By Jose Saldana
No. 14 Stanford football (9-4, 7-3 Pac-12) loses to No. 11 USC Trojans (11-2, 9-1) 31-28 in the 2017 Pac-12 Championship on Friday night in Levi’s Stadium.
Junior running back Bryce Love didn’t start strong but he ended strong with 125 rushing yards on 22 carries and one touchdown in the game. His gritty performance on a high ankle sprain, however, was not enough to carry Stanford to victory.
Sophomore KJ Costello gave Stanford a chance to win the game with a late quarter drive to cut the lead to three with two minutes. Costello finished with 10-22 passing for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
The Cardinal defense could not stop USC’s offense for the second game this season as it allowed 501 total yards to the Trojans. USC quarterback Sam Darnold lit up the secondary for 325 passing yards and two touchdowns. Darnold had four passes of at least 40 yards in the game. His ability to create time in the pocket was pivotal for the Trojans’ big plays.
USC threatened from the start of the game. On the Trojans second drive, the Cardinal pass rush pushed Darnold towards the right sideline, he delivered a throw on the run to wide receiver Daniel Imatorbhebhe for 48 yards. A fourth-down conversion by Darnold helped USC score the first touchdown of the game to put the Trojans up 7-0.
The Cardinal struck back with a 10-play, 68 -yard drive that was capped off with a nine-yard touchdown run to tie the game. Costello converted a couple of third-downs with his feet and through the air.
Penalties began affecting the game as multiple holding penalties and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by senior linebacker Jordan Perez put USC within the Stanford-10. A great stop by the defense forced the Trojans to kick a field goal.
One Stanford punt later and USC was driving down the field again. Darnold completed a 40-yard pass, and Trojans running back Ronald Jones II ran by the defense with a 26-yard shuffle down the field. The two big plays set up Darnold’s 19-yard touchdown throw to receiver Tyler Vaughns.
Now down 17-7 with 3:02 remaining in the first half, the Cardinal were put in prime position to score on Costello’s 42-yard pass completion to junior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Arcega-Whiteside was covered tightly by a corner and safety, but he still managed to haul in the throw.
A couple plays later, junior running back Cameron Scarlett punched in the ball to cut USC’s lead to 14-17 with 34 seconds left in the half.
The Cardinal’s first two offensive possessions of the second half were both three-and-outs which gave USC opportunity to increase the lead which it did so on Jones’ 1-yard touchdown. This came after junior cornerback Quenton Meeks dropped an interception, and junior safety Justin Reid allowed a 49-yard pass to sail over his head and into the arms of a USC receiver.
Stanford showed its resiliency once again as it marched down the field on the strength of Love’s 52-yard run and scored on Costello’s 11-yard pass to sophomore tight end Kaden Smith. The score shrunk the lead to 21-24 for the Cardinal.
After the Stanford defense recovered a Trojans fumble, the refs controversially ruled a screen pass from Costello to freshman Connor Wedington a backwards pass and a fumble. Head coach David Shaw’s challenge didn’t changing the ruling, and Stanford faced a 2nd-and-27. The Cardinal would punt two plays later.
The defense finally got to Darnold at the start of the fourth quarter, and it forced the Trojans to punt but USC’s punter sent the ball only 30 yards to the USC-33.
The Stanford offense got it to the USC-1 on fourth down. Shaw decided to go for it but Scarlett’s run fell short of a touchdown.
The Trojans took control on their own end zone, and Darnold delivered a 54-yard strike to wide receiver Michael Pittman after Reid tripped covering Pittman.
The big play ultimately set up Jones’ second touchdown of the game and increased USC’s lead to 31-21.
With four minutes remaining, Costello showed his arm with throws of 28 yards and 45 yards to Smith and Arcega-Whiteside. He threw his second touchdown to Smith on a 28-yard completion. Smith made a leaping, outstretched catch to haul in the score.
The effort was all for naught as Stanford’s onside kick went out of bounds and the Trojans ended the game in victory formation.
The Cardinal will now have to wait for the bowl committee to decide which bowl game Stanford will play in.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.