No. 12 Stanford (9-4) gave No. 10 USC (11-2) all it could handle in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday, but there just wasn’t any quit in the Trojans on this night, and Clay Helton’s squad was able to hang on for a huge 31-28 victory over the Cardinal.
The big win not only gave the Trojans their first conference title since 2008, but the victory was also the first by a South Division representative in the seven-year history of the conference championship game.
The highly anticipated matchup featured standout performances by a number of Trojans, including Michael Pittman Jr., who set a Pac-12 title game record with 146 yards receiving, Ronald Jones II, who rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries, and Sam Darnold, the championship game MVP who completed 17 of 24 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, the victory didn’t come easy.
The Trojans struck first late in the first quarter when Darnold capped off a 9-play, 70-yard drive with a seven-yard touchdown toss to Pittman, whose night was just getting started.
The Cardinal answered in a hurry, with Bryce Love scoring on a nine-yard run to even the game up at 7-7 early in the second quarter.
Chase McGrath would add three more points for the Trojans a little later on a 24-yard field goal, before Darnold engineered a beautiful seven-play, 97-yard drive that he finished off with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Vaughns to give USC a 17-7 lead.
Stanford would make it a 17-14 game just before halftime thanks to a one-yard touchdown plunge by Cameron Scarlett.
The USC offense came through again mid-way through the third quarter when, just one play after Darnold hit Steven Mitchell Jr. for a 49-yard gain, Jones II darted into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown to put in front 24-14.
Stanford answered, yet again however, as K.J. Costello hit Kaden Smith for an 11-yard touchdown to cut USC’s lead to three again.
Stanford had a golden opportunity to take the lead for the first time early in the fourth quarter, but instead the Trojans seized control of the contest with a series of game-defining plays. After a shanked Reid Budrovich punt gave the Cardinal the ball at the USC 33-yard-line, Costello and Co. promptly drove down to the one-yard-line, with Stanford head coach David Shaw electing to go for it on fourth-and-goal. Scarlett got the call, but USC outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu knifed into the backfield and dropped the Cardinal tailback for no gain, which turned the ball over to the Trojans on downs.
Just two plays later, with USC backed up on its own two-yard-line, Darnold hit Pittman for a 54-yard gain. And with momentum on their side, the Trojans offense kept marching down the field before Jones II ran into the end zone on an eight-yard touchdown run that put USC back in front by 10 with less than five minutes left.
But Costello needed only 2:13 to drive Stanford 90 yards on eight plays, capping the drive off with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Kaden Smith to cut USC’s lead to three with 2:09 left.
The ensuing onsides kick attempt would go out-of-bounds, however, and the Trojans were ultimately able to run out the clock, with Darnold hitting tight end Josh Falo for a 15-yard gain on a crucial fourth-and-two play with 28 seconds left.
Costello finished 10 of 22 passing for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Love amassed 125 yards and one touchdown on the ground on 22 carries.
Safety Chris Hawkins led USC with 13 tackles (9 solo) including two for a loss.
The Trojans outgained the Cardinal 501-343 in total yardage.
This was the second meeting between USC and Stanford this season, with the Trojans also defeating the Cardinal on Sept. 9 42-24.