Santa Clara, Calif. — With the Pac-12 championship hanging in the balance, Southern California delivered a goal-line stand followed by a 99-yard drive that gave the Trojans their first conference title in nine years.
Sam Darnold’s 54-yard pass to Michael Pittman Jr. keyed the long drive after Uchenna Nwosu preserved the lead with the defensive stop that led No. 11 USC to a 31-28 victory over No. 14 Stanford on Friday night.
“It was time to dig deep and win a championship,” coach Clay Helton said. “When you’re trying to win one, those are the plays that are going to define you and define your football team.”
The Trojans (11-2, No. 10 CFP) led 24-21 when the Cardinal (9-4, No. 12) drove down the field in position to tie the game or take the lead.
But facing a third down from the 2, Stanford kept star back Bryce Love on the sideline with his gimpy ankle to rely on short-yardage back Cameron Scarlett instead. Scarlett ran on successive plays, gaining 1 yard on third down and then being stopped just short of the end zone on fourth.
“The bottom line is we had opportunities and we didn’t make enough plays,” coach David Shaw said. “We made enough plays to keep it close but not enough plays to win. The sequence of fourth-and-1 to take the lead in the Pac-12 championship game, there’s no hesitation at all. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Shaw figured at worst, Stanford would come out of that situation with a defensive stop and good field position on the ensuing drive but those hopes ended when Darnold delivered the offensive play of the game.
After Ronald Jones gained 1 yard on first down, Darnold dropped back to pass and quickly was under pressure. He stepped up and appeared ready to run before launching a pass to Pittman to get USC out of trouble.
“That’s kind of what you expect from Sam, to make those crazy plays,” Pittman said. “That’s why he’s one of the best players in the country.”
Jones finished that drive with an 8-yard run that made it 31-21 to cap a productive night where he ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns to give USC its first Pac-12 title since 2008.
Darnold was 17 for 24 for 325 yards with TD passes to Pittman and Tyler Vaughns to lead the way for USC.
The win gives USC a season sweep against Stanford and will likely send the Trojans to the Fiesta Bowl. USC still holds out hope for a spot in the four-team playoff if there are several upsets in other conference title games on Saturday but the chances appear to be remote.
“However we get ranked is not up to us, but we’re just going to continue to compete, and that’s all we can do,” Darnold said.
Fulmer in at Tennessee
Tennessee has turned to its familiar past to comfort its uneasy fan base in an attempt to rescue what has been a tumultuous and embarrassing coaching search.
The man Volunteer faithful blamed for the chaos: John Currie. Chancellor Beverly Davenport, who watched as the search was bungled seemingly at each turn, finally had enough.
So she turned everything over to Phillip Fulmer, 67, naming the College Football Hall of Famer Tennessee’s new athletic director. Fulmer replaces Currie, who was suspended and placed on paid leave just eight months after taking the job.
The chancellor said at a news conference that Fulmer will be Tennessee’s athletic director “for the foreseeable future” and “take the reins of our search.”
Tennessee was close to hiring Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano before that deal fell through amid a public backlash. Reports linked Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm to the vacancy, but both stayed with their teams. N.C. State’s Dave Doeren agreed to a new deal with the Wolfpack after speaking with Tennessee officials. Currie met Thursday with Washington State’s Mike Leach.