USC and Stanford offered a contrast in styles when they played in September.
USC was the no-huddle finesse team featuring high-flying playmakers on the perimeter, Stanford the methodical grind-it-out operation happy to push around opponents with trademark physicality.
Three months later, heading into Saturday’s Pac-12 Conference title game at Levi’s Stadium, the teams look more similar.
“We’re going to hit them in the mouth, they’re going to hit us in the mouth, Trojans safety Chris Hawkins said. “The one that’s left standing at the end will be champion.”
USC’s improbable run to the South Division title in the aftermath of former coach Steve Sarkisian’s firing has the Trojans positioned for a shot at their first Rose Bowl game since the 2008 season.
For Stanford, the stakes could be even higher. The Cardinal, playing in the title game for the third time in four years, is seventh in the College Football Playoff ranking. A semifinal bid might be possible if it defeats the Trojans and No. 1 Clemson loses to North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game or No. 2 Alabama falls to Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
USC is coming off a 40-21 victory over UCLA, a win that appeared to convince Athletic Director Pat Haden that Clay Helton should remain coach of the Trojans. He gave Helton a five-year contract two days after a win that improved USC’s record to 8-4.
The Trojans beat the Bruins by outmuscling them for the first time in four years, combining a power running game with an aggressive defense that forced three turnovers.
“The reason we’re winning ballgames is because of our offensive line [and] the defensive line,” said Helton, who is 5-2 this season as interim coach. “The trenches are being won right now.”
For USC to defeat Stanford, the trend must continue.
“We know, on both sides of the ball, we’re going to have to get nitty and gritty,” offensive tackle Zach Banner said. “And it’s going to feel good.”
Said nose tackle Antwaun Woods: “It’s a big man’s game.”
Stanford (10-2) defeated the Trojans, 41-31, on Sept. 19 at the Coliseum.
That was about three weeks before Haden dismissed Sarkisian.
In seven games since, Helton has instilled a new attitude.
“They want to be physical,” Stanford Coach David Shaw said. “They want to run the ball, and that’s really shown.”
USC tailbacks Justin Davis, Ronald Jones II and Tre Madden are running behind a line that was thinned by injuries, especially at center.
Third-stringer Kahliel Rodgers played well after Max Tuerk and Toa Lobendahn suffered season-ending knee injuries, but Rodgers suffered a high ankle sprain against UCLA, which forced the Trojans to turn to Nico Falah.
Rodgers is expected to try to play against the Cardinal but Falah could again be called upon.
The last time USC played Stanford with a backup center, the Cardinal took advantage of the situation and pounded former quarterback Matt Barkley in a 2012 victory at Stanford.
Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler said he was not concerned that he might be operating behind the relatively inexperienced Falah.
“Not at all,” Kessler said. “He came in against UCLA and absolutely dominated. . . . No matter who we have in there, I’m going to trust my guys and know they’re going to keep me safe.”
USC’s defensive line must try to manage Stanford’s numerous formations, neutralize running back Christian McCaffrey and pressure and contain quarterback Kevin Hogan, who led the Cardinal to a 38-36 victory over Notre Dame last week.
Justin Wilcox, USC’s defensive coordinator, does not anticipate major changes in the Cardinal’s approach.
“Stanford’s going to do what they do,” he said, “which is a lot.”
USC defensive backs challenged receivers on several 50-50 balls in the first meeting — and lost nearly every time.
Hawkins said the Trojans have improved since then and are better equipped to defend against Hogan’s passing and running.
“We’re going to have to contain him,” Hawkins said, “and when he does get out of the pocket, if he doesn’t slide, make him pay for it.”