Pac 12 Championship preview: USC looks to show how far it has come in rematch with Stanford

Clay Helton, dressed in a gray suit and a cardinal tie, stood over the podium in an auditorium of the McKay Center. He had finished prepared remarks at his introductory news conference two years ago this week.


Helton, who had been named USC’s permanent coach earlier in the day, gushed about the opportunity, what he later referred to as his dream job, before changing the subject.

“With that, this is a big week for us,” Helton said, “and I really need to get back to that film room.”

The crowd cracked up.

A Pac-12 championship game against Stanford awaited his team five days later.

Players then were overjoyed that Helton, after seven weeks as their interim coach in place of the fired Steve Sarkisian, had been retained, and many of them saw the title game as their chance to prove USC’s administrators had made the right decision on a full-time replacement.

“We were head over heels for him,” safety Chris Hawkins, “and at the same time, we didn’t come out and perform like we wanted to.”

The Trojans ultimately suffered a 41-22 loss to the Cardinal, who were led by four touchdowns from Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey.

Some regret still lingers.

“We don’t want that feeling again,” USC junior running back Ronald Jones said.

In a way, USC has arrived at its full-circle moment. It faces Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game for a second time Friday night, a chance to take its next step as a program. Despite a second straight 10-win season, it has not won a conference title since 2008, when it was still the Pac-10.

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“Anytime we go 10-2, it’s a great start,” linebacker Cameron Smith said. “We’re where we want to be, and in the end, we came here to play for Pac-12 championships. So we’ve got a lot of goals we need to take care of. We’ve fought through a lot of stuff. This is going to be the result of our season.”

Entering this season, the Trojans were considered contenders to reach the College Football Playoff, a goal that now appears extremely remote, but they believe a Pac-12 title would be a clear indication of their improvement, especially compared to when they last took the field in Santa Clara. USC is No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, with Stanford at No. 12.

“We’re really going to show how much progress we’ve made in two years,” Hawkins said.

WHEN USC HAS THE BALL

There were several factors that went into the Trojans ending the regular season on a four-game winning streak.

Players often said they played more freely without the weight of the lofty preseason expectations. Jones pieced together his most productive stretch as a USC tailback. Their defense had almost half of its nation-leading 41 sacks during the final month too.

But Sam Darnold, the Trojans’ star quarterback, also put together his best string of games this season, looking like the Heisman Trophy favorite he was billed to be in August.

Darnold threw for 1,170 yards and seven touchdowns with a 63 percent completion percentage and just two interceptions in the final four games, shaking off an uneven start to the season.

“I didn’t see a lot of difference from what Sam was doing from last year to this year,” Helton said. “I thought he was making good decisions, maybe forcing a ball once in a while, but from the quarterback play, the development of guys around him has elevated our offense.”

Helton and others pointed to receivers Tyler Vaughns, a redshirt freshman, and Michael Pittman, a sophomore, for adding capable targets to the passing game. The underclassmen caught four of Darnold’s seven scoring tosses during the four-game winning streak.

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