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O/NSO: Pac-12 Championship Game edition – USC vs Stanford

The Obvious: Looking for their first conference title since 2008, the Pac-12 South Division champion and CFP No. 10 USC Trojans (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12 South) will rematch with Pac-12 North Division champion and CFP No. 12 Stanford Cardinal (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12 North) in the 2017 Pac-12 Conference Championship Game on Friday night (5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET/ESPN) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

The Not So Obvious: This will be the Trojans’ second attempt at a Pac-12 Conference title in three years, having lost the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game to Stanford by a lopsided score of 41-22. Should the Trojans be victorious Friday night, the consensus bowl projection is the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, which will be played Dec. 30, a Saturday afternoon (2 p.m. MT), at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. A Trojans’ loss, however, could relegate the Men of Troy to one of two bowl game options, which will be played on Thursday night, Dec. 28. Those bowl options include the Valero Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas (8 p.m. CT) or the San Diego Credit Union Holiday Bowl (6 p.m. PT).

The Obvious: The Trojans opened a 3-point favorite over Stanford.

The Not So Obvious: When the Trojans played Stanford in the Coliseum on Sept. 9, they opened a 5 ½ -point favorite…Stanford has won all three previous Pac-12 championship games they have participated…This season in early September, the Trojans physically smoked Stanford 42-24, a game the Men of Troy dominated from start to finish in the Coliseum…For Stanford, Friday night’s championship game will include a case of focused revenge, and for the Trojans a chance to show the nation that they have overcome their inconsistent play and are ready to play on the big December stage.

The Obvious: Friday night’s championship game, featuring the Trojans and Stanford, will be nationally televised on ESPN (5 p.m. PT/ 8 p.m. ET).

The Not So Obvious: The ESPN broadcasters for Friday night will be Joe Tessitore (play-by-play), Todd Blackledge (analyst) and Holly Rowe (sidelines).

The Obvious: Friday night’s radio broadcast from Levi’s Stadium will air live (5 p.m. PT) on ESPNLA 710 AM with Pete Arbogast (play by play), John Jackson (analyst) and Jordan Moore (sideline).

The Trojans’ championship pregame show (1 p.m. PT) and two-hour post-game show will feature Arbogast, Jackson, Moore, Shaun Cody, Chris Fisher, Travis Rodgers, Dennis Thurman, Rachel Frain, and WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz.

The Not So Obvious: The local Stanford broadcast can be heard on flagship station KNBR (680 AM) with Scott Reiss (play-by-play), Todd Husak (analyst), and John Platz (sidelines).

The Pac-12 Championship game will also be broadcast nationally on ESPN radio with Bill Rosinski (play by play), David Norrie (analyst) and Ian Fitzsimmons (sidelines).

Friday’s game will also air on Sirius XM satellite radio (online channels 84/84 and online channel 84) and on the Tuneln Radio app.

The Obvious: Friday’s Santa Clara weather forecast calls for mostly sunny with a high of 65 and a low of 47 degrees, 66 percent humidity, and 0 percent precipitation.

The Not So Obvious: The real weather report is whether the Trojans understand that this is not the same Stanford team they trounced in early September. If you watched the Cardinal’s recent 38-20 upset over Notre Dame, there should be no question regarding their major improvement when they opened the season at a disappointing 1-2. We’ll find out whether the Trojans have improved as much as Stanford, a major source of debate. The Trojans’ defense under DC Clancy Pendergast will be tested differently than the first time these two teams played, and we’ll see whether the Trojans can adjust to new Stanford redshirt freshman quarterback KJ Costello, who has dramatically added a passing threat to compliment the relentless and physical Cardinal running attack, led by superstar tailback Bryce Love. Love, however, has played the last couple of games with a high-ankle sprain but has still been effective. We’ll see whether the Trojans’ defense, led by senior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, junior defensive tackle Rasheem Green, and junior Marvell Tell lll and senior Chris Hawkins, a pair of veteran safeties, can maintain order in the middle of the secondary. And watch out for SC sophomore defense end Christian Rector, who could play a major role in getting to Costello. In the middle of Troy’s front seven will be junior linebacker Cameron Smith, who had a major impact the last time these two teams played. Not playing on Friday night, however, will be junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin (toe), so we’ll see whether his replacement, sophomore Jordan Iosefa, can fill the spot effectively. Besides pounding the ball and playing ball control, Stanford head coach David Shaw will, no doubt, direct his offense to attack the Trojans’ vulnerable corners, namely junior Iman Marshall and sophomore Jack Jones. We’ll see whether Marshall and Jones can avoid the big play and killer pass interference calls. The Stanford receivers and tight ends are outstanding, particularly Trent Irvin, a local San Fernando Valley native. The Stanford receivers and tight ends are particularly tall in height compared to the Trojans’ secondary.

