Pac-12 After Dark appears to be stuck in traffic, but it’s getting there.
A somewhat dull college football game got a lot more exciting in the closing minutes of the second quarter at the Pac-12 Championship on Friday evening, as No. 10 USC methodically grabbed a 17-14 halftime lead over No. 12 Stanford in a rematch for a title at Levi’s Stadium.
Not surprisingly, star quarterback Sam Darnold was at the center of most of the action. The signal-caller finished the half with 171 yards passing and a pair of scores, the first a touchdown pass off play-action to Michael Pittman from seven yards out to light up the scoreboard first. The two hooked up again in the closing minutes for a big 40 yard gain that later setup a short Tyler Vaughns catch and run right to the pylon.
Running back Ronald Jones was a pretty big part of the offense too, rushing for 75 yards and helping churn out long drives to control the clock against a team that entered the game on short rest.
Stanford’s offense was a little hit or miss but seemed to start rolling toward the end of each quarter. Aided by several penalties, Bryce Love (only 37 yards rushing) found the end zone from nine yards out for the team’s first points but there was not much in the way of explosive plays from the Cardinal after a half of play. Quarterback K.J. Costello did pick up a few first downs with his arm as time was winding down and finished with 76 yards in the air while Cameron Scarlett punched in the other touchdown from a yard out.
The two in-state rivals are both battling a little history on either side of this one. Stanford is 3-0 in the championship game since the conference started it in 2011, while the North Division overall is undefeated in the event. On the flip side, USC hasn’t captured the league title in nearly a decade and are hoping to defeat the Cardinal for a second time this season.
The month of October was a bizarre one in the Pac-12 as teams zigged while you thought they were going to zag. Nobody embodied that more than No. 21 USC and Arizona State entering the weekend.
The Trojans’ normally high-powered offense was stuck in neutral. The Sun Devils’ defense was punching way, way above their weight. As a pivotal Pac-12 South battle loomed, would these strange trends continue on Pac-12 After Dark? The answer: no, not at all. Sam Darnold and USC broke out of their slump to bounce back and beat ASU on Saturday night in Tempe, using numerous big plays to capture a 48-17 victory that probably wasn’t even as close as the final score line would indicate.
The one time Heisman favorite had one of his best outings of the season after a disastrous result in South Bend last week, tossing three touchdown passes and racking up 266 yards all told against a defense that had stymied some pretty solid passers the past few weeks. Wideout Tyler Vaughns was the recipient of most of those passes and continued his stellar play by posting career highs of 126 yards and two scores. The tandem was so impressive one almost forgot about Rose Bowl hero Deontay Burnett as he had a quiet night despite 49 yards and a trip to the end zone.
Not be outdone, running back Ronald Jones returned to his early season form and racked up 216 yards on the ground. The junior was a big play machine in the dry desert air too, bursting through the line for a pair of 60+ yard scores on the night.
The Trojans’ 607 yards of offense had spoiled a good month on defense for Todd Graham’s Sun Devils. A terrible third down performance (1/12 in the game) and mediocre run game didn’t help their efforts either. Quarterback Manny Wilkins threw for 259 yards but found the end zone, somewhat incredibly, only once under wild circumstances.
That came right at the end of the first half after the signal-caller launched a bomb toward the end zone. The play was initially ruled a catch at the one yard line but was reviewed and eventually ruled as a touchdown on the longest Hail Mary play in recent college football history. The teams were eventually brought back from the locker room to kick the extra point but in the end, it will go down as a footnote in this one.
The victory by the Trojans keeps them in the lead for the Pac-12 South title and presents quite the interesting game in the Coliseum next Saturday. USC is set to host Arizona in what is looking very much like a fascinating battle between some pretty explosive offenses based on how this weekend has turned out.
No. 21 USC has been struggling on the offensive end the past few weeks. Arizona State has been stingy on the defensive side. Naturally, the two decided to do a body switch on Halloween weekend. As a result, the Trojans did almost whatever they wanted down in the desert, taking a 31-10 lead into halftime in a huge Pac-12 South battle few could have seen coming a few weeks ago.
The cardinal and gold offensive explosion not surprisingly came at the hands of quarterback Sam Darnold, who had one of his best outings in weeks by throwing for 217 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Looking a lot more like that top draft many touted him to be early in the year, he also added a career-long 39 yard run to boot. Running back Ronald Jones chipped in with a 67 yard touchdown run on his way to a 120 yard effort through two quarters.
On the receiving end of many of those Darnold passes was receiver Tyler Vaughns. The young wide out has steadily become a bigger part of the offense and was already up to 94 yards and two scores prior to going to the locker room at the break.
USC also had a pretty strong defensive effort too — up until the final play of the half. Manny Wilkins completed only eight passes and Arizona State managed just two sustained drives all told but one was thanks to an N'Keal Harry 70 yard catch and the other was part of a wild Hail Mary as time expired. The play was reviewed numerous times before it actually resulted in points going on the board and required the two teams to come back from the locker room in order to kick the extra point.
We’ve come to think that Pac-12 games going late into the night will have some whacky ending and while this one appeared over, perhaps that Hail Mary is only the start of strange things to come.