Bryce Love stood, smiling slightly, in a throng of Stanford supporters last weekend after the Cardinal defeated Notre Dame and, thanks to a Washington State loss that same evening, advanced to the Pac-12 Conference championship game.
The mood was celebratory. It recalled a moment two season ago, when Christian McCaffrey was interviewed after the Rose Bowl and a nearby Stanford fan with a beaded necklace and a hand-in-the-cookie-jar grin became an Internet meme by chanting over and over “Heis-man! Heis-man!”
The fans behind Love recognized the symmetry. They, too, started chanting “Heis-man! Heis-man!”
There was a lot of symmetry, in fact. Even the sideline reporter was the same — ESPN’s Maria Taylor. Both players involved were outstanding Stanford running backs. Both were, at one time, in the running for the Heisman Trophy. One ruined USC’s hopes at a Pac-12 title two years ago.
USC’s most important task this Friday is preventing one from doing it too.
USC players and coaches have praised Stanford’s turnaround this season from a September game when USC ran all over the Cardinal 42-24. USC coach Clay Helton has credited part of Stanford’s improvement to the new starting quarterback, K.J. Costello.
But USC also knows that defeating Stanford still means slowing down Bryce Love. Love, McCaffrey’s understudy last season, has rushed for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns this season despite an ankle injury that has hampered him over Stanford's last five games and that sidelined him for one.
And the Trojans remain haunted by McCaffrey’s performance against them in the 2015 title game.
"I remember being in this game two years ago and being matched up man to man on Christian on a third down in the third quarter with the lead,” Helton said. “And then all of a sudden he takes it a long way."
McCaffrey turned USC’s lead into a Stanford runaway victory. He scored both as a rusher and a receiver. He also threw for a touchdown ... and rushed for 207 yards ... and caught passes for 105 yards. The lesson has lingered.
"We got embarrassed,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “And I think everybody on our defense knows that. We almost handed one person the Heisman Trophy that day. They probably should've gave it to him that day after the game."
Love, Hawkins said, is similarly patient and opportunistic. Hawkins said Love is McCaffrey’s equal as a rusher. (Though perhaps not as an all-around threat — “We called him the White Reggie Bush,” Hawkins said of McCaffrey.)
But USC knows that it is capable of keeping Love contained. In USC’s first meeting with Stanford this season, Love was his usual excellent self. He rushed 17 times for 160 yards and a touchdown. But 75 of those yards came on one run in the first quarter. On his other 16 touches, USC’s defense held him to more human-levels of production: 5.3 yards per carry.
Unlike in past seasons, when Stanford pounded USC into exhaustion by the fourth quarter, defensive end Rasheem Green said it was Stanford’s offensive line that looked ragged late.
“We just started to suck the air out of them,” linebacker Cameron Smith said at the time.
This time, Love will be playing with a sprained ankle that caused him to miss the Oct. 20 game against Oregon State. He reinjured it Nov. 11 against Washington and again Nov. 18 against California.
After the game last week against Notre Dame, he was asked whether he thought about sitting out with the Pac-12 championship game potentially looming.
"Absolutely not,” he said.
Even with the injury, Love has been among the best running backs in the nation. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in every game this season except for one. But his production has declined significantly. Before the injury, he averaged 10.3 yards per carry. After it, he has averaged 5.8.
Smith noted this week that Stanford has improved significantly around Love. An improving passing game makes selling out to stop Love a more costly proposition.
"Our receivers have made plays, our tight ends have made plays, our quarterback has been playing well, which takes a lot of the pressure off of the offensive line so they can't just stack the box and leave everyone one on one,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
But Hawkins said that doesn’t portend a repeat of the 2015 championship game.