In his news conference following a blowout win on Saturday, USC Coach Clay Helton reserved some of his most glowing praise for the very end of the session.
He complimented a team that physically punished its opponents, a team that controlled the clock and pounded the ball.
It was a team that was not, in fact, his team — at least not yet. He was talking about Stanford.
“They are,” Helton said, “what we try to be.”
USC’s game at Stanford on Saturday will be a referendum on Helton’s early efforts to establish a power-run offense, because USC will be playing the team that does it better than anyone, at least in the Pac-12.
Helton said Stanford has transformed itself into a feared team that runs to set up big play-action strikes. Stanford has the elements that USC has lacked since being hit by NCAA sanctions, such as a stable coaching staff and a roster loaded with experienced players, Helton said.
“They’ve done a tremendous job,” he said. “And, as you know, they were Pac-12 champions last year.”
The matchup blossomed into an almost-rivalry as early as 2007, when Jim Harbaugh’s 41-point underdog Stanford team shocked USC. By the time Zach Banner, now a fifth-year senior, arrived at USC, he said, the game had extra importance.
“It’s not UCLA or Notre Dame,” Banner said. But, he added, “Stanford is a rivalry game.”
Quarterback Max Browne said both teams should know what to expect.
“You kind of know the mold with them,” he said. “They’re going to run the ball, they’re going to be big up front, they’re going to be real sound defensively.”
The Trojans hope that, soon, the same can be said about them.
Darreus Rogers emerged from USC’s locker room Saturday, his arms loaded with six smaller Darreus Rogers, smiling back from the game-day program.
“I have a lot of them,” Rogers said of the programs. “Have to give them to my family, man.”
USC’s 45-7 win over Utah State was a big day for Rogers. After posing, alone, on the program, he made a career-high seven receptions for 82 yards. It is a level of production that the Trojans need. Without a secondary threat, defenses are free to double JuJu Smith-Schuster with impunity.
“When you have great receivers on the other side of the ball, it opens up the package not only for me but for others too,” Smith-Schuster said.
Rogers said he “tried to make a statement and let them know, don’t go away from me.”
The role represents a significant increase in responsibility for a consistent, though relatively minor, contributor. Rogers, a senior, caught 22 passes for 257 yards as a freshman. After a minor dip his sophomore season, his numbers increased only incrementally last season, to 28 catches for 289 yards.
Rogers has become a more appealing target, but he has room for growth. He caught just two passes in USC’s season opener. On Saturday, Browne plopped a perfect pass right into his arms, but he dropped it while falling to the ground.
Browne said he was undeterred.
“I love getting him the ball,” Browne said.
This will be the sixth straight season USC has played the Pac-12’s first conference game. … USC has lost three times in a row to Stanford just five times in the history of the rivalry, which began in 1905. … No USC players or coaches were available to the media on Monday. The team resumes practice Tuesday.
Times staff writer Jesse Dougherty contributed to this report.