SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Stanford defenders bore down on USC quarterback Sam Darnold in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game. A safety would not quite compensate after the Trojans denied the Cardinal a goal-line touchdown two plays prior, but it could have dramatically changed the complexion of the game.
A sack in the end zone on a drive that began at the USC 1-yard line instead became a 54-yard gain when sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. caught a deep pass, sealing Pittman's place for the best single receiving game in Pac-12 Championship Game history.
"I saw a one-on-one matchup," Pittman said. "I just knew I had to win."
"It was a sluggo scheme concept," Darnold explained. "I saw [Steven Mitchell] kind of beat the corner on the sluggo, [but] he kind of got held up a little bit. Just decided to move up in the pocket and kind of sensed some guys around me, so I moved up and found [Pittman] on the field. I was going to move down and run, but kind of flashed in my vision there, and I found him."
And what a find it was. The 54-yard strike led to a Ronald Jones II touchdown run and effectively put the game away, elevating USC to a 10-point gap Stanford never fully bridged.
"I really liked Mike's combination size and speed," offensive coordinator Tee Martin said of working Pittman so prominently into the game plan vs. Stanford. "The defender did a good job earlier in the route, but Mike just kept fighting to get open."
Pittman's contribution to the first USC conference championship since 2008 was not simply one catch, however. His role in the Trojans' Pac-12 title was not even just limited to the record-setting 146 yards he grabbed in the championship game. Rather, the impressive performance against the Cardinal marked a culmination of a season-long development that shaped USC's offense down the stretch of its five-game winning streak, which it carries into the Cotton Bowl Dec. 29 against Ohio State.
He made his first appearance on Oct. 7, six games into the season, after having missed the first three due to a high-ankle sprain. Pittman had three grabs against Oregon State and Utah for 41 yards, but it was not until after a contest at Notre Dame in which he had no receptions that the sophomore began to factor more prominently into the offense.
"Pitt had his moments in games and started to get him the ball a little bit," Darnold said. "It was just an awesome, awesome end of the season, seeing Pitt do what he did."
What he did, according to Martin, was show out at a level comparable to that of former USC star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster posted more than 3,000 receiving yards in his three seasons with the Trojans. He is now having a standout rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While USC returned Deontay Burnett, breakout star from January's Rose Bowl Game, Darnold said in the offseason that developing chemistry with a mostly new-look corps of pass catchers was going to be one of his greatest challenges in 2017. Replacing Smith-Schuster in particular proved difficult — but USC may have found its next Smith-Schuster in Pittman.
"It's like having a JuJu out; a guy [who is] that dynamic, that big, that fast, that physical," Martin said, referring to Pittman's initial injury struggles. "It would be like having JuJu out to start the season."
The void became apparent, with Darnold throwing as many interceptions by the Oct. 7 Oregon State game — nine — as he threw in all 10 of his starts in 2016.
"When you're a quarterback, and you have that kind of player goes down, it bothers you," Martin said. "The other [wide receivers] did a good job, but a player like a Michael Pittman, you want to have in the mix. That's the guy that, when he was back, Sam felt really comfortable about the passing game."
Indeed, Darnold finished the final seven games of USC's season with just three interceptions thrown, compared to 14 touchdowns. And it was not just Pittman who emerged to strengthen the Trojans' passing attack, either.
If Pittman developed into a new Smith-Schuster, redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns contributed in a manner comparable to this season's leading pass catcher, Burnett, during the 2016 season. Vaughns heads into the Cotton Bowl with 51 receptions — 50 of them made from the third game onward — for 690 yards. He caught his fifth touchdown pass of the campaign in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
"Tyler really clicked after the Washington State game," Darnold said. "Tyler coming up big, and Deontay coming up huge all year. Credit to those guys."
Pittman and Vaughns return for at least one more season each in 2018, and Burnett has eligibility remaining if he chooses to forego this coming spring's NFL draft. Meanwhile, yet another promising young pass catcher — freshman tight end Josh Falo — also showed his potential for a bright future while contributing to the present Pac-12 championship.
Falo slammed the door on Stanford's hopes for good, hauling in a 15-yard reception on 4th-and-2 in the game's final minute. The play was one Martin said the Trojans worked on in practice that week, and the call coming in such a pivotal time demonstrated the coaching staff's trust in the youngster Falo.
"It came in handy in a critical moment," Martin said. "Sam did a really good job of letting Josh get open, and Josh did a good job of staying inbounds."
Falo caught four passes all year, but all four were meaningful. He had a touchdown Oct. 7 against Oregon State on his first career reception, then made a pair of crucial grabs in the one-point win over Utah Oct. 14. The return of Daniel Imatorbhebhe from a hip injury limited Falo's use in the passing game later in the season, but he delivered when the spotlight was brightest.
"He's been great all year," Martin said. "It's just tough when you have some veterans that are playing good, as well, ahead of you... But he has an outstanding skill set. He's one the guys you will see play a lot and be the future of this tight end position. Big, fast, physical; he's one of the more physical [blockers] in the run game, but also can run like a wide receiver in the passing game."
With all those weapons starting to find their groove, perhaps Darnold will have something to consider when deciding his fate. He can leave USC for the NFL draft at season's end, but the pass game options for 2018 might be the most plentiful and impressive for any Trojans team since the mid-2000s. But that is discussion for after the Cotton Bowl.