SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The Stanford team that walked out of the Los Angeles Coliseum nearly three months ago after being overpowered by Southern California seemed an unlikely pick to get a rematch with the Trojans.
Yet here Stanford is in the Pac-12 title game ready to get revenge against USC for that 42-24 loss in the second game of the season after having won eight of nine games with a familiar formula.
"You're talking about a very hot football team right now," USC coach Clay Helton said. "A lot of it can be attributed to how the defense is playing. I've always thought a David Shaw team is extremely strong down the middle of the defense."
An improved defense and the switch at quarterback to K.J. Costello are the biggest differences for the 14th-ranked Cardinal (9-3, 7-2 Pac-12, No. 12 CFP) heading into Friday night's title game at Levi's Stadium against No. 11 USC (10-2, 8-1, No. 10).
Stanford gave up 623 yards of offense to Sam Darnold and the Trojans in the first meeting, the highest total allowed in coach David Shaw's seven seasons. USC gained more than 300 yards through the air and on the ground and dominated the line of scrimmage.
"I think we hit them and they were hitting on all cylinders, especially offensively," Shaw said. "You go back and watch again and it was just like, 'Wow!' Running it, throwing it, the pass protection was outstanding. The quarterback was as good as you can play the position."
Stanford hasn't allowed more than 430 yards or 24 points in a game over the past eight contests.
The other big difference has been the switch to Costello, who has provided more of a passing threat to complement big-play running back Bryce Love since taking over for Keller Chryst at the beginning of November.
Costello threw four TD passes last week against Notre Dame and is improving each week, the same way the rest of his team is improving.
"We started off the season 1-2, backs against the wall," Love said. "Just a testament to the team that we have. We're resilient. We fought back. We've come a long way. We still have more to prove."
Here are some other things to watch in the Pac-12 title game:
Lots of Love
Love has been slowed a bit in recent weeks by a sprained ankle but still is quite dangerous. He ran for 125 yards on 20 carries last week and ranks second in the nation with 1,848 yards rushing while averaging 8.6 yards per carry. He had a 75-yard TD run against the Trojans, one of his FBS-record 11 runs of at least 50 yards this season.
"He's very patient," safety Chris Hawkins said. "They love pitching him the ball straight backward. Usually you get pitches to the outside. They pitch it backward and let him use his eyes and his footwork to good use. If you're not in your hole, he's going to find it."
Shaw didn't trust Costello to do much in his first game after taking over as the full-time starter. He went just 9 for 20 for 105 yards in a loss at Washington State. But Shaw has loosened the reins each successive week and even allowed Costello to choose one of three plays at the line of scrimmage on the majority of snaps last week against Notre Dame.
"He makes it look easy," Love said. "But the amount of things that is put on his shoulders week in, week out, how he takes control of the huddle, how he gets to the right calls and executes. On his reads, it's amazing. He's handling the ball well."
The team from the North Division has won all six Pac-12 championship games since the conference expanded to 12 teams, including Stanford's 41-22 win over USC two years ago. That's a fact not lost on the Trojans.
"No South team has won it since it became a game," Hawkins said. "Last time we went, you all know what happened last time we went, but we're not going to