SANTA CLARA, Calif. — On fourth-and-1 from the USC 1 — but really an inch or so closer to the goal line than even that — and trailing by three points in the fourth quarter, David Shaw never gave a second thought to tying it up.
Stanford, which has bullied its way to a reputation for controlling the line of scrimmage for nearly a decade, was definitely going for the touchdown against a team it had never led in 112 minutes of play this season.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Shaw, head coach of the Cardinal. “There’s no hesitation at all. That’s what we’re going to do.”
When the Cardinal needed it most, their brute strength failed them where USC’s breathtaking athleticism came through in the clutch on Friday.
Trojans outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu sped around the right side of the Cardinal’s offensive line, tripping up Stanford running back Cameron Scarlett in the backfield for the pivotal stop in USC’s 31-28 victory that clinched its first conference championship since 2008.
It was one of Nwosu’s three tackles for the night, obviously none bigger than that one.
“This is what Trojan football is,” said Nwosu, a senior.
It seemed improbable that Stanford even found itself in that situation, given how it had been overwhelmed for most of the evening in the championship game. The Trojans took a 24-14 lead late in the third and seemed on their way to an easy win in the rematch of its 42-24 win over the Cardinal in September.
But things quickly turned: Stanford scored a touchdown on its next possession, then got the ball at the USC 33 after the Trojans went three-and-out deep in their own territory and could muster only a 30-yard punt.
USC linebacker John Houston Jr. earned a personal foul for his hit on Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello, giving the Cardinal first-and-goal from the USC 5. That meant four opportunities to score a touchdown from five yards away for an offense that averages 6.2 yards per rush.
“You’re talking about one of the best short-yardage run teams there is in the world,” USC coach Clay Helton said.
Two carries for Bryce Love, the nation’s second-leading rusher with 1,979 yards on the season, netted a total of three yards. Following his second carry, Love limped off the field after apparently aggravating an earlier ankle injury; and Scarlett, the team’s short-yardage specialist, came into the game.
On third-and-goal from the USC 2, Scarlett tried to leap over the line but was stuffed for a 1-yard gain.
That set up fourth down.
Over on the Cardinal’s sideline, there was no hesitation or even a suggestion that there would be a field-goal attempt. But instead of a run, Shaw said, the initial playcall was for a pass. Then Stanford audibled to a run after USC shifted into a different look on defense.
“We all know what that means,” Costello said. “We’re going right at the teeth of the defense. That’s the bottom line.”
Stanford lined up in its typical power formation, with tight ends on both sides and 255-pound fullback Daniel Marx in front of Scarlett.
“We saw the offensive line and the tight ends kind of squeeze down, so we knew it was going to be a tight run,” Nwosu said. “So we told our guys to hunker down.”
Then Nwosu swept in from the corner and brought down Scarlett, setting off a celebration that led to the much bigger one after the final whistle.
“I felt like I got in there on that last one,” Scarlett said. “It hurts to be that close.”