Originally Published: November 29, 2017 10:50 p.m.
LOS ANGELES — Southern California safety Chris Hawkins still remembers what Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey did in the 2015 Pac-12 championship game.
“We almost handed one person the Heisman Trophy that day,” Hawkins said. “They probably should have gave it to him that day after the game.”
The No. 11 Trojans can’t allow a repeat performance to the No. 14 Cardinal and their latest Heisman candidate, Bryce Love, on Friday.
“We really going to show how old and how much progress we’ve made in two years,” Hawkins said.
Love, who has rushed for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns, could become the fourth Stanford player to finish second for the most prestigious individual award in college football since 2009, when Toby Gerhart was runner-up to Alabama running back Mark Ingram Jr. Quarterback Andrew Luck finished second in 2010 and 2011. McCaffrey racked up 461 all-purpose yards and was responsible for four touchdowns in the 41-22 win over USC two seasons ago, but that wasn’t enough to vault him past the Crimson Tide’s Derrick Henry in the balloting.
“I don’t know if you guys remember, but he threw a touchdown, ran two and caught one,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know if Bryce is going to do that, but Christian McCaffrey was something special.”
The same can be said of a USC defense that has delivered this season in spite of injuries. USC (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12, No. 10 CFP) allowed 133.22 yards rushing and nine touchdown runs in its nine conference games, ranking second to Washington in both categories. Stanford (9-3, 7-2, No. 12 CFP) finished with 170 yards on the ground in USC’s 42-24 win at the Coliseum on Sept. 9, the second most allowed by USC to a Pac-12 opponent.
Most of that total came on one play, Love’s 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Love’s other 16 carries gained 85 yards.
USC coach Clay Helton liked how his defense was able to limit Stanford early, putting pressure on the passing game to make plays on third down. The same plan will be in place now that Stanford has turned to redshirt freshman K.J. Costello at quarterback.
Costello is coming off his best performance after going 14 of 22 passing for 176 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-20 win over Notre Dame . He was especially effective on fade routes in the red zone, something Hawkins and the USC secondary are preparing to deal with.
“They got some big receivers and big tight ends,” Hawkins said. “You just got to play through their hands. I mean, the Pac-12 refs seem to call pass interference every time you touch somebody so we just going to have to fight through that. We know they are going to throw it. It’s what they do. It’s their bread and butter.”
But the USC defense recognizes that winning its first conference title since 2008 will come down to stopping Love and earning a measure of redemption for its failure to contain McCaffrey two seasons ago.
While McCaffrey was a do-it-all maestro, just as likely to create a big play as a receiver or in the return game as he was running, Love is an explosive rusher with 11 touchdowns runs of at least 50 yards.
Comparing the Love he faced in the second week of the season with him now, Hawkins sees a more patient runner.
“Usually you think it’s the O-line that’s doing the job, but he’s really making people miss now. Earlier in the season he was just running through gaping holes, but now he’s really making people miss,” Hawkins said. “We’re really going to have a challenge really stopping this guy, but I think we’re up for it. We got some defensive stars as well, so we’re ready to get out there.”