Clay Helton and David Shaw agree: Running is winning when USC plays Stanford

on Sep6

There had already been two scuffles during USC’s Tuesday evening practice by the time cornerback Jack Jones tangled with receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, Imatorbhebhe’s helmet dislodged and the pugilists wrestled to the turf.

Coach Clay Helton paused practice and huddled the team together. USC’s preparation for Stanford officially started Sunday, the day after a shaky victory over Western Michigan. It symbolically began Tuesday, when defensive lineman Malik Dorton came near blows with running back James Toland IV, cornerback Isaiah Langley tussled with Tyler Vaughns and Jones took on Imatorbhebhe.

“I love where they’re at,” Helton said. He cautioned his team against personal fouls, but he said the defense needed more physicality against Stanford than it showed in the opener.

“You saw it today, I thought they had their jaws set,” Helton said. “I mean, they’re mad. And that’s what you want, you want a defense that’s mad.”

Helton knows that Stanford has owned the rivalry recently — the Cardinal have won seven of the last 10 meetings — and he knows Stanford has owned the rivalry because it has owned the ground game.

It is a lesson that Helton learned a decade ago, when he was a rookie offensive coordinator at Memphis. Tommy West, head coach of the Tigers, gave him a bit of advice.

“I’ll never forget his words, that games are won by running the ball, stopping the run, not turning it over, and playing great special teams,” Helton said.

It is an old adage, but Helton called the conversation “one of the best things to ever happen to me.”

Times have changed. College football has spread out. Passing attacks have flourished. But when USC plays Stanford, the calculus has not budged: The team that runs the ball best is probably going to win. Since then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh defibrillated the rivalry in 2007, the team that rushed for more yards has won eight of 10 games.

And so on Tuesday, even though USC has what Stanford coach David Shaw called the nation’s best quarterback, and even though Stanford had more passing yards than rushing yards in its opener, both coaches mostly wanted to talk about the run game.

Helton called stopping the run his team’s primary concern and said it would be the focus during practice this week.

“They’re the best in our league at running the ball seems year in and year out,” Helton said.

Shaw said USC running back Ronald Jones II reminded him of Denver Broncos’ Jamaal Charles and expressed concern about Jones finding one-on-one showdowns with defenders. “You gotta bring your friends because the first guy might not be able to get him down,” Shaw said.

USC might have the best running back tandem in the conference with Jones and freshman Stephen Carr, who rushed for 69 yards in seven carries with two touchdowns in his debut.

But Stanford has reloaded after losing All-American running back Christian McCaffrey. Bryce Love rushed for 180 yards in 13 carries during Stanford’s 62-7 opener against Rice.

“All of a sudden, they go from Christian McCaffrey, who’s one of the best players I’ve ever played against in my coaching career, and you look up now and they’ve got Love,” Helton said.

In limited time, Love, a former track star, has been more explosive than McCaffrey. In 2016, Love gained almost 57% of his yardage on runs of 15 yards or longer, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the highest rate in the Pac-12 Conference. McCaffrey gained about 38% of his yards on such runs.

“He’s a different type of player from Christian to a certain degree,” Shaw said.

Stanford’s slow, run-heavy style makes it a rare team that messes with an opposing defense and an opposing offense as well. Playing Stanford, USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin said, is like wrestling a boa constrictor. It slowly squeezes away your strengths.

Stanford controls the clock. Martin recalls that during the Pac-12 championship game two seasons ago, USC ran only six plays in the first quarter.

“You kind of get a feeling as an offense that you gotta score,” he said. “Because you don’t know when’s the next time you’re gonna get the ball.”

USC’s passing game showed rust Saturday against Western Michigan, but Shaw said he doesn’t expect USC to lean any more heavily on the run than usual.

USC is always balanced, he said. It always wants to run the ball.

Against Stanford, that usually makes for a trench fight. USC is at least preparing like it.

Twitter: @zhelfand

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