The all-you-need-is-Love refrain didn’t hold true for Stanford’s running game even before tailback Bryce Love limped off the field for a third time in the second half Friday night, never to return.
Fellow tailback Cameron Scarlett had bulled ahead for a touchdown earlier in the game on a short-yardage situation. Quarterback K.J. Costello had run for a big gain after faking a handoff to Love.
If the Cardinal were going to beat USC in the Pac-12 Conference championship game at Levi’s Stadium, they were going to do so by covering ground in a variety of ways.
So when Love hobbled off the field midway through the fourth quarter and Stanford needing to go only two yards in two plays for a go-ahead touchdown, the Cardinal weren’t worried about getting where they needed to go.
“I felt great,” Scarlett would say later. “I mean, we had some good looks all game with our short-yardage goal line team.”
The final plays all went USC’s way during a 31-28 victory that ended the Trojans’ eight-year conference title drought after they stopped Stanford short of the goal line six times inside the 11-yard line midway through the fourth quarter.
“It showed all heart and all guts,” said USC linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who made the final stop in the series when he kept Scarlett out of the end zone on fourth and one. “It shows what we’re capable of, that USC is USC.”
Love gained 88 of his 125 yards in the second half, the Heisman Trophy candidate shaking off what appeared to be repeated ankle injuries to stay in the game as long as he could. His four-yard run on what would be his final carry had given Stanford a third down and goal from the two-yard line.
“I hit him low on accident,” USC safety Chris Hawkins said. “I saw him wobble off.”
A handoff to Scarlett on what he would describe as “a real muddy look” then netted the Cardinal one yard.
“I just tried to get what I could get,” Scarlett said. “I tried to go over the top and didn’t really make it.”
Needing one yard, Stanford coach David Shaw opted to go for it. It was as if USC knew what was coming.
“Fourth and one, Stanford’s M.O. is run the ball,” Hawkins said, “so we didn’t think they were going to do anything else. So we attacked them and we got the stop.”
Scarlett got the call again but was met in the backfield by a blitzing Nwosu, who stopped him well short of the goal line.
“Somebody came off the edge untouched and got me on my hip,” Scarlett said. “I didn’t think I went down, but I can’t leave it in the refs’ hands. They stopped us.”
Scarlett said it shouldn’t have mattered that Nwosu was unblocked on the play.
“We usually just could get underneath it just because of the speed of the play,” Scarlett said, “but I think he timed the snap pretty well and got off the edge and made a good play.”
Love had largely been held in check before breaking off a 52-yard run in the third quarter in which he burst up the middle before cutting outside and stiff-arming Hawkins. It was Love’s 12th run of at least 50 yards this season, the most by anyone in major college football.
The most telling statistic might have been that USC ran for 176 yards to Stanford’s 151. Over the last decade in the series between USC and Stanford, the team that best makes a run for it usually wins; whoever finished with the highest rushing total has prevailed in 10 of the last 12 games.