What to watch in the Pac-12 title game

It will be two teams who could feel like they are looking in a mirror on Saturday, as the USC Trojans and Stanford Cardinal get together for a rematch in the Pac-12 title game.

These are two teams that know each other well, and play with very familiar styles. Both teams will be looking to run the ball in a physical, no-frills fashion while putting a priority on stopping the opposing run game with strong play from the front seven. And both teams have playmakers on the receiving end who can strike at any time.

The biggest difference from the game in September, which Stanford won 41-31, is the fact that USC has shown improvement in those two key areas of the game since the first meeting. It was commented often after the first game that Stanford beat USC by playing Trojan football, and now the Trojans are back to playing Trojan football too. There was a change in head coach for the Trojans shortly after that loss, and new coach Clay Helton steadily began to focus on establishing a mindset of running the football and stopping the run, with tangible results being seen for both.

One key factor in the game could come with experience, as the Cardinal are making their third appearance in the conference title game under David Shaw, and they won the previous two meetings. The Trojans, while the preseason pick by the media to win the conference, have gone through the adversity of a coaching change to arrive at their first appearance in the game.

Here are key areas to watch when the teams take the field:

When Stanford has the ball

Pay attention to the battle for the line of scrimmage between the Cardinal offensive line and the USC defensive line, because it should go a long way in deciding the outcome of the game. Stanford won that battle last time around, but the senior trio of Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon has led a resurgence for the Trojans up front and it should be a much more competitive situation this time around.

Will Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan be able to deliver a similar level of performance as he did in the last game, when he passed for 279 yards and did damage with his legs as well? That was Hogan at his best, and his receivers came up with several clutch catches in tight coverage situations from the Trojans. Right now USC seems comfortable going with one-on-one match-ups with defenders like Su'a Cravens, Adoree' Jackson and Iman Marshall, and it will be interesting to see how Justin Wilcox uses them to go against someone like Christian McCaffrey, who piled up 249 all-purpose yards in the last game.

The Cardinal lead the nation in time of possession, and the Trojans know this all too well after Stanford held the ball for 39:29 in the first meeting. That number was helped by converting 8 of 12 on third-down attempts and USC will need to see improvement there if they hope to come away with the win.

When USC has the ball

One of the signature moments of the USC victory over UCLA last week was a long, game-clinching drive in the fourth quarter that was executed almost entirely on the ground. That drive was a symbol of where the offense has come under Helton, to the point where the Trojans now believe they have the ability to close things out with the run game, and to manage the flow of the game when they are converting key third-down situations.

The ability of Helton and Kessler, who brings a ton of experience of his own, to manage that flow in the rematch with the Cardinal will be critical. The USC offense actually had a good day in the loss to Stanford by scoring 31 points while holding the ball for only 20 minutes. The game plan in this game will likely involve a heavy dose of Justin Davis, who has become the Trojans' bell-cow rusher in recent weeks, along with a dash of dazzling freshman Ronald Jones, who broke the USC freshman single-season and single-game rushing records this year. Think about that one when you realize the Trojans had seven of the 10 tailbacks this week on the Pac-12 All-Century team, and Jones did it better as a freshman than any of them. It will also involve an offensive line that has managed to hold it together remarkably well despite the fact they will be starting their fourth center of the year on Saturday.

The big play for the Trojans will likely come from JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had eight catches for 153 yards the first time these two teams met, and he seems to be fairly healthy after battling various injuries in recent weeks. Don’t be surprised if there is also a contribution from the tight end position, as Taylor McNamara and Tyler Petite were little used earlier in the season but have combined for nine catches and three touchdowns in the last four weeks.

Special teams

Stanford placekicker Conrad Ukropina has the confidence of a game-winning kick last week against Notre Dame as time expired, but Adoree' Jackson is coming off a big play himself with a punt return for a score against the Bruins.