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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.

The problem is that Shaw couldn’t trust Costello to pass him a win. And he didn’t have Love to make up the difference.

After the game, someone asked the coach whether Love was too hurt to handle those last two plays near the goal line.

“That’s not the case at all,” Shaw said. “We have our short-yardage, goal-line package that we’ve been using all year, and we went to that. As for Bryce, who knows what percentage. Every time you ask him, Bryce says 90 percent, even when it’s not.”

Shaw is a thoughtful and likeable man, but he goes to great lengths to protect his players. People who have watched Stanford football all year told me that Love is frequently on the field in short yardage. Shaw himself has reminded us all year that Love, despite being listed at 5-foot-10, 196 pounds, is a physical runner between the tackles. If he were healthy, he would have been given a chance to win this game.

But whatever. You can’t blame Love or Shaw for the bum ankle that has hampered the Heisman Trophy candidate all season. The play calls? That’s a different matter.

Shaw had this to say: “That’s a combination of what they’re playing and what we’re doing. We have a pass play called before a timeout, and we came back and switched it back to a run, based on the look that they gave us. There were things that they were doing. We’re six inches away from popping each one of those, and we worked so hard at that, and we’re so good at that short-yardage, goal-line part of our game.”

You just wonder what would have occurred in the fourth quarter if Shaw had a quarterback he could truly rely on. It might have looked like the play that salted away the game for USC.

After Costello and Smith connected on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 2:09 remaining, and after the Trojans had recovered the ensuing onside kick, it was clear USC needed just a single first down to nail down the win. It didn’t come easily. Facing fourth-and-2 at the Stanford 32, Darnold faked a handoff, moved right and threw to tight end Josh Falo for a 15-yard gain. The (Pac-12) South had risen, defeating the North representative for the first time in the seven-year history of this conference championship game.

Costello is just a sophomore. He split time this season with senior Keller Chryst, a local kid who went to Palo Alto High. Both were able to win games as Stanford took a 9-3 record into Friday, but you wouldn’t have mistaken either for Darnold. The passing game was frequently the Cardinal’s ceiling in 2017.

Shaw would never put that on Costello (or Chryst), but it’s true. Stanford will probably put together another powerful run game next year, whether Love returns or leaves for the NFL. But if the Cardinal are going to win games like this one — if they are to return to the national stage — Shaw will have to develop a quarterback he believes in with the game on the line.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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