LOS ANGELES -- As much as USC players and coaches would like to project a belief that all conference games are viewed the same, the afterglow of Saturday's thorough destruction of Stanford made it pretty clear that's not the case.
On three occasions during the past two seasons, Stanford humbled USC. The Cardinal was the more physical team. It was the better team. For USC players, that was a harsh reality they were forced to accept.
But they did. Even as they closed last season on a nine-game winning streak which culminated in a memorable victory in the Rose Bowl, thoughts of Stanford still lingered. Was it a matchup problem that could be solved? Probably, but there was a level of uncertainty.
"It's nice to win against any Pac-12 opponent, but from what Stanford has brought to us, their dominance against us in the last three opportunities. This win is huge for us," USC linebacker Cam Smith said. "It kind of takes that relief off our shoulders."
Long after most of his teammates had left, Smith was happy to keep talking about what just happened. For him, the win was a byproduct of a dramatic shift in culture under coach Clay Helton.
The near constant turmoil that existed under previous coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian had negative ramifications for team dynamics. USC still won games, but there was something missing.
"I wouldn't even necessarily say we had a culture two years ago, when I first walked in," Smith said. "It was kind of a bunch of individuals and that's where we were."
To be clear, Smith doesn't fault the approach of the players that came before him.
"A lot of those older guys went through some hard times," he said. "So I understand it."
It did, however, need to change. That started with setting an expectation for incoming players.
"That's how we get this organization back to where it needs to be," Smith said. "We're taking steps slowly and getting our culture back and getting more guys. The faster we can get those freshmen up and bring them into our culture, the easier it is to pass that on to the next class and grow Trojan culture."
True freshman running back Stephen Carr, who rushed for 119 yards on 11 carries against Stanford, has been committed to USC since his sophomore year of high school. By the time he arrived on campus, he knew most of his teammates and said they've made his transition to college football easy.
"It's family," Carr said. "It's USC family. It’s a welcoming environment."
Ronald Jones and Carr have suddenly become one of the most dynamic backfields in college football. They don't complement each other so much as they mirror each other. They're both complete backs who can get tough yards and double as breakaway threats.
Against Stanford, everything clicked as USC outgained the Cardinal on the ground 307-170.
"Any time that you out-rush a David Shaw Stanford team, that's a special thing because they know how to run the ball better than anybody," Helton said.
Added Shaw, the Stanford head coach: "They ran the ball very well. I thought we ran it pretty well. They ran it better than we did [on Saturday] and I'm not used to saying things like that. All the credit goes to them."
Carr had heard stories about Stanford's toughness headed into the game and was eager to see what all the fuss was about.
"I wanted to see how tough they were," he said. "We came out here and dominated."