In a game riddled with penalty flags and nonstop offense, the USC Trojans captured their first Pac-12 Title as they outlasted the Stanford Cardinal 31-28.
Sam Darnold had the game he was supposed to have as he finished the game with 325 passing yards and two touchdowns as well as the game-ending pass to Josh Falo on fourth down to run out the clock and dash Stanford’s hopes.
Michael Pittman Jr. also had his best—if not career performance catching seven balls for 146 yards and one touchdown. Of course, no USC stat box would be complete without Trojan-great Ronald Jones II, ending his night with 140 yards and two touchdowns.
USC’s first points came on a seven-yard touchdown pass to Michael Pittman Jr. who was previously set up on a 48-yard connection from Darnold to Daniel Imatorbhebe as well as a fourth-down scrambling conversion by Darnold.
Stanford’s second drive of the game featured the always interesting officiating by the Pac-12 referees. A bad pass interference call on Jack Jones placed the Cardinal on USC’s nine-yard line and led to an easy Bryce Love touchdown to even the score.
Outside of the poor officiating, the Trojan front-seven consistently over pursued QB K.J. Costello allowing him to convert consecutive first downs, running for the necessary yardage.
Halfway through the second quarter, USC once again continued to be their own worst enemy as Ajene Harris—instead of fair catching a punt at the ten-yard line, tried to return it but instead loss five yards and nearly the ball.
In the face of this adversity, Darnold and the USC offense remained composed as a 40-yard pass to Pittman from their own five-yard line and a Jones 26-yard run set up a 20-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Vaughns to cap off the 97-yard drive for the Trojans.
Stanford drove the length of the field in the final two minutes to give themselves a shot in the second half. Marvell Tell III poorly played the football on a deep pass from Costello to JJ Arcega-Whiteside resulting in a 42-yard reception—setting up an easy one-yard touchdown run by Cameron Scarlett and a 17-14 ball game heading into halftime.
The first points of the second half came with five minutes left in the third quarter as the Trojans continued to find the deep ball. Darnold threw a near interception to start to drive on a deep pass to Vaughns—and on a few plays later he found Steven Mitchell Jr. on a 49-yard bomb that led to a one-yard touchdown run by Ronald Jones II.
With USC up 24-14, the Cardinal needed a sound response and of course Love was the one who delivered. Hobbled and playing through a high ankle sprain, Love busted up the middle for a 52-yard run and set up a perfectly thrown pass from Costello to Kaden Smith for a 11-yard touchdown in the back of the endzone.
Momentum carried over for Stanford on USC’s ensuing drive as Stephen Carr fumbled the ball away in Trojan territory and giving the Cardinal defense their tenth consecutive game with a turnover. However, that momentum was quickly thwarted as a backward pass from Costello was swatted down by Harris costing the Cardinal 17 yards and an eventual punt.
The fourth quarter saw penalties on both teams that would prove to be costly. With the ball at USC’s 35-yard line, Costello kept the ball on an option play that got the Cardinal inside the five. A delay of game penalty would take Stanford outside of the ten-yard line, however a late hit by John Houston Jr. on Costello give the Cardinal a fresh set of downs once again inside the five-yard line. It took mover six minutes, but the USC front-sevenstood their ground as Uchenna Nwosu stopped Scarlett at the goalline on fourth down to USC the ball back.
The following offensive sequence for the Trojans was a drive of beauty. Backed up at their own one-yard line, Darnold uncorked a 52-yard bomb to Pittman to open things up. A few plays later, Jones stiff-armed two defenders on his way to an eight-yard touchdown run.
Down, but not out, Stanford came roaring back in their next possession as frequently swatted down passes and near turnovers did not slow down a determined KJ Costello. Costello led the Cardinal 90 yards in just over two minutes to hit roommate Kaden Smith once again on an absolute beauty of a pass—28 yards for the score and a 28-31 deficit with two minutes left in the game.
This effort wold prove to be for nothing, as a failed onside kick followed by Sam-Darnold-heroics ended the game and gave USC their first Pac-12 Title. It was a tumultuous season for USC but this championship run may not yet be over. Pending on how the rest of the conference championship games shake out, USC could be in prime position to sneak into the playoffs.