Any time Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey broke a big play in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game, the sounds of the USC defensive coaching staff shouting reverberated into the adjacent Levi’s Stadium press box.
Given the regularity with which McCaffrey went for big yards, the evening’s soundtrack could have come with a Parental Advisory sticker.
Just named USC head coach days prior to the Cardinal’s 41-22 win in Santa Clara, Clay Helton’s first major decision came in the hours following that conference title game. Helton parted ways with defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, replacing him with former Trojans assistant and NFL-tested coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
Pendergast’s 52 formation hit a home run at USC in 2013, when the Trojans boasted the nation’s No. 16 scoring defense. Stanford felt the brunt of its prowess in late November that season, scoring just 17 points in a loss that effectively denied the Cardinal a spot in the BCS Championship Game.
Pressure — a hallmark of Pendergast’s defense, and an element lacking in Wilcox’s — forced Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan into two interceptions that night. That’s two more than Hogan threw in three games against the Wilcox-coached defense in 2014 and 2015.
With Ryan Burns appearing in just his second career start on Saturday, USC has an opportunity to finally generate some turnovers against the Cardinal. Burns should certainly see more pressure than Hogan endured the previous three meetings with USC, and the numbers bear that out. USC has five sacks through the first two games of 2016, including three against Alabama.
Those three sacks against the Crimson Tide underscore a larger point about the Trojan defense in its transition back to Pendergast. The 52-6 final score might prevent one from recognizing how effective the Trojans were throughout the first half, but turnovers and three-and-outs pumped the brakes on a strong performance.
USC can defend, and it can get to the quarterback as effectively as it did in 2013. The difference this time around for the Stanford offense is McCaffrey’s place in the backfield.
The Cardinal operated with a much more straight-ahead approach in 2013, relying on through-the-tackles ball-carrier Tyler Gaffney to shoulder much of the offensive load.
Gaffney’s physical style certainly fit the Cardinal’s traditional approach, which David Shaw hasn’t exactly deviated from. Stanford still lines up with the quarterback under center, places multiple tight ends on the field, and huddles up before every snap.
However, McCaffrey functions as an NOS booster dropped into a full-size pick-up truck; a race-car inspiration for a working automobile.
Pendergast’s use of blitzes should give this contest one of its primary plot points. While getting to Burns and forcing opportunities for the defensive backs to garner takeaways is essential, McCaffrey leaking out wide poses USC a huge threat.
Should the linebackers get out of position, little can stop McCaffrey from blowing through the second level for huge gains similar to those made in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
It only takes a few of those to completely alter the complexion of a game against the Cardinal, which Week 1 helped reinforce. Kansas State effectively limited McCaffrey on every-down situations, but he peeled off huge runs on each of his touchdown carries.
USC features more speed and athleticism than K-State, but trying to out-athlete McCaffrey is a no-win proposition. That’s precisely what doomed the Trojans nine months ago, and it’s the kind of strategy that leaves a coaching staff bellowing some R-rated language.