For the first time since its formation in 2011, the USC Trojans are Pac 12 Champions.
Sam Darnold threw for two touchdowns, Ronald Jones II rushed for two more, and the No. 10 USC Trojans defeated the No. 12 Stanford Cardinal, 31-28, in the Pac 12 Championship Game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Friday.
Three months ago, Darnold was considered one of the top candidates for the Hesiman Trophy, but after an inconsistent season that saw the sophomore sensation throw a Pac-12 worst 12 interceptions, his dreams of lifting the most prestigious prize in College Football were dashed.
But after throwing touchdown passes to Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns, not to mention executing a back-breaking 99-yard drive in the fourth quarter, Darnold lifted another trophy after the game: Pac 12 Championship Game MVP.
"Winning a PAC-12 Championship was our goal before the year and we achieved that goal," said Darnold after the game. "So I'm really excited for what's to come."
Darnold got the Trojans on the board first when he found receiver Michael Pittman Jr. over the middle on a seven-yard play action pass that put USC ahead 7-0.
Darnold was a perfect 4-for-4 for 81 yards and a touchdown in play action passes to start the game, and was just 1-for-3 without running the play action in the game's first few drives.
Stanford answered right back on the ensuing drive as a couple whistles by the referee aided the Cardinal in tying the game at the start of the second quarter.
First, Stanford was given great field position inside the red zone after the Trojans were called for a questionable pass interference penalty. A few plays later, on the USC 7-yard line, Bryce Love appeared to have been stopped behind the line of scrimmage and fumbled on the play.
However, the referees whistled the play dead, therefore not allowing USC the opportunity to challenge the call, and the Cardinal scored on the next play when Love burst up the middle for the touchdown.
After a 40-yard pass from Darnold to Pitman Jr. put the Trojans inside Stanford territory, the Capistrano Beach native hit Tyler Vaughns on a screen pass that the receiver took to the house for the score.
Needing a score heading into halftime, Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello connected on a 42-yard pass to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside that set Stanford up inside the Trojans 10-yard line, and running back Cameron Scarlett capped off the drive with a touchdown run.
The second half started similar to the first as Darnold connected on a 49-yard pass to Steven Mitchell Jr. that put the ball on the Stanford 1-yard line.
One play later, Ronald Jones II ran up the middle for the score, and the Trojans took a 24-14 lead.
Stanford responded on their next possession thanks to the 12th run play of 50 yards or more by Bryce Love this season.
Love setup a touchdown pass from roommates K.J. Costello and Kaden Smith that kept the Cardinal within striking distance.
USC stuffed Stanford on a crucial and controversial 4th and goal from the Trojans 1-yard line, keeping the three-point lead.
Scarlett was stopped on back-to-back runs, but on the 4th down play, he appeared to have landed on his own lineman before the referee prematurely blew the play dead. Had he not, it's possible Scarlett could have found the end zone on his second effort.
"You're talking about one of the best short yardage run teams in the world," said Helton. "For our defense to hold the line, not once, but twice there on the 1. Man, they just found a way. I'm proud of these guys. They're unbelievable."
The Trojans took over on their own 1-yard line and Darnold delivered one of the biggest plays of the game when he avoided a sack to deliver a 54-yard pass to Pittman Jr. to keep the drive alive.
Jones II finished off the drive with his second touchdown of the game, putting USC up 31-21 with just over four minutes remaining.
Stanford made it interesting, with a second touchdown pass from Costello to Smith, but USC converted a 4th down and 2 with 27 seconds remaining to run out the clock and seal the victory.
It was USC's first win in a Pac 12 Championship and first win by the Pac 12 South Division since the new format was introduced in 2011.
The Trojans are likely headed to the Fiesta Bowl, although they have an outside chance at making the College Football Playoff with some help on Saturday.
Stanford is expected to go to the Holiday Bowl.