Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey is Pac-Man against USC in Pac-12 championship

USC’s best shot, even with a new head coach and throwback physical philosophy, still wasn’t good enough.

Not against time-tested Stanford. And especially not against a Cardinal team featuring Christian McCaffrey.

McCaffrey, a sophomore who is almost certainly bound for New York this week as a Heisman Trophy finalist, was the spectacular difference in seventh-ranked Stanford’s 41-22 victory over the Trojans in the Pac-12 Conference championship game on Saturday at Levi’s Stadium.

The sophomore running back accounted for three touchdowns and amassed 461 all-purpose yards as the Cardinal earned a Rose Bowl berth for the third time in four years.


“He’s a mismatch nightmare,” USC Coach Clay Helton said.

USC was unable to match its own performance from the week before, when the Trojans ran the ball with authority from start to finish, pressured the quarterback and caused multiple turnovers in a victory over UCLA. It was a win that appeared to convince USC Athletic Director Pat Haden that Helton was the man to lead USC into the future — and to drop the interim tag before the Trojans faced the Cardinal.

On Saturday, the offense started slowly, the Trojans were victimized by a key turnover and the defense simply could not contain McCaffrey.

So Helton’s — and the Trojans’ — immediate future will include a berth in either the Holiday, Sun, Foster Farms or Las Vegas bowl. USC will learn its destination Sunday.


The Trojans, who persevered through the firing of Steve Sarkisian to make an improbable run to the South division title, had been aiming for their first Rose Bowl appearance in seven years.

Instead, they lost to Stanford for the second time this season.

Throughout the game, yelling and profanities emanating from the USC coaches’ booth in the press box could be heard as McCaffrey stutter-stepped to mid-range gains, broke free for wide-open pass receptions and blazed his way toward the end zone.

“I was put in a bunch of different situations to be successful,” McCaffrey said.


McCaffrey rushed for 207 yards and a touchdown, caught four passes for 105 yards and a touchdown, passed for an 11-yard touchdown and totaled 149 yards in kick-return yardage.

“What doesn’t he do?” Trojans linebacker Su’a Cravens said.

Said USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught 11 passes: “If we were able to shut down McCaffrey it would be a different story. I pray he wins the Heisman.

Stanford Coach David Shaw said McCaffrey was the best player in the nation.


“It’s not even a debate,” Shaw said.

Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan also was quietly effective, passing for a touchdown, running for another and catching a touchdown pass from McCaffrey, who ran for 155 yards in the first half as the Cardinal held the ball for more than 21 minutes.

“We just didn’t execute and made him look great,” defensive lineman Antwaun Woods said.

Trojans running back Justin Davis, who rushed for 99 yards, said the Trojans might have been too keyed up.


“I hate to say it, but us being a second-half team is our weakness,” he said. “We don’t come out fast at the beginning of the game and then sometimes it’s just too late.”

USC still held the Cardinal to one touchdown and two field goals in the first half and trailed only 13-3.

“They knew all they had to do was do their job,” Helton said of the Trojans’ attitude coming out of halftime.

USC took 16-13 lead on freshman tailback Ronald Jones II’s 27-yard third-quarter touchdown run and appeared poised to possibly deal Stanford its first loss in three conference title-game appearances.


But McCaffrey set up a touchdown with a long catch-and run and the Cardinal pushed the lead to 11 points when linebacker Blake Martinez hit Kessler from behind and knocked the ball loose. Lineman Solomon Thomas scooped up the ball and returned it for a touchdown.

“Defensively, we knew we were going to have to make a game-breaking play,” Shaw said

Kessler answered by running for a touchdown that cut the deficit to five points before McCaffrey all but sealed the victory with another touchdown catch.

“You can see in the locker room,” cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said. “We are pretty disappointed in ourselves.”


Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein