Cardinal falls short, 31-28, in its rematch with USC in the conference championship game

December 5, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 5, 2017

A mistake-prone Cardinal lost 31-28 to USC in the Pac-12 football championship game Friday night.

The result gave the South Division its first league title in the seven years since the Pac-10 added Colorado and Utah. The Trojans, who finished the regular season 11-2, won their first conference crown since 2008; they will play Big 10 champion Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas. Stanford, which fell to 3-1 in conference title bouts and 9-4 on the season, will face Texas Christian University in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

USC received the opening kickoff and reached the Stanford 43-yard line before a pair of incomplete Sam Darnold passes forced them to punt. The Cardinal, dressed in all-white uniforms with brand-new helmets featuring a chrome Stanford logo, gained five yards on a pair of Bryce Love runs and an incomplete K.J. Costello pass attempt before giving the ball back.

Two snaps into what would be a nine-play, 70-yard series, Darnold connected with Daniel Imatorbhebhe for a 48-yard pass that was partially offset by a 15-yard personal foul on the receiver for tearing off junior free safety Frank Buncom’s helmet. Three plays after Darnold converted fourth and 6 with a seven-yard rush, he tossed a seven-yard touchdown to a wide-open Michael Pittman.

Stanford responded with a drive that covered 68 yards in nine plays. Love was responsible for three of the biggest gains, starting things off with a 32-yard run. He also contributed a pair of nine-yard carries, the latter of which scored a game-tying touchdown.

USC went back ahead on the ensuing drive. Despite three defensive penalties, the Trojans stalled at the Stanford 6 and settled for a 24-yard Chase McGrath kick.

After a 50-yard Jake Bailey punt to the 3, Stanford seemed to have boxed up the Trojans. But on third and 6, Darnold found Pittman for 40 yards. Ronald Jones then rushed for 26 before Darnold finished things off with a 19-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Vaughns, giving the Trojans a 17-7 lead.

The Cardinal came back with a nine-play, 75-yard series that was highlighted by junior wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s 42-yard catch, which set up goal to go at the 4. Junior tailback Cameron Scarlett ran the ball in from the 1 to narrow the score to 17-14 with 34 seconds left until halftime.

Stanford received the second-half kickoff, but turned in a pair of Cardinal three-and-outs; these sandwiched a 38-yard USC drive that ended in a punt.

On the Trojans’ second possession of the half, Mitchell caught a 49-yard pass. Jones, who would finish the night with 140 yards and two scores on 30 carries, immediately followed up with a 1-yard run to give USC another 10-point lead, 24-14.

The Cardinal responded with a 67-yard scoring drive that was mainly powered by a 52-yard run that saw Love pick his way through traffic before finding the open field. Shortly afterward, sophomore tight end Kaden Smith caught an 11-yard Costello throw at the back of the end zone to cut the Cardinal deficit to three points.

On the first play from scrimmage, the Trojans squandered an opportunity to build on their advantage when senior cornerback Alameen Murphy stripped the ball from Stephen Carr at the tail end of a 10-yard run. Junior strong safety Justin Reid recovered the pigskin at the Trojans 45.

But on the first snap of their drive, Stanford was victimized by a baffling officiating decision. Costello dropped back, turned to his right and threw a pass that a defensive back batted away from Connor Wedington. The freshman wideout picked up what appeared to be an incomplete pass at the Stanford 38.

However, officials didn’t view matters that way, ruling that Costello had lateraled the ball and that Wedington had recovered a fumble. Astoundingly, this determination was upheld by a video replay despite clear evidence that the throw had moved forward through the air, not laterally or backwards. The Cardinal ultimately punted after a three-play series that saw them lose a total of 13 yards.

Bailey’s punt was fielded at the 21-yard line, after which an unsportsmanlike conduct flag pushed the ball to the Trojans 11. Once again, the Cardinal defense appeared to have USC pretty well contained — and this time, the containment held.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, senior tackle Harrison Phillips and fifth-year outside linebacker Mike Tyler sacked Darnold at the 3-yard line. The Trojans quarterback then threw incomplete on third down and USC punted for a paltry 30 yards, setting up the Cardinal in prime position for a scoring drive.

The Cardinal rushed four times to reach the 3-yard line, with the biggest gain coming on a 14-yard run by Costello off a fake handoff to Love. The quarterback incurred a delay of game penalty before the next snap, which saw Love lose a fumble that Marx recovered at the 11. A personal foul on the Trojans dialed up a new set of downs at the 5-yard line.

After two Love runs advanced the ball to the 1, Costello handed off twice to Scarlett, who appeared to be stopped short both times. Unfortunately, on one of the plays, a closeup showed that the running back was able to extend the ball into the end zone while prone on a pile of linemen — all without his knee touching the ground. It should have been a go-ahead score for the Cardinal; instead, USC took over on downs with eight minutes left to play.

Stanford had the Trojans offense bottled up for the third time in the contest. But Darnold engineered yet another escape with a pass that — who else? — Pittman caught around the 30-yard line and took past midfield. The sophomore wide receiver also caught the ball on the next play for a 12-yard gain, giving him an outstanding 146 yards on seven catches for the night. Jones then ran the ball in from the 8 with 4:22 remaining.

Stanford was down 10 points but not quite out. Costello twice converted third and long with throws of 28 yards to Smith and 45 yards to Arcega-Whiteside, respectively. Shortly thereafter, Costello connected with Smith for a touchdown from the 28-yard line, narrowing the deficit to 31-28 with 2:03 on the clock.

The Cardinal obviously needed to get the ball back, and quickly. It failed to do with an onside kick attempt that went out of bounds, letting the Trojans took over at the 40. USC forced Stanford to use its final timeout and then secured victory by converting fourth and 2 on a Darnold completion to Josh Falo as the clock ticked below 30 seconds. It was an unfortunate end to the regular season, one that left Stanford with a lot of “What ifs?” given a handful of drops by receivers and defensive miscues that plagued the Cardinal over the course of the contest.

Those hypotheticals can never be definitively answered. All we know for sure is that the Cardinal still has a chance to secure a 10-win season, potentially David Shaw’s sixth such campaign in seven years as head coach, with a bowl win over TCU. It won’t be an easy task — but then again, what worthwhile accomplishment is?


Helpful links

Stanford-USC team statistics — ESPN
Stanford-USC box score
Stanford-USC play-by-play
Stanford-USC interactive box score —
Stanford-USC static box score
Stanford 2017–18 football roster
USC 2017–18 football roster
Game (and some other) tweets — @memomoment

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