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No. 10 USC fights off No. 12 Stanford to capture first Pac-12 title since 2008

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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.

No. 10 USC jumps out to halftime lead over No. 12 Stanford in Pac-12 Championship Game

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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.

Josh Rosen gets the stats, Sam Darnold the win as No. 11 USC tops crosstown rival UCLA

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UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen grabbed all the gaudy stats, but USC signal-caller Sam Darnold managed the win.

The primetime battle of potential No. 1 overall picks in next year’s NFL Draft didn’t quite live up to the hype for fans or scouts alike, but the No. 11 Trojans completed their regular season on Saturday night with a hard-fought 28-23 win over their crosstown rivals at the L.A. Coliseum in a contest that was far from the shootout that was expected coming in.

Darnold had his moments behind center and flashed several reasons why NFL front office types are so enamored with him, hitting some nice touch passes over the middle and scrambling for numerous big plays outside of the pocket. The numbers weren’t quite up to his season standards with 264 yards through the air and no touchdowns but the redshirt sophomore did find the end zone on a scramble.

That he scored on the ground probably wasn’t too surprising given that UCLA is the worst rushing defense in the country but every yard had to be earned in the chippy rivalry game between the two schools 15 miles from each other. Running back Ronald Jones didn’t see as many carries as you would expect down the stretch but managed 122 yards and two scores to keep the chains moving on a pretty consistent basis.

The best play for the cardinal and gold might have actually come on special teams, as Michael Pittman used a little misdirection on a punt return to scoot 72 yards nearly untouched for a touchdown and the game’s first points.

As good as USC was at times on the night, they didn’t runaway with the win like many expected for a team on the fringes of playoff contention. A lot of that had to do with Rosen, who again kept his side in things with a 421 yard outing with three touchdowns and a pick — numbers that could have been even better if not for a few plays here or there. That aerial attack helped open things up for a normally dormant ground game, with Soso Jamabo rushing for 62 yards and Bolo Olorunfunmi adding another 56.

It wasn’t enough to bring the Victory Bell back to Westwood however, as the annual trophy will remain just south of downtown for the eighth time in the past decade. The Bruins still have a shot at going to a bowl game if they can beat fellow in-state rival Cal next weekend but their margin for error to reach the postseason is still incredibly slim given how improved the Bears are this year.

The Trojans meanwhile, finally get some well deserved rest after capping off an 8-1 campaign in conference play and a perfect record in the division. After a week of rest — the first of the year since they had no bye week — they’ll head to the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium for a rematch with either Stanford or Washington State. The team remains way outside looking in with regards to the College Football Playoff chase at the moment but after a third straight win over their crosstown rival, that probably is the furthest thing on their minds as another picture perfect night in Los Angeles comes to a close.

No. 11 USC needs special teams trickery to help hold halftime lead over UCLA

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The city of Los Angeles came out to the Coliseum expecting a high-scoring blowout but what most of the crowd came to see was a good old fashioned Pac-12 slugfest between No. 11 USC and their crosstown rivals UCLA. In a battle between two of the best college quarterbacks in the country, it was the Trojans’ Sam Darnold who managed to secure the lead 14-7 going into halftime but needed a little help along the way from his teammates to get there.

The signal-caller in cardinal and gold finished the first two quarters with 132 yards passing in another efficient —  if unspectacular — performance behind center, combining with tailback Ronald Jones (88 yards, one touchdown) to help rack up most of the offense for the home team at the Coliseum. Despite being able to move the ball up the field fairly well, USC needed a little help from the third phase of the game in order to jump out in front on the scoreboard.

That came on an amazing special teams play in the first quarter that included a little trickeration on the part of the Trojans, shifting the return team to the right with a decoy return man while Michael Pittman fielded the punt along the left sidelines and went 72 yards nearly untouched for the touchdown.

The Bruins responded however and marched right down the field for a touchdown on a Josh Rosen pass. The potential first round draft pick had the better half of the two quarterbacks outside of a late strip sack, hitting several big plays down the field and finishing with 228 yards at the break. The running game wasn’t much to write home about to the surprise of nobody on the UCLA sidelines but it was an encouraging effort for a team that hasn’t had many the past few weeks.

We’ve seen some surprises on both sides of this rivalry game and it’s not hard to think we could be in for another close, fun second half based on how these two teams played the first two quarters. Whoever manages to make halftime adjustments will likely emerge victorious but both teams are very much in this game to the dismay of the home crowd.

No. 17 USC bottles up Khalil Tate to lead No. 22 Arizona at halftime

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No. 22 Arizona had designs on a surprise Pac-12 South title after a terrific run in October but things haven’t played out to script in the first half of their trip to the Coliseum against No. 17 USC on Saturday night.

The Trojans pounced early to take a 21-6 lead into the locker room after two quarters, using a big special teams play to supplement their solid defense on Wildcats’ star Khalil Tate to look a little more like the team we all expected to see at the beginning of the year.

The home team struck first on the scoreboard by getting a rare special teams touchdown, with Michael Pittman Jr. blocking a punt that Jalen Greene scooped and scored with from 11 yards out. That ignited the crowd in Los Angeles and seemed to set the tone for the cardinal and gold.

Quarterback Sam Darnold threw a horrific interception (his 18th turnover of the year) in the end zone but was otherwise pretty sharp in the first half, completing just 10-of-15 passes for a pair of touchdowns and 147 yards. He was really playing second-fiddle in the offense though as tailback Ronald Jones was the real star of the show, rushing for 69 yards and generally getting whatever he wanted on the ground (including a 98 yard score that was called back due to a receiver holding call).

The real story of the game was the Trojans’ defense though. They limited Tate, the dynamic Wildcats signal-caller, to just four completions for 29 yards in the air and most notably was bottled up running the ball with just 15 on the ground. Arizona, which had allowed five sacks all season, uncharacteristically gave up two in the first half too.

We’ll see what adjustments both sides make but there’s some strong #Pac12AfterDark potential for the second half — especially given all the upsets and crazy endings we’ve seen today. The winner can basically take control of the Pac-12 South with a victory so things could get very interesting despite the home team being up by two scores.