If this is how championship week is going to start, we could be in for a doozy of a finish on Saturday to close out 2017.
No. 10 USC used a fourth quarter goal line stand and a few key plays from their star quarterback to hold off a pesky No. 12 Stanford squad for the second time this year and capture the conference title 31-28 in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game on Friday night.
The Trojans looked as though they were going to give away another game in the second half but showed why they were a near consensus pick in the preseason to win the league by showing a bit of championship level grit when it mattered most. On their heels following a shanked punt midway through the fourth quarter, the USC defense came up big with a fourth and goal stop from the one yard line when speedy linebacker Uchenna Nwosu tackled Cardinal back Cameron Scarlett just inches outside the goal line to prevent the go-ahead score from the North Division representatives.
That crucial stop then turned into a massive 14 point swing as golden boy Sam Darnold game up big on the ensuing possession, leading a 99-yard touchdown drive that all but locked up the title. The quarterback may not have had the 2017 many predicted he would have after that historic run last year (and the thrilling Rose Bowl victory back in January) but his 325 yards and two touchdowns were the result of one of his best games all year. Most of that yardage and a huge number of the big plays USC had at Levi’s Stadium came courtesy of the signal-caller hooking up with wideout Michael Pittman (146 yards, one touchdown) who was running free in the secondary on nearly every other play.
Not to be left out, Ronald Jones proved why he is one of the best running backs in the country and likely to return to the stadium on Sunday’s by rushing for 132 yards and a pair of scores against one of the Pac-12’s best defensive units.
That all helped spoil the previously perfect 3-0 record that the Cardinal had in the Pac-12 Championship Game coming into the night. Running back Bryce Love ran for 125 yards and a touchdown but was clearly still bothered by his banged up ankle injury, limping off late in the game and simply not having that extra gear we’re used to seeing. Even so, the likely Heisman finalist still put up another 52 yard run and really helped the offense get going starting in the second quarter.
With Love hobbled, QB K.J. Costello stepped up with his arm and finished with 192 yards and a pair of incredible on-the-money touchdown throws to Kaden Smith.
It wasn’t enough in the end however as the Trojans finished the season as many expected them to: as Pac-12 champions. That marked the first time the powerhouse team had won the league since 2008, when the trophy said Pac-10 on it and Pete Carroll was the head coach doing the heavy lifting on the sideline.
Whether all that will ultimately be enough for USC to sneak into the College Football Playoff with a historic move into the top four on Sunday remains to be seen but, on Friday night at least, all the postseason talk didn’t mean much for a program that has been through a lot and can once again lay claim to being the best in the West.