In the moments before the Pac-12 championship game began on Friday, USC safety Chris Hawkins journeyed toward the end zone alone, kneeled and put his head down.
Hawkins had hardly slept the night before. At around midnight, he received word that his grandmother had died of breast cancer.
“I just wanted to talk to her for a little bit,” Hawkins said. “I was just thinking about her, thinking about all the past experiences I had with her. This was my first game where she wasn’t going to be watching, except from up above.”
Hawkins proceeded to have arguably the best game of his career. He led USC with 13 tackles, more than twice the number of the next closest player. Two were for losses. He had one forced fumble. During USC’s goal-line stand in the fourth quarter, he may have prevented a touchdown when he came around the backside of Stanford’s line to tackle Bryce Love in the backfield.
After the game, Hawkins teared up on the field when talking with reporters.
Moments later, coach Clay Helton gave Hawkins the game ball in the locker room.
“The man lost his grandmother,” Helton said. “Woke up this morning with tears in his eyes, and battled for his brothers like I’ve never seen before. You’re the definition of a Trojan, son.”
Goals met, Swann says
Since he took over as athletic director before last season, Lynn Swann has said he views championships as perhaps his No. 1 marker of success for the football program.
Asked last week whether he viewed the Pac-12 championship game as a pass-fail proposition, Helton agreed.
“The expectations when you’re at USC are championships,” Helton said. “I know that going in.”
Speaking as confetti fell after USC’s win on Saturday, Swann said that the championship game didn’t precisely determine the success or failure of a season. But it went a long way.
“There’s always gray and nuance to whatever happens, but you set a goal and said this is the mark we want to make, and Clay met that goal,” Swann said. “So yes, disappointing to lose to Washington State, disappointing to lose to Notre Dame, but we met our No. 1 goal. Our team, with all the injuries and the 12 consecutive weeks of play ... and everything we sustained, still came out and played a great game tonight.”
Swann said he would not determine whether Helton makes changes to his coaching staff in the offseason.
“Our head coach is in charge of his staff,” Swann said. “He’s the head coach. He builds his team. I don’t call plays. I don’t hire assistant coaches. I think it’s wrong.”
Jones to play in bowl
Ronald Jones II, who had 140 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 30 carries, said he will play in USC’s bowl game, bucking a trend among potential high draft picks.
Jones, a junior, said he has not decided whether he will declare for the NFL draft.
“I want to finish up school,” he said. “I want to get bigger. But if that opportunity’s there too, I definitely gotta go get that.”
Some star players who declare for the draft have started to skip non-playoff bowl games to avoid an injury that could cost them millions. Running backs, who sustain more punishment than most other positions, have been particularly cautious. Last season, Louisiana State’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey skipped bowl games.
Jones, though, said he would play.
“Oh yeah, most definitely,” he said. “I can’t go out like that.”
Almost every prognosticator has USC slated for the Fiesta Bowl.
But there are two other possible landing spots: the Peach Bowl and the Cotton Bowl. (The other, non-playoff New Year’s Six bowl is the Orange Bowl, which is obligated to take a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference.)
The playoff selection committee is responsible for placing teams in the New Year’s Six bowls. After it released its rankings, the committee has no flexibility for deciding which teams get bids. One spot is reserved for the top-ranked Group of Five conference team, Central Florida, and the remaining teams are selected by ranking.
The committee then decides which of the qualifying teams go to which bowls. Typically, the committee tries to avoid rematches or bowl repeats, and it takes into account factors like geography.
That makes the Fiesta Bowl the most likely landing spot for the Pac-12 champion.