Budding USC-Stanford Rivalry Gets A Championship Chapter

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“It’s USC vs. The Farm again.”

Moments after beating one rival, UCLA, USC linebacker Su’a Cravens turned attention to another rival, Stanford. USC-Stanford may not have the history of USC-Notre Dame, or the animosity of USC-UCLA or Stanford-Cal, but the Trojans vs. Cardinal series has fast become one of the Pac-12’s most intriguing.

And this time, it’s for the conference championship. That’s a prize as valuable as the Jeweled Shillelagh or the Victory Bell.

USC-Stanford will never have the mutual rancor of the Trojans’ two, more storied rivalries, despite the best efforts of former head coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll. Their confrontation in 2009, after Stanford won the first in what would be four consecutive victories in the series, planted the seeds for true vitriol.

Of course, Carroll left for the NFL a few months later, and Harbaugh did likewise the next year.

Harbaugh’s successor, David Shaw, had a brief tiff with Steve Sarkisian during Sark’s tenure at Washington. Sarkisian accused Stanford players of faking injuries to slow the Huskies’ no-huddle offense, and Shaw fired back in response: “If we didn’t do it against Oregon, why would we do it against Washington?”

Invoking Washington’s most hated rival to implicitly swipe at the Dawgs’ version of the hurry-up is as close to a mic-drop as you’ll get in the coaching ranks.

Nevertheless, after Sarkisian arrived at USC, both he and Shaw downplayed any lingering beef that may have existed between the two. No real animosity ever shone through in either of their meetings on opposite sidelines for USC-Stanford meetings in 2014 and 2015, with both winning once.

There certainly isn’t any grudge between Shaw and newly named USC head coach Clay Helton. In many ways, the two head coaches are mirror images of one another.

Both Shaw and Helton grew up the sons of big-time football coaches. Willie Shaw spent nearly three decades as an assistant around the old Pac-8 and Pac-10, before transitioning to the NFL. Willie Shaw was a defensive coach whose influence is evident in the way Stanford teams are constructed under David Shaw.

Despite having an offensive background, Shaw’s Cardinal build around stout defense. An offense predicated on a methodical run game and traditional huddle-up approach complements Stanford’s always-rugged defense.

In the Wild West of the Pac-12, where shootouts are the norm, Stanford has a formula for success in many ways reminiscent of past USC teams.

Whereas other programs around the conference worked to end USC’s seven-year reign as champions from 2002 through 2008 with speed and gadgetry, the Cardinal are the league outliers. They combated the Trojans’ dominance by attacking with a similar philosophy, and it produced five wins in six years.

Under Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian, both hired in part because of their ties to Carroll’s reign, USC ironically deviated from the mentality that defined its dynasty. It took the former, two-time interim head coach Helton to reestablish the foundation elements of USC’s old identity.

USC is going to try beating Stanford at its own game, which was long USC’s own game. SEC honks who believe their conference has a monopoly on smash-mouth football might have their worldviews seriously rattled if they tune in Saturday evening.

“[Helton has] changed our mentality,” Cravens said. “He’s made us a physical team. He’s made us men.”

It’s a style Shaw said he “has appreciation for” and “respects.” Doesn’t sound too much like rivalry talk, does it?

Fitting, though, given Helton said he made respect a cornerstone of his coaching style, something he learned growing up around his greatest coaching influence.

“He’s my best friend, he’s my mentor, he’s my hero,” Clay said of his father, Kim Helton.

Kim Helton’s time in the profession coincides directly with that of Willie Shaw, though Helton stayed away from retirement longer. Clay grew up around coaching luminaries like Howard Schnellenberger and USC legend John McKay. Kim Helton was an assistant to McKay during McKay’s run with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Growing up and seeing how the relationships he built with players, the style of coach he was…developing respect with his players; it carries over,” Clay Helton said. “I’ve been very fortunate to be surrounded by great coaches…Each one I’ve been around, I’ve taken away something. You’ve got to do that to better yourself as a coach.”

Helton has a prime opportunity to put those lessons into action, and put his stamp on Pac-12 football in much the same fashion Harbaugh did for Stanford eight years ago. The Trojans fill the underdog the Cardinal occupied then — albeit by a margin of about 38 points less — and an upset would send shockwaves through the West.

Victory sends USC to its first Rose Bowl since January 2009, coinciding both with the end of the Trojan dynasty, and with Stanford’s rise.

The good news for Helton’s squad is that the team with the lower ranking in the USC-Stanford series won each of the last four meetings. Stanford knocked USC from No. 1 in 2012, while the Trojans returned the favor by ostensibly keeping the Cardinal out of the BCS Championship Game in 2013.

USC vs. The Farm. Again.