Sam Darnold (17 for 24 passing / 325 yards / 2 TDs / 94.5 QBR) may or may not be the first pick in this year’s NFL Draft, but his stock undoubtedly skyrocketed after leading his team on a 99-yard drive late in the 4th quarter to secure a PAC-12 Championship for the now #8 Trojans. The USC star QB was the best player on the field all night, and exposed the high-caliber Stanford secondary seemingly at will.
Darnold’s key target on the night was sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (7 catches / 146 yards / 1 TD), who found the perfect time to have the premier game of his young life. In several of the contest’s most critical moments, Pittman Jr. was able to beat Stanford’s All-American safety Justin Reid on big pass plays out of the slot.
That being said, Reid (9 tackles / 1 fumble recovery/ 1 TFL) as always put forward great effort and had a huge night for the Cardinal, and his vulnerability in pass coverage was not Stanford’s only glaring weakness in what was the second match-up of the season for these two teams. Throughout the game there were far too many tackles missed by the entire Cardinal defense, plain and simple.
I have written about ‘The Law Offices of Darnold & Jones’ all year, and both partners took the Stanford D to trial in the championship game. By that measure, USC running back Ronald Jones II (30 rushes / 140 yards / 4.7 YPC / 2 TDs) was the fire to his quarterback’s ice. The dynamic tandem was again a formidable foe for the Cardinal D, and in this instance proved themselves to be the PAC-12’s elite, as the Trojans secured their first conference title in nine years.
Defensively for USC, senior safety Chris Hawkins (13 tackles / 2 TFL / 1 PD) was everywhere all evening, while junior linebacker Cameron Smith (7 tackles / 2 PD / 2 TFL) added some tough stops of his own in the middle.
For the Stanford D, All-American nose tackle Harrison Phillips (14 tackles / 1 sack / 1 TFL / 1 QBH) again played like the first-round NFL draft pick he is, setting the standard in every possible way. The truth is, if everyone had his strength, toughness, and motor, the Cardinal could never lose. As I wrote earlier however, it was critical missed tackles by the Stanford linebackers and defensive backs which cost them the title.
Heisman candidate running back Bryce Love (22 rushes / 125 yards / 5.7 YPC / 1 TD) also put forward a heroic effort in the championship loss. Yet again he managed to play through his severe injury (high ankle sprain) for his Stanford brothers, limping on and off the field in such a manner that it was painful to watch. For the official record, he has seemingly been playing on one leg since the Oregon game. Furthermore, while the two QBs (Jackson / Mayfield) he faces in the Heisman voting have certainly put up impressive numbers this season, it is Bryce Love’s heart, toughness, and character that truly cannot be measured.
As a result of this contest, both teams will be ‘bowling’ in The Lone Star State this holiday season. With the victory, #8 USC (11-2) won the right to play BIG-10 champion #5 Ohio State (11-2) in this year’s Cotton Bowl in Dallas. In defeat, #13 Stanford (9-4) falls to the Alamo Bowl vs. #15 TCU (10-3), hosted in San Antonio.
So, it looks like I will be seeing y’all in Texas. Roll Red.