Santa Clara, CA – The Pac-12 Conference championship game between No. 7 Stanford and USC did not disappoint. While both teams were vying for a spot in the Rose Bowl, the worst possible scenario happened for the Stanford Cardinal. With a 41-22 win over the Trojans at Levi’s Stadium, Stanford will be headed to the Rose Bowl instead of receiving an invite to play in a BCS championship playoff game that they were hoping for.
Both Alabama and Clemson won their respective conference championship games, knocking Stanford out of playoff contention.
“Very proud of our kids and the season that they’ve had,” said Trojans head coach Clay Helton. “To make it to a Pac-12 Championship game is a great honor for us. Very sad for them that we did not play our best game against a very, very talented Stanford team.”
Prior to tonight’s game, both USC and Stanford had good wins last week. However, the better team advanced. The Pac-12 Conference Championship game started off slowly when a more aggressive Cardinal team led 3-0 with a field goal after Kevin Hogan’s touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey was overturned due to a penalty.
McCaffrey had a phenomenal game with 32 carries (207 yards, TD), four catches (105 yards, TD), one pass completion (11 yards) and special teams contributions for a total of 461 yards.
“I mean what doesn’t he do is what you could ask me,” USC linebacker Su’a Cravens said about McCaffrey. “He catches the ball in the back field, makes guys miss, and takes it to the house, and rush the ball inside and on the edge and really score with any play they draw for him. He’s just a special guy. In my opinion, he should win the Heisman.”
McCaffrey is a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy and definitely will be headed to New York. USC’s Adoree Jackson made a great block on a deep pass from Hogan to McCaffey on the opening drive which forced the field goal. By the end of the quarter, Stanford was fourth-and-short going for it, getting the first down with less than a minute left.
The Cardinal’s “wildcat” play began the second with McCaffrey’s 11-yard touchdown pass to Hogan extending their lead 10-0.
The true MVP of the night, McCaffrey continued to amaze with his performance today. McCaffrey’s 50- yard run set up Stanford’s second field goal of the game. The running back made history tonight when he surpassed Barry Sanders’ 3,250 all-purpose yards late in the second quarter. Sanders established the record in 11 games while McCaffrey took the whole season. McCaffrey would finish the game with 3,496 all-purpose yards, a new mark.
Peter Gustin sacked Hogan giving the Trojans back the ball. Alex Woods kicked a 40-yard field goal to end the half, making it a 13-3 game.
”It’s a huge honor, it really is,” said McCaffrey on breaking Sanders record. “It’s an extremely exciting feat for me, I couldn’t do it without my teammates. I can’t tell you how much I love those guys. It takes all 11 guys doing their job on the field to make it happen. I love this team.”
USC came out of the half more aggressive and scored their first touchdown to make it an exciting game. Cody Kessler finally connected with a receiver; he threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Jaleel Pinner. It took 7 plays and 65 yards for the Trojans to become more competitive in the third. Kessler moved his offense down the field quickly with back-to-back first downs. A flag on the next play moved the chains, giving USC a huge break.
That set up Ronald Jones II rushing for a 27-yard touchdown for the lead. This is the first the Trojans have led all game. At that point, USC had a total of 251 yards, 80 of that came in the first half while 171 yards was recorded in the third quarter alone, 95 rushing yards. But McCaffrey kept Stanford in contention with a 67-yard pass from Hogan to McCaffrey. That setup a 7-yard touchdown by Hogan giving the Cardinals back the lead 20-16.
“The biggest thing for us was corralling those receivers,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said about USC coming out strong in the second half. “You know JuJu, we know he’s not one hundred percent. He’s a special, special football player. He can make guys miss. And Alijah Holder did a really good job in the second half getting him on the ground. Our guys kept fighting the whole game. We trust our defense, we trust our guys.”
McCaffrey recorded 461 all-purpose yards on the night, a Pac-12 Conference Championship record. Former Oregon standout LeMichael James previously held the record with 288 yards. Kessler hit by Blake Martinez resulting in a fumble that led to a defensive touchdown by Stanford’s Solomon Thomas for 34-yards, making it a 27-16 game. That was the first defensive touchdown return in Pac-12 Conference Championship history.
Kessler, on a quarterback keeper, rushed for a 12-yard touchdown and the Trojans failed on the 2-point field goal in the fourth quarter. JuJu Smith Schuster matched his career-high of 10 catches in a single game. With 6:35 left in the fourth quarter, Hogan found a wide open McCaffrey for a 28-yard touchdown strike.
That gave Stanford some breathing room with a 34-22 lead.
The numbers alone for McCaffrey are enough to increase McCaffrey’s votes for the Heisman Trophy. USC’s net total yards was 357. Without his punt and kickoff return numbers, McCaffrey totaled 323 yards from scrimmage. He scored his third touchdown of the night late in the fourth period. McCaffrey rushed for a 2-yard touchdown to seal Stanford’s victory, making it a 41-22 ballgame. This is the most points scored by Stanford in a Pac-12 Conference Championship game and the third most points scored by a team in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game.