Sports

No football title but another bowl appearance for the Cardinal

 
Bryce Love rushed for 125 yards and scored a touchdown in Stanford's 31-28 loss to USC on Friday night. Photo courtesy of Stanford Athletics.

The good news is that the Stanford football team will be playing in its ninth consecutive bowl game, unprecedented in school history. Before 2008, it was enough to play in a bowl game once every few years.

Since David Shaw returned to campus with John Harbaugh, the Cardinal has had nine winning seasons. Stanford stumbled through seven straight losing seasons, the longest futile streak in school history, before Harbaugh/Shaw turned things around.

With that backdrop, Stanford lost its bid to win a fourth conference title under Shaw. USC won the statistical battle and the numerical title, beating the Cardinal 31-28 in Friday's Pac-12 Championship game at Levi's Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 48,301.

"We were able to claw our way into a chance to take over the game," Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello said. "I won't sleep for weeks . . . a half yard away. It's crazy."

With Bryce Love on the sideline getting work on his tender ankle, Stanford (9-4) had a chance to take its first lead with eight minutes remaining to play and a first-and-goal situation. The Cardinal never crossed the goal line.

Instead, the Trojans stopped Cameron Scarlett short of the goal line, twice. On fourth down, USC's Uchenna Nwosu came rushing into the backfield, unblocked, to grab Scarlett around the ankles and keep him out of the end zone.

"He made a helluva play," Costello conceded. "He saved his team the game. It makes me sick."

The Trojans (11-2) turned around and drove 99 yards to open a 31-21 advantage with 4:22 remaining.

Perhaps a sign of things to come, Costello drove Stanford 90 yards in eight plays, tossing a 28-yard touchdown pass to Kaden Smith for a touchdown that brought the Cardinal within three once again.

A failed on-side kick and a USC first down was enough to prevent the Cardinal from performing a miracle.

Shaw never hesitated in going for it on fourth down and there's no reason for him to think otherwise. Stanford's goal-line package, whether it was Love or Scarlett, worked all year.

"We can get a yard against any team in the country," Costello said. "This time, we didn't. It's about making plays and they made more of them. I felt like we had opportunities. As a whole we should have won the game if we took advantage of some things."

Three penalties on one USC drive, a few missed tackles and giving up a couple big plays proved Stanford's downfall.

"We didn't execute at a high enough level to win," Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said. "A lot of big plays we just can't have."

Love scored on a nine-yard run and raced 52 yards on another play. He gained 125 yards on 22 carries. His 12 runs of at least 50 yards this season, a FBS record.

"His performance, his character, the records he's broken and what he's done on one leg is unbelievable," Shaw said. "I'd put my arm around this guy and put him in front of anybody. With the two young sons I have, I say 'be like him.'"

Phillips recorded a career-high 13 tackles and reached 100 for the season. Justin Reid had nine tackles.

"We gave it all we had," Reid said. "It came down to the last play."

Costello showed a great deal of courage in his first championship effort. He was 10-of-22 for 192 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also threw an 11-yard scoring toss to Smith.

Smith and JJ Arcega-Whiteside combined to catch six passes for 167 yards. It seems Stanford's offense has a future.

The Cardinal will find out its bowl destination when the invitations come out Sunday.

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