SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In the shadow of its own goal line, backed up against the cardinal of the USC logo splashed across the end zone, USC’s defense faced a goal-line stand of unusual length: six plays.
Stanford had seized the momentum in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Conference championship game on Friday at Levi’s Stadium. Up three points, USC was in danger of ceding the lead. Stanford drove all the way to the three-yard line.
What followed was a sequence of questionable USC decision-making, of brief flashes of dominant, physical football and a rabbit-out-of-the-hat, game-saving play.
It was six plays in this 31-28 USC victory. It was also the story of USC’s season.
When fourth down finally arrived, from the one-yard line, Stanford coach David Shaw called for a run to the left. On the backside, Stanford left Uchenna Nwosu unblocked. That was by design. The design was flawed. Nwosu tore around the line and lassoed Cameron Scarlett by the ankles.
On the ensuing drive, USC marched down the field, scored a touchdown and, for the first time in the expansion era, USC became the Pac-12 champions.
Six plays erased a season of frustration, close wins and occasional brilliance. USC can put aside angst about inconsistency. It no longer needs to defend its record. USC is 11-2. It defeated its North Division boogeyman twice in the same season. And, for the first time in the expansion era, USC is the Pac-12 Conference champion.
The win also marked the first time that any South Division team has captured the crown since the divisions were created before the 2011 season.
The three-point win lacked the panache that USC needed to make an unprecedented leap from No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings and into the top four, but the Trojans have guaranteed themselves a New Year’s Six bowl.
USC controlled most of the game but couldn’t shake the Cardinal for long.
The first half proceeded at the mercy of USC. The Trojans accomplished much of what they’d wanted. They limited Stanford’s Heisman Trophy candidate running back, Bryce Love, to just 37 yards (he finished with 125). USC’sRonald Jones II rampaged for 75. USC avoided turnovers.
Quarterback Sam Darnold exploited Stanford for passes of 40 and 48 yards. He hit Michael Pittman Jr. on an easy play-action touchdown pass in the first quarter and Tyler Vaughns for a 19-yard score on a flat pass in the second quarter.
Darnold finished with 325 yards passing and two touchdowns. Jones added 140 rushing yards in a career-high 30 attempts and two scores. And Pittman set a Pac-12 record with 146 yards receiving.
The only thing USC failed to do was turn the domination into a commanding lead.
Instead, with the clock winding down, Stanford’sK.J. Costello squeezed a pass between two USC defenders — cornerback Jack Jones and safety Marvell Tell III, who overran a potential knockdown or interception — to JJ Arcega-Whiteside for 42 yards. Scarlett punished the coverage lapse with a one-yard touchdown run with less than a minute left in the half.
Before the drive, Stanford had eked out just 65 yards in the half. USC had 265. But instead of a two-score advantage, USC led just 17-14, and Stanford would open the half with the ball.
USC’s defense held long enough for Darnold to connect on a 50-yard strike to Steven Mitchell Jr. to the one-yard line. Jones punched in the score on the next play.
By that point, Love still had not broken loose. Then he did. He found open space and raced 52 yards, nearly doubling his rushing total at that point, to set up an 11-yard touchdown pass to Kaden Smith.
A bad punt gave Stanford excellent field position. Costello used a play-action bootleg to reach USC’s three-yard line. Then the stand could begin.
A delay of game forced Stanford back on first down. USC blew up a running play to push the Cardinal to the 11. Costello threw the ball away on second down, but a late hit by John Houston Jr. gave Stanford new life.
Stanford lost a yard on first down. On second down, Love ran to the two-yard line. On third down, Scarlett ran to the one.
Shaw could’ve elected to kick the chip-shot field goal to tie the score, but he kept Stanford’s vaunted jumbo package on the field.
Nwosu sent it off.
Two plays later, Darnold hit Pittman for 54 yards, then 12 more on the next play. Jones punched in an eight-yard score for a cushion that USC needed when Costello threw another touchdown pass to Smith with 2:13 left. Darnold finally iced it with late touchdown pass to Josh Falo, and the title was USC’s.