Early in the first quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game, Stanford senior cornerback Ronnie Harris offered to help JuJu Smith-Schuster off the ground after an incomplete pass.
Southern Cal's star received ignored the outstretched hand and instead hit Harris in the side of the helmet, drawing a personal foul penalty.
"I took it as a welcome back," said Harris, who missed the past two games with an ankle injury. "It was good to get some confrontation. I missed it."
Like Harris, No. 7 Stanford took a punch from No. 20 USC Saturday night at Levi's Stadium when the Trojans (8-5) scored 16 straight points to take the lead in the third quarter. But, the Cardinal (11-2) responded with the decisive blows down the stretch, beating USC 41-22 to win its third Pac 12 title in four years.
"We knew it was going to be a battle," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We knew it was going to be a test of wills. We missed a couple of opportunities early, but came back and kept fighting and kept scrapping."
Sophomore Christian McCaffrey made his closing argument for the Heisman with a school-record 461 all-purpose yards, the most in an FBS game this season and fifth-best all-time. He also broke Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yardage in a season (3,250) in the second quarter and now has a total of 3,496.
"It's a huge honor," McCaffrey said. "I know (Sanders) did it in a couple less games (11). That's a guy I have posters on my wall of growing up. So to have my name mentioned even in the same category as him is definitely an honor."
The sophomore had 207 yards on 32 carries, 105 yards on four catches and 149 yards on kick returns. He also threw an 11-yard scoring pass to quarterback Kevin Hogan, who joined McCaffrey as the only FBS players this season to catch a touchdown, run for a touchdown and throw for a touchdown in the same game.
Stanford next will head to the Rose Bowl, where it will face No. 5 Iowa (12-1) on New Year's Day in Pasadena. It will be the first ever meeting between the teams and the fourth straight season the No. 6-ranked Cardinal will meet a Big Ten Conference opponent in a bowl game.
Stanford is making its school-record seventh straight bowl appearance and its 15th appearance all-time in the Rose Bowl Game. Stanford returns to Pasadena for the third time in four seasons. The Cardinal won the 2012 edition of the contest over Wisconsin, and fell to Michigan State in 2013.
While the suspense of where Stanford is heading is over, some still remains regarding McCaffrey's Heisman prospects. Shaw said his running back was the best player in the nation.
"I don't know if there is any question," Shaw said. "There is nobody in the nation doing what he's doing. It's not even a debate."
There was no disagreement from the Trojans. Clay Helton, coaching his first game since having the interim tag removed by USC, called McCaffrey "as special a player as we've played all season," and Trojans linebacker Su'a Cravens said McCaffrey should win the Heisman.
"I mean, what doesn't he do?" Cravens said. "He catches the ball in the backfield, make the guy miss, and take it to the house, and rush the ball inside and on the edge and really score with any play they draw for him."
McCaffrey had 93 rushing yards after the first quarter (USC had 17 yards total) and then threw the touchdown pass to Hogan on a reverse on the first play of the second quarter.
But that was the only time Stanford crossed the goal line in the first half, despite having reached the red zone in its first four possessions. When Hogan was sacked on fourth-and-goal from the 1, Stanford led just 13-0 after 25 minutes despite a 210-9 advantage in yards.
The Trojans made Stanford pay for not putting the game away early. USC's offense showed a glimpse of hope with a 71-yard drive just before the half that resulted in a 40-yard field goal, and the Trojans scored touchdowns on their first two drives of the third quarter to take a 16-13 lead.
It didn't take long for Stanford to reclaim the lead. McCaffrey escaped his coverage for a 67-yard catch, and Hogan scored on a 7-yard keeper on the next play to put the Cardinal back in front, 20-16.
The next big play came from Stanford's defense. Senior linebacker Blake Martinez - the conference's leading tackler - sacked quarterback Cody Kessler and forced a fumble that was picked up by lineman Solomon Thomas. Thomas returned it 34 yards to provide Stanford's first fumble return for a touchdown since Chase Thomas against Notre Dame in 2012.
USC scored one more time on a 12-yard keeper by Kessler with 12:29 to play, bringing the Trojans within 27-22, but USC's own attempt to throw to the quarterback failed on the 2-point conversion.
The failed trick play didn't end up being a factor. McCaffrey added an exclamation point to his season so far with two touchdowns in the final seven minutes first on a 28-yard dump off from Hogan, and then on a 10-yard run with 1:38 remaining.
Stanford fans chanted "Heis-man" as McCaffrey accepted the MVP award after the game.
The Castle Rock, Colo., native said he's never before been to New York, where the Heisman is presented. But, he said, "I would love to go."