SANTA CLARA, CA — Sam Darnold threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns, and Ronald Jones ran for 141 yards and two scores, in leading the USC Trojans to the 2017 Pac-12 Championship on Friday night.
Wide Receiver Michael Pittman, Jr. had 7 receptions for a Pac-12 Championship Game record 146 yards to make up for Deontay Burnett’s quiet night, and the Trojans defense made a goal-line stand late in the 4th quarter to help seal the 31-28 victory. In winning the conference championship, USC made its case to be considered for a playoff spot, even though it will need a lot of help for that to happen.
The Stanford Cardinal kept the game competitive, pulling within three points of the Trojans on multiple occasions. Bryce Love showed why he is a Heisman trophy candidate, running for 131 yards and a touchdown, including his FBS-leading 12th 50-plus yard run this season, despite still suffering from a lingering ankle injury.
Wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside made two sensational catches to set up Cardinal scores, and Kaden Smith caught two touchdown passes from K.J. Costello. Stanford, however, squandered two opportunities to tie the game or pull ahead.
After recovering a fumble by USC freshman running back Stephen Carr, Costello fumbled, before throwing two incomplete passes to end one drive. On a subsequent offensive possession, Stanford was stopped on 4th and goal at the USC one-yard line. The game was essentially out of reach after the Cardinals’ onside kick went out of bounds with 2:09 remaining in the 4th.
In the end, it was the Darnold and Jones show. Darnold picked up Most Valuable Player honors, and the San Francisco 49ers fans in attendance got a chance to envision what its offense might look like next year, if indeed Darnold declares for next year’s draft and is a potential first overall pick.
But for now, USC will celebrate its first conference championship since 2008. It can also take pride in being the first Pac-12 South representative to win the Championship Game. After this weekend, the Trojans can also start making travel plans for an appearance in a coveted New Year’s Day Bowl Game (most likely the Fiesta Bowl).
Meanwhile, the Cardinal can only think about what could have been. Coach David Shaw defended his decision to go for it on 4th and 1 instead of kicking a game-tying field goal, stating that given the opportunity to “take the lead in the Pac-12 Championship Game . . . there’s no hesitation at all.” Yet senior defensive tackle Harrison Phillips also acknowledged that the defense needed to make a few more plays. But in reality, it was Stanford’s passing game that was a problem.
Other than the stellar catches by Arcega-Whiteside and touchdown receptions by Smith, the passing game was mostly non-existent. Save for this offensive plays, Costello completed just four passes for 25 year day. He repeatedly under threw his receivers and he was almost intercepted on multiple occasions. In the end, the Cardinal can now take some time off to regroup, before finding out which Bowl game it will play in.
Even though the Trojans get to celebrate a win, Head Coach Clay Helton realized that the Cardinal could have won this game. He gave credit to Coach Shaw and his players. “They played their hearts out, absolute hearts out.” Coach Helton added that “failure was not an option,” so for the Trojans’ defense “to hold the line, not once, but twice there in the 1 [yard line]” was key to the win.
Star senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu also complemented the Cardinal for making his job tough. “I know they studied a lot of tape on me” so he admitting that he had to “find a new way” to make plays on defense. All told, Coach Helton summed it up best when he said: “Nobody will remember the score ten years from now. But they will remember that these kids were Pac-12 Champions.”