Stanford was five yards away from taking the lead in the Pac-12 Championship.
USC had other ideas. The Trojans stood firm against their own goal-line while nursing a 24-21 lead with less than 10 minutes to play in the game — stonewalling the the 12th-ranked Cardinal on four consecutive plays to take the ball back. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold entered ready to ice the game, and he ripped off a 54-yard bullet to sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. on the first play of the drive. Junior running back Ronald Jones II scampered in for an eight-yard score with 4:22 left on the clock, and USC opened up a 10-point lead.
The Cardinal, though, answered. Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello delivered a 28-yard strike to tight end Kaden Smith to claw back within 3 points with two minutes to play. But the ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, and the Trojans ran out the clock to clinch the title, with Darnold finding freshman tight end Josh Falo on fourth down to end the game.
It was only fitting: After a roller-coaster regular season, the No. 10 Trojans kicked off their postseason with a thrill ride.
USC faced off against Stanford on Friday looking to clinch the program’s first conference crown since 2008. Since the Pac-12’s expansion from 10 teams in 2010, the North division had been undefeated (6-0) in the championship game, but USC reversed the trend in Santa Clara, downing the Cardinal 31-28 in a back-and-forth nailbiter.
“This was a team effort, and these guys found a way,” head coach Clay Helton said. “We said that failure was not an option when we began the day, and to see that defensive stand on the goal-line, to see a 99-yard drive — these kids win games.”
It was a worthy sequel to the 2015 Pac-12 title game, which Stanford won 41-22. This year, USC was happy to exact its revenge.
“It gets us going,” redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins said. “There’s something about playing [Stanford] that really gets us going.”
The game was a battle throughout, but momentum swung at a furious pace as it neared the fourth quarter. At first, USC looked squarely in control. Darnold entered the second half looking to build on a strong start, but after moving into fifth on USC’s all-time rushing chart, Jones was ready to take the game into his own hands.
In the end, the Trojans found a happy compromise: Darnold uncorked a 49-yard bomb to find redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. at Stanford’s one-yard line. Then Jones punched it in for the score. No. 10 USC was up 24-14 nearing the final 15 minutes of play.
But then superstar Stanford running back Bryce Love broke off a 52-yard run. Three plays later — an 11-yard pass from Costello to Smith — and the Cardinal were back within three points. Freshman running back Stephen Carr fumbled the ball on the Trojans’ subsequent drive, and the Cardinal looked set to tie the score or even pull ahead.
USC managed to force a punt. Then Stanford’s defense did the same. A shanked kick set the Cardinal up near the red zone — but the Trojan defense stood firm.
“[Stanford] got down to what looked like the one-inch line, and to hold right there — you’re talking about one of the best short-yardage run teams there are in the world,” Helton said. “For our defense to hold the line not once but twice there on the one — man, they just found a way. I’m proud of these guys; they’re unbelievable.”
Hawkins led the Trojans defensively in his final Pac-12 game: the captain racked up a team-best nine solo tackles and two tackles for a loss while also forcing a fumble. Offensively, Jones was a workhorse, carrying 30 times for 140 yards and two scores. With an 11-yard gain to open the game, Jones passed former Trojan running back O.J. Simpson in career rushing yards at USC (3,555).
Meanwhile, Darnold — the Pac-12 Championship MVP — shredded the Cardinal defense for 325 passing yards and two touchdowns.
“All [Darnold] does is win games,” Helton said. “I wish I could tell you what he’s made of, but it’s part Superman — I don’t know.”
After the two teams traded punts to open the game, USC drew first blood on its second drive thanks to a big play from its quarterback: Rolling to his right from his own 30-yard line, Darnold found redshirt sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe on a downfield lob for 48 yards. The Trojans moved back 15 yards on an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty, but the completion put them deep in Cardinal territory. Darnold scrambled for a first down before finding Mitchell to set up first-and-goal. Sophomore wideout Michael Pittman Jr. reeled in a play-action pass over the middle for a seven-yard touchdown, and USC pushed ahead 7-0.
But Stanford hit back on the very next drive — with an assist from the Trojans. A defensive holding penalty against junior cornerback Iman Marshall and pass interference from sophomore cornerback Jack Jones gifted their opponents 25 yards, setting them up near the Trojan goal-line. Love pounced on the opportunity, rushing nine yards up the middle for the tying score.
Penalties continued to be a theme after the Cardinal knotted things up. This time, however, they came to USC’s benefit. Another pass interference coupled with a defensive holding — but against Stanford — pushed the Trojans up near midfield. A 20-yard catch-and-run across the middle from Pittman put USC in striking distance, and a personal foul extended the drive into the red zone after the Trojans were stopped short on third down. Freshman kicker Chase McGrath knocked through a short chip shot after the offense was unable to find the end zone, and USC retook the lead, 10-7.
The Trojans seemed set to seize the momentum for good after senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu forced Stanford to punt with a third-down sack near midfield. USC’s offense got the ball back near its own goal line but quickly gained yards in swathes. First, Darnold found a streaking Pittman in stride for 40 yards. Jones then broke off a 26-yard run, and redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyler Vaughns capped the drive with a touchdown: Taking a swing pass from Darnold near the sideline, Vaughns shed a tackle, streaked for the end zone and dove across the pylon as a convoy of defenders clawed desperately at his feet. It was 17-7.
But Stanford stole back momentum once again, covering 75 yards in 2:28 to draw within three points with 34 seconds left in the first half. Costello’s 42-yard toss to JJ Arcega-Whiteside was the highlight of the Cardinal’s drive, and suddenly, they were in position to turn the tables after they received the second-half kickoff.
Fortunately for the Trojans, a holding penalty on third down wiped a Stanford conversion off the board and led to a punt to start the third quarter, setting up Jones’ first score.
With the conference championship in tow, USC now looks forward to its bowl matchup. Most projections currently peg the Trojans for the Fiesta Bowl — one of the College Football Playoff New Year’s Six bowls — but the team may just be holding out hope for something even better.
“We sit here as a conference champion; we sit here with unbelievable strength of schedule,” Helton said. “You look up, and there are four teams that are two-loss conference champions. I think we deserve to be in the [College Football Playoff] discussion, especially the way these guys finished the season. They’re hot right now, and they’re playing good football.”