With an outside chance at a berth in the College Football Playoff, Stanford is preparing for Southern California in this weekend’s Pac-12 Championship Game.
The matchup, played in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium, less than 14 miles from Stanford Stadium, is akin to a home game for the Cardinal.
Most of the matchup can be whittled down to something obvious: Southern Cal needs to keep running back/wide receiver/kick return savant Christian McCaffrey in check. McCaffrey is Stanford’s Heisman hopeful who set the Pac-12 record for single-season all-purpose yardage this year and is closing in on Barry Sanders’ all-time NCAA record in the metric. He torched the Trojans for 249 total yards in their September matchup, a game Stanford won, 41-31.
However, in last week’s win over Notre Dame, the sophomore amassed 113 yards from scrimmage, his lowest total since the team’s Week 1 loss to Northwestern. The Fighting Irish kept him mostly in check.
In total, McCaffrey was held to 3.8 yards per play; he’s averaging 6.4 this season. Starting defensive players were substituted in on special teams in an attempt to keep him at bay, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder loaded the box and made McCaffrey attempt to run through multiple tacklers — and he still managed to procure 228 all-purpose yards. This is nothing new, but it is a blueprint for what the Trojans should consider.
Southern Cal has the personnel to keep McCaffrey in check, and should subscribe to Notre Dame’s approach on substituting starting defensive players in on special teams and loading the box against the run. Kevin Hogan is a more than capable passer, but if you have to live with a player beating your team, it’s him and not the Heisman contender. Unlike Alabama’s Derrick Henry, most of McCaffrey’s yards this season aren’t after contact, and a defense can go a long ways by making him earn every yard by sending multiple players at him.
“No one can tell me there’s a more dynamic player in college football,” Stanford coach David Shaw said of McCaffrey recently.
Shaw’s right: Not only is he explosive in the open field, but he’s also dominant in short-yardage situations, working behind an offensive line capable of generating leverage.
“They might be the best short-yardage team in the country,” Southern Cal head coach Clay Helton said this week. “McCaffrey is as special as anyone out there.”
Southern Cal’s defense ranks 27th in efficiency, and rebounded from a disastrous performance against Oregon to hold rival UCLA to 105 fewer offensive yards than its season average. In particular, the Trojan defense has been effective at squelching the run, allowing fewer than 140 yards per contest and just 3.84 yards per carry.
A majority of McCaffrey’s yardage has come on designed running plays, and should Southern Cal keep him contained, it’ll give their team more of a shot to pull off the upset.
However, Southern Cal hasn’t been particularly successful at stopping short-yardage running situations or getting its defenders off the field when there are opportunities to do so.
According to Football Outsiders’ Power Success Rate, which looks at the percentage of successful runs on third and fourth down that are two yards or less from the first-down marker, Southern Cal ranks outside of the top 50, allowing a 63.9 percent success rate. With Stanford converting at the fourth best rate in the nation (83.3 percent) on those plays, Southern Cal may not be able to get its defense off the field enough to make the game competitive.