at the USC 13 yard line. Conrad Ukropina hit the field goal to give the Cardinal the first lead of the game. SC was unable to move the ball past midfield and were forced to punt on their first possession. Since the Trojans had failed to stop McCaffrey on the first drive, Stanford stuck to the ground. McCaffrey, with a few assists from Remound Wright, burned the entire rest of the first quarter on only their second drive of the game. On the first play from the second quarter, Kevin Hogan pitched the ball to McCaffrey, who then sent a short pass back to a wide open Hogan, who scored easily from ten yards out. Stanford was up 10-0.

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC
Stanford players found themselves running untouched into the endzone more than once.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The Cardinal nearly broke things open in the second quarter. Stanford’s defense bottled up Cody Kessler and the Trojan ground game was getting nowhere fast. USC had to punt on a three-and-out and on Stanford’s first play from scrimmage Christian McCaffrey ran all the way down to the SC 15 yard line. The Cardinal moved the ball to the one yard line but could not punch through so they settled for a field goal. USC again had to punt on a three-and-out and McCaffrey made them pay, returning the punt all the way to the Trojan 19. Despite getting within one yard AGAIN, Stanford couldn’t score and turned the ball over to USC on downs. With four minutes left in the first half, USC’s offense finally got off the mat. The Trojans moved the ball through the air and on the ground and made it to Stanford’s 23 yard line with only ten seconds left. SC kicked the field goal and went into the locker room feeling lucky that they were only down 13-3.

Things got much more interesting in the second half now that both offenses were truly engaged. USC finally scored their first touchdown of the game on their first drive of the second half. After a couple of 20 yard plays, Tre Madden took the ball into the endzone from 2 yards out, but Alex Wood’s point after attempt was blocked. Momentum began to swing USC’s way as the Trojans finally corralled the Stanford run game, forcing the Cardinal to punt. Kessler led Southern Cal down the field yet again, and Ronald Jones broke loose from 27 yards out to give the Trojans their first lead of the game with five and a half minutes left in the quarter.

This time, Stanford responded immediately. Hogan connected with McCaffrey, who was somehow uncovered near midfield, and McCaffrey bounded all the way to the 7 yard line before he was brought down. Hogan ran the ball in himself to retake the lead with three minutes remaining. USC’s next drive struggled to move the ball down field. As the quarter was nearing completion and the ball still at the Trojan 42, Blake Martinez sacked Cody Kessler who fumbled, Solomon Thomas picked up the football and scrambled into the endzone to put the Cardinal up 27-16.

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC
USC threatened to wrest control from Stanford in the third quarter, but the Cardinal prevailed.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Adoree’ Jackson, Ronald Jones, and Justin Davis helped to propel USC back into the game as the fourth quarter began. The Trojans moved the ball downfield and Cody Kessler himself ran it in from 12 yards out. A two-point conversion failed and SC was left with a five point deficit.

Stanford began the process of squeezing the life out of the Trojans. A dink and dunk drive ate up six minutes and would have used up even more clock had Hogan not found McCaffrey wide open 20 yards from the endzone. The Cardinal now had a two score lead and with six and a half minutes left USC was getting desperate. The Trojans once again couldn’t make much headway. SC wasn’t even at midfield when Kessler had to attempt a play on 4th and 17. The pass went incomplete.

McCaffrey added up the final tallies on his incredible 461 all-purpose yard day when he snaked his way through the Trojan line one more time to put Stanford up 41-22 with a minute and a half left. Cody Kessler was sacked by Joey Alfieri to end the game.

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A win in the PAC-12 Championship delivered to Stanford the birthright of all great West Coast teams: a berth in the Rose Bowl. The Cardinal made the most of it, annihilating overmatched Iowa 45-16 to cap a supremely successful 12-2 season that saw Stanford finish 3rd in the final AP poll. USC played unranked Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl and lost 23-21 to end the year with an 8-6 record.

Pac-12 Championship - Stanford v USC
A special night for Christian McCaffrey and for the Stanford Cardinal.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

So far, Stanford has had all the luck in their three appearances in the PAC-12 Championship Game. A winning streak like this is tough to maintain. The Cardinal will be hard pressed to beat the USC team that ran roughshod over them early in the year. The promise is not as sweet, either, as the Rose Bowl will be a Playoff semifinal. However, no Stanford player or fan needs any prodding to get motivated to take their revenge on the Trojans.

BEAT SC