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Stanford wary of USC bounceback with Helton

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USC head coach Clay Helton has quickly turned the Trojans’ season around after the abrupt departure of coach Steve Sarkisian, (David Zalubowski/AP)

Bobby Bowden experienced just about everything during a Hall of Fame coaching career that included two national titles at Florida State.

Before conference championship games made them more commonplace, Bowden’s teams played in a couple of same-season rematches.

And he did not welcome the situation.

“If they beat us I want to play them again,” Bowden said during a phone interview. “If we beat them, I don’t.”

USC, which lost to Stanford in September, gets another shot at the Cardinal in the Pac-12 Conference championship game Saturday at Levi’s Stadium.

It is USC’s first appearance in the conference title game.

Coach Clay Helton said the Trojans are happy to play a Cardinal team that defeated USC, 41-31, at the Coliseum.

“You’re hoping that you play the team twice,” said Helton, whose team won the Pac-12 South Division. “That means good things are happening.”

A same-season rematch is nothing new for Stanford coach David Shaw, who has guided the Cardinal to its third championship-game appearance in five years.

“You guard against thinking the same thing that worked last time is going to work this time,” when preparing to play a team for the second time in the same season, Shaw said.

“It’s a bit of chess match,” he added, “but the hardest chess match is the one you have with yourself, not necessarily your opponent.”

Shaw must be a pretty good chess player.

In 2012, Stanford defeated UCLA, 35-17, in the regular-season finale and beat the Bruins, 27-24, six days later in the championship game.

The next year, the Cardinal beat Arizona State, 42-28, in September and 38-14 in the title game.

Bowden dropped something close to a tripleheader to Miami and coach Larry Colker, losing, 22-14, in October 2003 then in the Orange Bowl, 16-14, and 16-10 in the 2004 season opener.

However, several other high-profile rematches over the last four decades have not resulted in a sweep.

“I always felt like the loser of the first game has the advantage,” Bowden said. “They’re upset, they’re motivated.”

In 1975, second-ranked Ohio State beat 13th-ranked UCLA, 41-20, in early October. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 going into the Rose Bowl, but the Bruins won, 23-10.

In 1996, Bowden’s second-ranked Seminoles played top-ranked Florida in the final game of the regular season and won, 24-21. When Texas upset third-ranked Nebraska in the Big 12 Conference title game, Florida State found itself in a rematch with Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Florida won, 52-20, giving Gators coach Steve Spurrier a national title.

In 2011, Louisiana State defeated Alabama, 9-6, in overtime in early November. Alabama won the rematch, 21-0, in the Bowl Championship Series title game.

Helton and Shaw said neither team would have an advantage Saturday because both are familiar with the other’s schemes and the personnel matchups.

USC, for example, knows how dangerous Cardinal multipurpose star Christian McCaffrey can be. Stanford is well aware of Adoree’ Jackson’s game-breaking versatility for USC.

“You may have a wrinkle or two,” Helton said, “but you know … about 90% of what they’ll bring to the party.”

In X’s and Os maybe, but possibly not in emotion.

USC players say the Cardinal will face a different Trojans team than the one that blew an 11-point first-half lead at the Coliseum.

At that time, the Trojans were coached by Steve Sarkisian, and they were coming off games that were ostensibly scrimmages against Arkansas State and Idaho.

“We hadn’t really seen like a super opponent,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “But now we’ve played the Notre Dames, we’ve played the Oregons, the UCLAs.

“Right now, our team is at a totally different spirit. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to get revenge.”

USC under Helton has adopted a more physical style on offense and defense. That style, and attitude, make the Trojans better, several players said.

“Physicality isn’t going to be a question this game,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said.

Offensive players said the Trojans have evolved since the first game against the Cardinal.

“We played them early in the season when we were trying to figure things out,” receiver Darreus Rogers said. “Now, we know what goes where and what works.”

Tailback Justin Davis said the Trojans must continue to play with a physical style.

“Toward the beginning of the season, I kind of felt like we didn’t have an identity as a team,” he said. “But now, these past few weeks, we’ve kind of established this physical, hard-nosed football-type identity.

“And going forward, I think that’s the best chance we have to win against Stanford: Keep up that way of playing physical because they’re going to bring it.”

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