2015 Pac-12 football championship recap: Two teams played; the better team prevailed.

December 9, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 9, 2015

In every good action movie, there’s a part, often around the halfway or two-thirds mark, where the hero is given cause to think that she or he might be overmatched.

During Saturday night’s Pac-12 championship game between the USC and Stanford football teams, that part came, on cue, in a sequence that began in the second period and lasted until late in the third quarter.

The Cardinal entered the second period with a 3-0 lead and would add to it immediately. Everybody’s All-Everything, Christian McCaffrey, lined up on the left flank. On the first snap of the quarter, quarterback Kevin Hogan pitched right to Barry Sanders, who was lined up at tailback. As McCaffrey raced around the formation, Hogan — who was completely ignored by outside linebacker Scott Felix — stepped to his right and made his way past the line of scrimmage. Sanders made a short lateral to McCaffrey, who set his feet and lobbed a soft throw to an unguarded Hogan on the right side. The 11-yard touchdown was McCaffrey’s second scoring pass of the year.

The Cardinal defense forced a Trojans punt after just three plays, and McCaffrey went back to work right away with a 50-yard run on the first play of the new series, bringing the ball to the USC 15-yard line. Stanford would end up having third and goal at the 1-yard line, but Remound Wright was stuffed by Anthony Sarao. After a delay-of-game penalty, the Cardinal called in Conrad Ukropina to kick his second field goal of the night.

Ukropina’s 23-yarder gave Stanford a 13-0 lead, but that marked the second time in three red zone visits that USC had prevented the Cardinal from scoring a TD. Given that the Pac-12 Northern Division champions had just beaten Notre Dame the previous week thanks in part to the Irish’s stalling on three of their four red zone trips, Stanford fans who were so inclined had plenty of reason to be pessimistic.

It didn’t hurt anyone’s inclination for negativity if they noted that the previous week’s game had been extremely close and that Stanford dominated the time of possession in the first quarter in both games. Although the Cardinal held the ball for 12 minutes and 55 seconds against Notre Dame and 12 minutes and 35 seconds against the Trojans, in neither case did Stanford enter the second quarter with a lead greater than one touchdown.

Still, things seemed to be going all right. The Trojans lost 16 yards on their next possession — five on a substitution infraction, 11 on Brennan Scarlett’s tackle of Cody Kessler, which gave the transfer 4.5 quarterback sacks on the year — and had to kick from the 5-yard line. Kris Albarado’s punt went to midfield, and McCaffrey’s 31-yard return seemed to position the Cardinal to go up by at least 16-0.

But it was not to be. On third and goal from the 1, Wright was again stopped for no gain as Sarao combined with Cody Temple for the tackle. On fourth down, Porter Gustin sacked Hogan.

The Trojans took over at their 6 with 4:16 remaining in the half. The next 15 plays covered 71 yards and ate up four minutes and six seconds. But USC came up short on third and seven from the Stanford 27-yard line. The Trojans’ newly hired permanent head coach, Clay Helton, sent in Alex Wood for a 40-yard field goal, which dropped Stanford’s lead to 13-3.

The Trojans got the ball coming out of the locker rooms, and they did what eight of Stanford’s last nine opponents have done: They scored on their initial possession of the second half. Without ever reaching third down, the Trojans moved to the Cardinal 1-yard line before Kessler hit Jahleel Pinner for a touchdown. Stanford’s margin would have been cut to three points had not tight end Austin Hooper managed to block the extra point kick.

On the ensuing drive, McCaffrey was tackled by Claude Pelon for no gain on third and two at the Cardinal 42, and a punt followed. USC again marched up the field quickly, again never reaching third down, and again scoring a touchdown, this time on a 27-yard run by Ronald Jones. Wood’s kick was good this time.

Suddenly, the Trojans had scored 16 straight points to take a 16-13 lead. On USC’s past three possessions, the Trojans had amassed 211 yards and three scores; Stanford, in its last three drives, had 30 yards and zero points.

As I tweeted around this time, “In the last @StanfordFball meeting with USC, the Trojans ran wild and we clamped down. Tonight, it’s the reverse.”

In other words, the Cardinal — the hero of the metaphorical action movie I invoked at the beginning of this post — was on the verge of losing it all.

In most action-adventure films, the kind that was spoofed so unevenly in Team America: World Police, the hero digs deep within himself, steps up to the challenge and does something heroic. And that’s exactly what happened on the field on Saturday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

On the first two plays from scrimmage, Stanford head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren fed McCaffrey, who ran for four yards and then no gain. On third down and six to go at the Cardinal 26, Hogan readied himself for just his seventh pass of the evening, lining up in a shotgun formation with McCaffrey to his right. Before the snap, Hogan moved up to the line of scrimmage, presumably to bark some blocking instructions based on the defensive alignment, before returning to his initial position and calling for the snap. (McCaffrey belatedly matched Hogan’s movements in both cases.)

During their wait for the play, the Trojans had two sophomore linebackers positioned on the right side of the offensive line: Uchenna Nwosu on the outside and Olajuwon Tucker on the inside. Tucker jumped up and down to rally what was already a loud crowd, and Nwosu started to do the same.

Right as the snap was about to happen, Tucker moved to the outside. Hogan took the ball at shoulder level and stood his ground as Nwosu attempted to foil the Cardinal offensive line. McCaffrey ran toward Tucker, who stood motionless as the Super Sophomore stepped to his inside and then raced past. Tucker — perhaps he was guarding against a quarterback keeper? — only then thought to cover the man who entered the game as the Pac-12 record holder for all-purpose yards in a single season.

