Posted on December 2, 2017, by Travis Pulver
Stanford fans had to hate and love playing USC in the PAC-12 Championship Friday night. They loved it because it was a chance at redemption after losing to the Trojans 42-24 earlier this season. At the same time, they hated it, because they lost 42-24 earlier this season. To win, they would need to do some things this time they failed to do the first time. They couldn’t let Sam Darnold throw at will. They had to limit Ronald Jones II. Someone other than Bryce Love had to make some plays on offense.
But sometimes knowing what to do and being able to do it are two different things.
Stanford gave the Trojans a much better game this time, but in the end, their mistakes ended up costing them. When they needed to make a play on offense and defense, they couldn’t. As a result, for the first time since the inception of the PAC-12 Championship game in 2011, a team from the South Division won.
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USC came out on top 31-28.
“The bottom line is we had opportunities, and we didn’t make enough plays,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the game (ESPN). “We made enough plays to keep it close but not enough plays to win. The sequence of fourth-and-1 to take the lead in the Pac-12 championship game, there’s no hesitation at all. That’s what we’re going to do.”
USC got on the board first on their second drive of the game when Michael Pittman caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Sam Darnold. Bryce Love tied the game up for Stanford with a nine-yard run on the next drive. But the tie did not last long. USC’s Chase McGrath gave the Trojans the lead on the ensuing drive with a 24-yard field goal.
The game remained close throughout with USC holding on to either a three or ten-point lead. But midway through the fourth quarter, momentum appeared to be shifting towards Stanford. After starting out with the ball inside field goal range at the USC-33, Stanford moved the ball down to the three-yard line a few plays later.
After a fumble pushed them back to the USC-11, a personal foul gave the Cardinal a first and goal at the five. Stanford was poised to take the lead or at least tie the game up at 24-24. But rather than kick a game-tying field goal on fourth and goal from the one-yard line, they opted to go for it only to see Cameron Scarlett stuffed for no gain.
It wasn’t hard to see the method to David Shaw’s madness. If they got it, they took the lead. If they didn’t, the defense holds USC on the ensuing possession, and they get the ball back with good field position.
However, that plan only works if the defense stops them, and it didn’t. Sam Darnold needed only eight plays to cover 99 yards and increase USC’s lead back to ten points with 4:22 to play. K.J. Costello closed the gap to 31-28 with a beautiful 28-yard pass to Kaden Smith a couple of minutes later.
But they failed to recover the onside kick and didn’t get another chance to score.
Had the Trojans not lost to Washington State or Notre Dame, the win may have gotten them into the CFB Playoff conversation once again. While they did go through a time early in the season where they didn’t look great, they closed the regular season out playing well. They certainly put their best foot forward to win the PAC-12 Championship.
As for Stanford—could they have won if Bryce Love wasn’t nursing an injured ankle? Probably not. This is one of those times where it is safe to say the better team won.