Behind the MVP performance of redshirt quarterback Sam Darnold, the No. 10 USC Trojans beat the No. 12 Stanford Cardinal to win their first Pac-12 title since 2008 and the first title for the South Division. The Trojans are 20-2 in their last 22 games.
"[We] wanted to control our own destiny. We were playing for a Pac-12 title," head coach Clay Helton said. "There was no question in my mind that we were going to go for it and end the game right there."
Darnold finished the game with 325 passing yards while going 17-for-24 and throwing two touchdowns. This was Darnold's 22nd time throwing for more than 200 yards and the 11th time he's thrown for more than 300 yards. He now has 3,787 passing yards on the season, fourth on USC's single-season chart.
Sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. put up career highs in receptions, seven, and receiving yards, 146. The sophomore was Darnold's go-to target throughout the night.
"All of them are capable of having breakout performances and having great games," Darnold said. "It was just Pitt's night, I think."
Pittman had the first score of the game with a seven-yard pass from Darnold in the first quarter. From there, Darnold and Pittman's connection only continued to strengthen.
“They just find ways to win and that’s the name of the game,” Helton said.
Junior tailback Ronald Jones II put up 140 yards on 30 carries, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and scored two touchdowns. Both of Jones' scores came in the second half, one to stretch USC's lead to ten and the second to get the Trojans to 31.
Jones moved into fifth place on USC's all-time career rushing yards, now with 3,555 yards, passing O.J. Simpson (3,423 yards). Jones has at least one touchdown in 18 of his last 19 games. It was the eighth time this season he went over 100 yards.
Darnold sealed the championship for the Trojans with a 15-yard pass to freshman tight end Josh Falo on a fourth-and-two play with 37 seconds left.
"Terrific job by Sam," Helton said. "How about a true freshman to end the game for a Pac-12 title? That's really cool, really cool."
The play of the game, though, belongs to senior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. With eight minutes to play, Nwosu stuffed junior running back Cameron Scarlett for no gain at the one-yard line. The entire USC sideline erupted.
“We told our guys to hunker down,” Nwosu said. “This is what Trojan football is.”
While Nwosu finished the game with one sack and three tackles, senior safety Chris Hawkins had a team and career-high 13 tackles and two tackles for loss. Junior defensive lineman Rasheem Green put up a sack tonight, giving him a team-best nine sacks on the season. Together, the defense overpowered the Cardinal, holding them to 151 rushing yards—well below their season average. USC's defense led the charge to revenge the Trojans' 41-22 loss in the 2015 Championship game.
Coming into the game, USC led the country in sacks with 41 and now have 43 sacks on the season.
The team's performance at Levi's was a fair illustration of how their season has gone. While they were able to pull out the win, their performance wasn't without any blemishes. Their special teams' performance continued to struggle. The team's one punt return of the night was for a five-yard loss after Ajene Harris ran backward after catching the punt.
Despite never losing the lead to the Cardinal, the Trojans' ups and downs throughout the game symbolized their season.
"We just find ways to win as a football team. We knew it would be a fourth-quarter game," Helton said. "They're the best finishing bunch I've been associated with in my 23 years of college coaching."
USC followed up that goal line stand with a 99-yard drive, culminating in Jones' second touchdown.
"It was time to dig deep and win a championship. When you're trying to win one, those are the plays that are going to define you and define your football team," Helton said. "That defines who they are. They are the definition of 'Fight On.'"
The last time the Trojans were champions was the 2017 Rose Bowl, when they beat Penn State 52-49 in comeback fashion. After today's win, Darnold was asked to compare the two wins.
"Right now, this means the most in the world right now. It's special to see how far we've come as a team," Darnold said. "I'm really excited for what's to come."
Now that the Trojans are Pac-12 Champions, their next game is up to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
"However we get ranked, is not up to us," Darnold said. "But we're just going to continue to compete and that's all we can do."
After the game, Helton made a case for why his team should be considered for the Final Four.
"You're sitting here as a champion, I think that's important," Helton said. "We sit here with 11 wins. We sit here as a conference champion. We sit here with an unbelievable strength of schedule."
Of course, the team will need help to make it into the Final Four. Sitting at No. 10, it would help the Trojans for one or two of the other two-loss teams to pick up a third loss in their conference title games.
"I think we deserve to be in the discussion, especially the way these guys finished the season," Helton said. "They're hot right now and they're playing good football."