But by that point, it was too late. Hogan had already released the ball; a split second before Tucker engaged in full pursuit, McCaffrey caught it in stride and turned upfield. The Coloradan went for a career-long 67 yards, and he probably would have scored, too, had it not been for Kevon Seymour making a tremendous run and dive that caught McCaffrey from behind at the Trojan 7-yard line.

Stanford scored on the next play, which came out of another shotgun formation and called for Hogan to run right. USC was ready for the play, but Wright engaged the first defender, and Hogan ran through the would-be tackle of freshman safety Marvell Tell III. The touchdown brought the score to 20-16 after Ukropina’s PAT kick.

Stanford’s lead was by no means commanding, which Kessler and comrades showed by converting a pair of third downs and moving to the USC 42. And then the Stanford defense, which had seemingly vanished, suddenly reasserted itself.

On third and 11, Kessler dropped back to throw when Blake Martinez curled around Trojans center Nico Falah and hit the quarterback’s arm, which had been cocked to pass. The ball popped out of Kessler’s hand and bounced to the right. Sophomore defensive tackle Solomon Thomas disengaged from right tackle Zach Banner, scooped up the pigskin and ran 34 yards for his first collegiate touchdown. Now Stanford had — let’s say — a significant 27-16 lead with only four seconds remaining in the third quarter!

(If it’s any consolation to USC fans, Falah was not just a backup center; he was the Trojans’ fourth option at the position after Max Tuerk and Toa Lobendahn suffered season-ending knee injuries and Kahliel Rodgers sprained his ankle against UCLA.)

Even still, the Trojans had both the time to mount a comeback and the ability to do so. They proved it, too, by driving 65 yards in seven plays over 2:35, culminating in a 12-yard Kessler rushing touchdown. Tre Madden’s two-point conversion try failed on a curiously designed play, so the Cardinal remained ahead by more than a field goal at 27-22.

This season, when the Cardinal offense is in a groove, there doesn’t seem to be any force in the world that can stop it. Hogan’s heroes showed that to be the case in a 10-play, 75-yard answering drive that ate up nearly six minutes and saw only one gain that exceeded eight yards. Bryce Love rushed once for no yards; McCaffrey carried four different times for 22 yards; Hogan rushed once for five yards; and Hogan completed throws to McCaffrey, Hooper and Michael Rector for 20 yards to set up third and 2 at the Trojans 28.

The play began with Hogan in the shotgun with sophomore tight end Dalton Schultz to his left and McCaffrey to his right. On the snap, USC junior outside linebacker Su’a Cravens blitzed and was blocked out of the play by Schultz. McCaffrey paused a moment, standing by himself in the eye of the storm, and then ran through the line. With Cravens no longer a threat, Hogan threw to a wide-open McCaffrey, who caught the ball around the 20-yard line and ran unimpeded to the end zone. As analyst Todd Blackledge said on ESPN’s broadcast, “You can’t allow a guy who’s gone for over 400 all-purpose yards [to] slip into your defense unaccounted for.”

And yet that’s exactly what had happened. The throw made Hogan the first collegiate player to catch, pass and run for a touchdown in a single game since Nov. 1, 2014, and the first Cardinal to do so in at least two decades.

Oh, and the throw gave Stanford a 34-22 lead with only six and a half minutes remaining in the game.

Two factors influenced the Trojans’ subsequent drive. One was that USC had to pass, and everyone in the stadium knew it. The other was that the Cardinal defense smelled blood in the water — and that, my friends, is when this unit is at its most dangerous.

The Trojans reached their own 44-yard line after five throws by Kessler, four of which were complete. On first down, Kessler threw incomplete. On second down, Thomas sacked him for seven yards. On third down, Kessler was incomplete once more. On fourth and 17 from his own 37, Kessler was incomplete for the fourth time in eight throws. Stanford took over on downs with 4:24 remaining.

The Cardinal aimed to take their sweet time on this drive; if they scored any points, that would be a bonus. McCaffrey rushed on the first three downs, gaining seven yards in all. With fourth and three looming, the Trojans used their final timeout with three minutes left to play. But all for nought: Coming out of the break, Hogan hit Devon Cajuste for 18 yards, giving Stanford first down at the 12.

The next few play calls were simple to predict: McCaffrey, McCaffrey and — wait, there were only two more snaps left on the drive. After a short gain, McCaffrey took a handoff and went through a narrow gap off of left tackle and made his way to the end zone. Now McCaffrey had more than 200 yards rushing for the game; now McCaffrey had a passing touchdown, a receiving touchdown and a rushing touchdown, just like Hogan; now Stanford had a 41-22 lead; now just one minute and 38 seconds showed on the game clock; now USC’s goose was cooked; now the Cardinal celebration could well and truly begin.

The only other thing that need be said about the remaining action was that it ended with a #PartyInTheBackfield as Joey Alfieri sacked Kessler for a seven-yard loss.

Red and white confetti was released. A stage was erected on the field, where Shaw and his team were awarded the league’s football championship trophy. The magnificent McCaffrey — 207 yards rushing, 105 receiving, 149 on five kickoff and a pair of punt returns for a total of 461 all-purpose yards, which didn’t include his 11-yard passing touchdown — was of course named the player of the game.

The following afternoon, Stanford (11-2) was selected to play in the granddaddy of all postseasons football games, the Rose Bowl, where it will meet the Big Ten runner-up, Iowa (12-1). The Cardinal wasn’t quite good enough to be among the four teams competing in the College Football Playoff, but when you win the conference and beat USC twice in one season and your “consolation prize” is spending New Year’s Day in Pasadena, trifling things such as being excluded from the playoffs hardly matter. (It will take a few years, but eventually the playoff will expand to eight teams; anyone who says otherwise is a fool.)

These are heady times for followers of Stanford football. These are wonderful times. My friends, these are the best of times!

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