SANTA CLARA — After Stanford had lost 31-28 to USC in Friday’s Pac-12 championship game, as cardinal streamers (definitely not to be confused with Cardinal streamers) and gold confetti littered the south end of the field at Levi’s Stadium, coach David Shaw expressed the pride he felt in his football players.
“I’m not gonna make light of it,” Shaw said, beefy defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and lightning-fast running back Bryce Love seated to his left at the podium. “To be 1-2, fought back to where we are right now, says a lot about who we have on our team. Coaches and players, guys banded together. It’s very significant.”
Shaw respected his players. But he didn’t fully trust them, not in the way his counterpart, USC coach Todd Helton, could trust his athletes.
That was obvious during the crucial sequence of this game. It occurred in the fourth quarter, the Trojans leading 24-21.
With 12:04 remaining, Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello faked a handoff to Love, ran around the right corner, got a downfield block from tight end Kaden Smith and dove out of bounds at the USC 3. The Cardinal were poised to take their first lead of the game, driving straight at the USC band. And then the wheels came off.
Here’s what happened, in short order: The Cardinal were guilty of delay of game, pushing them back five yards to the 8. Love, who had limped off the field earlier in the drive, tried to run left, hit a wall of Trojans and fumbled; fullback Daniel Marx got the ball back for Stanford, but it was a 3-yard loss. On the next play, an incomplete pass, a USC defender was flagged for hitting Costello out of bounds.
The Cardinals had four new downs, but no new plan of attack. Love lost a yard, then ran for 4 but got blasted by Trojans linebacker Olajuwon Tucker. The halfback limped off the field again. It was third-and-goal from the 2. Costello, a sophomore, is an inexperienced quarterback, but he had shown some mobility Friday. This seemed like an appropriate spot for a bootleg or play-action pass. Instead, the handoff went to Love’s backup, Cameron Scarlett, who tried to leap into the end zone but was dragged down at the 1.
Fourth-and-goal from a yard out, Stanford down by three points, Pac-12 title on the line. Shaw called it a no-brainer.
“I mean, there’s no hesitation at all,” he said afterward. “That’s just what we’re gonna do. Got (six) minutes left. We got ’em backed up, and hopefully the defense can stop ’em, we get the ball back in good field position for a touchdown or field goal. And there’s no question about it. There’s hesitation on my part at all.”
The offense stayed on the field. And with Love on the sidelines, the ball went to Scarlett again. There was no hole for him, though, and USC’s Uchenna Nwosu flew in from the edge to drop him for no gain.
The Cardinal couldn’t gain a yard when they needed it. But the Trojans could gain 99. Buoyed by the defensive stand, they marched down the field behind quarterback Sam Darnold and scored on Ronald Jones’ 8-yard run, a touchdown they would ultimately need to hold off the inspired Cardinal.
It’s hard to fault Shaw for his decision to go for glory on fourth down. Kicking the field goal would have been prudent, but USC had outplayed his team for much of the evening, and this felt like Stanford’s best chance to land a knockout punch.