When USC Coach Clay Helton saw the play develop during last season’s Pac-12 title game, he started to pray.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s All-American running back, had angled out for a pass and darted to the middle. USC was caught covering him with an inside linebacker.
“I’m like, ‘Please god, don’t throw it to him,’ ” Helton said. “And they did.”
McCaffrey took the third-down pass 67 yards to the seven-yard line, setting up the touchdown that erased USC’s lead and sprung Stanford to the Pac-12 title.
“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” Helton said.
The play, for Helton, captured what makes McCaffrey so difficult to defend, and what USC must solve if it is to defeat Stanford on Saturday. McCaffrey is patient, shifty and fast. And Stanford gets him the ball everywhere — as a returner, as a running back and as a receiver.
Last season, Helton said, Stanford exploited whatever defense USC tried. When USC packed the box and went man-to-man, Stanford matched McCaffrey against bigger linebackers in the pass game. When USC shifted to zone coverage, the Cardinal ran with McCaffrey behind its imposing offensive line.
“Usually you see a runner, or you see a receiver,” Helton said. “When you’ve got the combination of both, you’ve got to make the decision.”
USC believes defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will be able to force more favorable matchups this season. To prepare for McCaffrey’s versatility, USC has used speedy receiver Velus Jones Jr. as his body-double on the scout team.
Helton said the coaching staff chose Jones because he could run and catch.
“He was making some great cutbacks,” cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said.
Still, it is difficult to replicate McCaffrey. USC is more familiar with the back than any other team, having played Stanford twice last season. Both sides have been diplomatic this week.
McCaffrey told reporters that USC is “an unbelievable team that plays very hard.”
When USC linebacker Cameron Smith noted, after praising McCaffrey, that McCaffrey is still “a human,” it almost seemed like an affront.
McCaffrey racked up 461 all-purpose yards against USC in the Pac-12 title game. After that game, safety Chris Hawkins said, the defense was stunned.
“It was like, ‘Wow, he just did that to us,’ ” Hawkins said. “But that shows his greatness right there. We have nothing but respect for him.”
As Hawkins walked off USC’s practice field Wednesday, someone remarked that McCaffrey should have won the Heisman Trophy.
“That’s what I said after the game,” Hawkins said.
Khaliel Rodgers’ shift from the defensive to the offensive line is “second nature to me,” Rodgers said. “It’s nothing.”
Rodgers’ natural position since high school has been on offense, but he switched to the defensive line at the start of training camp, to provide reinforcements for the depleted unit.
After center Toa Lobendahn underwent knee surgery last week, USC’s coaching staff asked him to switch back.
The move is “like riding a bike,” Helton said.
Offensive line coach Neil Callaway said Rodgers still has to pick up small details, like the line’s new calls. (The center is typically responsible for making the calls for the rest of the line.)
“I don’t think he’s ready yet, but he’s got a pretty good grasp,” Callaway said. “Better than what I thought.”
Speaking to ESPN radio Wednesday, USC’s former senior associate athletic director, J.K. McKay said that the public did not yet know the whole story surrounding former coach Steve Sarkisian’s departure.
“The true story about Steve and what happened to him at USC has not come out,” McKay said. “It will eventually.”
Sarkisian was fired after exhibiting erratic, and other alcohol-related, behaviors. Sarkisian subsequently filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the university, claiming he should have been allowed to seek treatment for alcoholism. The suit is headed for binding arbitration.
Defensive tackle Noah Jefferson (shoulder sprain) “probably will be out for this game,” Helton said. … Safety Marvell Tell III has been cleared to play on Saturday. … Right tackle Zach Banner (stomach illness) returned to practice Wednesday.