Offensively, we’ll see if the Trojans can come close to remotely physically dominating the Stanford defense like they did in their first meeting. As always, Trojans’ quarterback Sam Darnold can make Stanford’s defense miserable once he is in the grove. Last time these two teams met, the Trojans’ rushing game, led by junior Ronald Jones ll and true freshman Stephen Carr, were virtually unstoppable. However, the Trojans’ questionable O-line of today is missing a major cog from the first contest. The Trojans greatly miss senior offensive guard Viane Talamaivao, and we’ll see whether this is a factor on Friday night. Stanford’s defense has a future NFL defensive lineman in senior stud Harrison Philips, two outstanding linebackers in senior Peter Kalambayi and junior Bobby Okereke, and a good one in junior strong safety Justin Reid. The bad news for Stanford, however, is starting fifth-year senior defensive end Eric Cotton is out with an injury suffered against Notre Dame. A big improvement the Trojans have in this second meeting with the Cardinal is the emergence of the young USC wide receiving corps. We’ll find out whether Stanford can contain the likes of redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns, sophomore Michael Pittman, senior Steven Mitchell Jr., and the reemergence of sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe.

In a championship game of this magnitude, special teams will play a vital role. We’ll see whether Trojans’ true freshman walk-on placekicker Chase McGrath has put his groin injury in the past and is ready to go. Clay Helton said this week that McGrath is ready to go. The Trojans will also be looking at whether junior punter Reid Budrovich is sufficiently healed from his left AC issue to handle kickoffs and punts. Helton also said Budrovich is ready to go. As for Stanford, they will again rely on the leg of redshirt freshman Jet Toner.

The Obvious: The 2017 Trojans’ offense averages 34.83 points per game while the Stanford defense is allowing 20.67 points per outing.

The Not So Obvious: The 2017 Stanford offense averages 32.33 points per game while the Trojans’ defense is allowing 26.17 points per game.

The Obvious: Tee Martin is the Trojans’ offensive coordinator.

The Not So Obvious: Asked how the Stanford defense has changed since the last meeting between the Trojans and Cardinal, Martin said, “Schematically, they’ve mixed in some different things from the first time we played them. They have different fronts, coverage wise. They’ve improved and are playing with great effort and playing with a lot of people. They’re a well-coached secondary that has had some injuries, but I think the guys they put in place of some other people are playing at a high level. It’s going to be a challenge because the last few games they’ve been playing at a high level. They slowed down a really good Notre Dame offense and you take out a couple explosive plays for touchdowns, it was a hard night for Notre Dame. So, we respect that. It’s hard preparing for an opponent for a second time in the same season, but it’s going to be a battle that we’re up for.”

(On facing the Stanford defense for the second time) “We carry a lot of bullets, and there were a lot left from the call sheet from the first game. We had some explosive plays in the run game and some explosive plays in the passing game (in the first game), so we know they are going to look at that. So, it’s going to be on us to generate some of the plays from the last time.”

The Obvious: Clancy Pendergast is the Trojans’ defensive coordinator.

The Not So Obvious: Asked how the Stanford offense has changed since the last battle between the Trojans and Cardinal, Pendergast said, “They’re very similar, and they believe in what they do systematically. From my first time joining the Pac-12 in 2010, they look like they do now even back then. They’re going to run the football in a gap-oriented scheme in the running game. They do a very good job distributing the ball around the field. It’s always hard to beat somebody twice. Our personnel is a little bit different now and their personnel is a little bit different now, and they are doing some things a little bit different now and so are we. (Quarterback K.J. Costello) really fits into their system well. He executes their offense really well, and he has command of it; it’s very apparent when he barks out signals and changes plays at the line of scrimmage. They do a great job of coaching their quarterbacks at Stanford.”

The Obvious: One of the major reasons for Stanford’s seasonal turnaround was replacing original starter Keller Chryst with redshirt freshman KJ Costello.

The Not So Obvious: Costello (6-5, 220) has made a huge difference in the Stanford offense. For those not familiar with Costello’s background, KJ attended Santa Margarita Catholic in South Orange County, California. He is a former U.S. Army Prep All-American and was the 2015 Trinity League MVP, a league that may be as tough as there is in the nation. Oh, and by the way, he was on his high school’s Presidential Honor Roll (4.0 GPA or higher). Trojans QB Sam Darnold said this week that he and Costello have known each other well from their old Pop Warner days in South Orange County.

The Obvious: Always a topic of conversation for a championship or bowl game at a neutral site is who will wear their home uniforms?

The Not So Obvious: The Trojans will wear their home uniforms on Friday night. Trojans co-captain safety Chris Hawkins said this week that his team likes wearing their home cardinal and gold and sees it has a home team advantage.  

The Obvious: Jet Toner, a native Hawaiian and graduate of Punahoe HS, is Stanford’s placekicker.

The Not So Obvious: Jet’s sister, Jensen Toner, played soccer at USC.

The Obvious: And finally, Friday night’s game will decide the Pac-12 Championship.

The Not So Obvious: Win or lose, you can find out the Trojans’ bowl destination on Sunday, Dec. 3, with the ESPN’s Bowl Selection Bowl Show, which begins at 9 a.m. PT.

Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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