SANTA CLARA — Before leaving with a 31-28 triumph that secured its first conference championship in nearly a decade, USC’s late-season resurgence looked as if it would ultimately wither on a cool December night.
Stanford was humming toward the end zone late Friday as minutes ticked off the clock in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Conference title game.
The Trojans, left to protect a narrow three-point lead, were gashed. Bryce Love ran up the middle to reach their 2-yard line. But while the chain crew flipped the down box marker to third down, Love, the Cardinal’s Heisman Trophy candidate, limped off the field, the effects of a high ankle sprain he had dealt with for much of the fall. Third down passed, with Stanford moving to the 1-yard line, and Love remained on the sideline. Then, USC greeted them for a fourth down, a sequence that sealed its fate.
As quarterback K.J. Costello handed off to Cameron Scarlett, it was Uchenna Nwosu who stormed off the right side of Stanford’s offensive line, reaching the backfield unblocked to trip up Scarlett.
Their sidelined erupted in cheers. Nwosu chest-bumped with Ajene Harris. On the next drive, USC, which never trailed, extended its lead to 31-21 on a Ronald Jones touchdown run with 4:12 left.
It was a fitting finish for the 10th-ranked Trojans, who so often relied on fourth-quarter drama this season.
The victory over the 12th-ranked Cardinal, their second this season, pushed their record to 11-2 overall and gives them their first conference title since the conference expanded to 12 teams. They last won the Pac-10 in 2008 under Pete Carroll.
It was also a rematch of the 2015 Pac-12 championship game, when Stanford left with a 41-22 win in what was the first game after Clay Helton was promoted from interim to permanent head coach.
Quarterback Sam Darnold was named the title game MVP after he completed 17 of 24 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
The Trojans out-gained Stanford, 501 yards to 343.
USC carried a 17-14 lead into halftime, led by a pair of scoring tosses by Darnold, and a defense that limited by Love.
Darnold leaned on two of the Trojans’ younger wide receivers.
He first found sophomore Michael Pittman on a 7-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter on a russ-pass option play, striking first for a 7-0 lead. On second down, Darnold faked a hand-off to Ronald Jones out of the shotgun formation. Stanford’s defensive backs hesitated, anticipating a run by…