By King Jemison
No. 11 USC (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) combined a dominant performance from star junior quarterback Sam Darnold with a timely fourth-quarter goal-line stand to pull out a 31-28 victory over No. 14 Stanford (9-4, 7-2) in the Pac-12 Championship last Friday night. Darnold finished with 325 yards and two touchdowns on 17 of 24 passing.
The key sequence in the game occurred with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and USC leading 24-21 while Stanford was knocking on the door of a go-ahead touchdown. The Trojan defense then rose up and stopped junior running back Cam Scarlett on consecutive runs from inside the USC two-yard line to put the ball back in Darnold’s hands, who then engineered a 99-yard drive to give his team a 31-21 lead with 4:22 left.
After Scarlett gained one yard on third-and-goal from the two but was unable to score, Stanford head coach David Shaw was faced with a decision to go for the touchdown and the lead on fourth down or settle for a field goal and the tie. He made the choice to trust his powerful offensive line and afterwards said he had no reservation about leaving his offense on the field.
“The sequence of fourth-and-one on the one to take the lead in the Pac-12 Championship, I mean, there’s no hesitation at all,” Shaw said in his postgame press conference. “That’s what we’re going to do. Bottom line is, we didn’t get the play on offense, and we didn’t get the stop on defense.”
Although Stanford will rue the missed chance to take a fourth quarter lead, it was their inability to contain Darnold and the Trojan wide receivers that ultimately cost them the game. Darnold had four completions of over 40 yards on the night, including two to sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman who finished with 146 yards and a touchdown on seven catches. There were multiple occasions where Cardinal defensive backs either slipped and fell in coverage to leave USC receivers wide open or mistimed leaps for the ball, missing chances for a critical interception and allowing their man to get behind them and make the catch.
Still, it was the brilliance of Darnold that made Stanford pay for those mistakes. His most impressive play was a deep ball to Pittman that he threw while under pressure and backed up in his own end zone. The pass went for 54 yards and provided the spark for USC’s huge 99-yard drive.
“He’s an outstanding quarterback,” Shaw said about the talented signal caller who has thrown for over 300 yards in both meetings with Stanford this season. “He’s extremely accurate. We had a couple of opportunities to take the ball away, and we didn’t take advantage of those, and a guy like this will make you pay.”
USC outgained Stanford 501 to 343 in total yards in large part due to Darnold and running back Ronald Jones, who had 140 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries. However, Stanford’s offense saw a number of key players come up with big performances to keep the Cardinal in the game until the final minute.
Junior running back Bryce Love made his final Heisman statement by rushing for 125 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, including a 52-yard scamper that set up Stanford’s first touchdown of the second half. Love’s nagging left ankle injury continued to bother him throughout the game, and at one point in the fourth quarter it looked as if he would have to leave the game after hobbling off the field and receiving attention from the training staff. Instead, Love was able to come back a few plays later and got his team down to the two-yard line before USC came up with the goal-line stop.
“He’s outrushed a lot of football teams on one-and-a-half ankles,” Shaw said about his star running back who is second in the FBS with 1973 rushing yards, greater than the season rushing totals for 66 FBS teams. “That’s a combination of ability, toughness, heart, character — all those things rolled into one — and I have so much respect for who he is as a man as well as what he is as a football player.”
Love has been a fixture of the Heisman race for much of the season, and his consistent and explosive production even while significantly injured has earned him respect and admiration from much of the college football world. According to ESPN, he is projected to finish second in the Heisman voting. Finalists for the award will be announced this week, and the winner will be revealed in an ESPN telecast starting at 5 p.m. next Saturday.
Stanford also found some success in the passing game thanks to the spirited play of sophomore quarterback KJ Costello, who finished with 192 yards and two touchdowns on 10-of-22 passing. Costello found his roommate, sophomore tight end Kaden Smith, on both of those touchdowns. Smith had four catches for 80 yards overall. Junior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside had two highlight-reel catches on deep balls in between USC defenders. His two receptions went for 87 yards and both set up eventual Stanford touchdowns.
The Cardinal offense was able to respond quickly to every USC touchdown. Stanford drove down the field in less than five minutes and reached the end zone on their next drive after a USC touchdown on all four occasions. On Stanford’s last offensive drive, Costello led his team on a 90-yard scoring march in 2:18, buoyed by three passes of over 28 yards. The Cardinal were unable to recover the ensuing onside kick and when USC converted on fourth-and-two with 28 seconds remaining, the game was essentially over.
Though the Cardinal defense as a whole struggled to contain the dangerous USC offense, senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips continued his incredible final season in his last game against Pac-12 competition. Phillips led Stanford with 13 tackles against the Trojans, giving him a team-leading 100 stops on the season. Junior safety Justin Reid also contributed nine tackles in the game, part of his 97 overall this season. The strong efforts from the Cardinal defensive stars were not enough to make up for the absence of multiple defensive starters. Stanford gave up over 500 yards for the second time this season, both against USC.
With the victory, USC won its first conference championship since 2008. The win was the first ever for the South division in the Pac-12 Championship game. The Trojans will face Ohio State in the prestigious Cotton Bowl Dec. 29.
Meanwhile, Stanford was selected for the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas on Dec. 29 at 6 p.m. The Cardinal will face TCU (10-3, 7-2) out of the Big-12 in a matchup pitting Top-15 teams coming off losses in their respective conference championship games. With a win, Stanford would secure its seventh 10-win season in the last eight campaigns and its sixth in seven years under David Shaw.