How we got a Stanford-USC Pac-12 championship game

Well, the media got half of the Pac-12 championship game matchup right (USC). And it was darn close to getting the Stanford part right, too.

But no one could’ve predicted the crazy turns and surprises this season had in store for us. There was plenty of #Pac12AfterDark (and some during the broad daylight, too) that kept everyone on their toes.

Stanford beat Cal and USC beat UCLA in “semifinal” matchups to get to this point, but there were five other key moments that helped us get here -- Stanford versus USC for the Pac-12 title.

1. Washington State kicker Erik Powell misses a potential game-winner, giving Stanford the driver’s seat in the North.

It wasn’t all on Powell, that’d be wildly unfair because even before it got to that 43-yard field goal attempt Washington State had a) given up a 22-10 third-quarter lead; b) Luke Falk threw two interceptions to halt the Cougars’ offensive momentum; c) the defense allowed a 30-yard Christian McCaffrey run that set up a Conrad Ukropina field goal. Also, let’s not forget that Powell had also made five field goals earlier in the game that kept the Cougars alive. But the win gave Stanford control of the North, and even after a two-point loss to Oregon a few weeks later the Cardinal still controlled their own destiny.

2. Robert Lewis gets an “assist” from River Cracraft against Oregon.

In what might have been one of the strangest plays this season, Cracraft got an almost-assist when he received a pass from Falk but failed to control the ball completely, sending it flying near the goal line in the second overtime. Lewis, who was in the right place at the right time, grabbed the ball and found the end zone, giving the Cougars the go-ahead score against Oregon. On the ensuing play the Ducks failed to score as Washington State's defense again showed how it's one of the most improved units in the Pac-12, forcing Jeff Lockie to throw a Hail Mary from 4th-and-9 at the 24-yard line. It was a huge win for Washington State, but any loss that Oregon got this season was one notch in Stanford’s belt in returning to the title game.

3. Devontae Booker goes down, taking Utah’s title hopes with him.

Utah was the in the driver's seat to win the South, but then news came that the Utes had lost more than a game against Arizona. Star running back Booker tore his meniscus, so down went the centerpiece of Utah’s offense. No team in the country had used its running back more heavily. So when the senior was absent in the subsequent game against UCLA, it showed.

Utah couldn’t reach the end zone against the Bruins, and a 17-9 home loss eliminated them from South contention. A win there, combined with a victory against Colorado the following week (which eventually happened), would have booked Utah a trip to Levi’s Stadium. Given the shakiness of UCLA’s run defense, a healthy Booker would have likely spelled a Utah win. Instead, the door remained open for USC in the South.

4. Clay Helton putting the ball in Justin Davis' hands.

Davis accounted for 57 percent of his rushing yards in the final four games of the season. His two 85-yard performances against Arizona and Colorado were appetizers compared to the 100-yard games he put up against Oregon and UCLA. Never more important was the USC run game this season than in the UCLA game, when the Trojans rushed for 235 yards against a defense allowing 184 rushing yards per game coming into the matchup. Helton made it a point to have Davis run and wear down the UCLA defensive front at the end of the game (accounting for 100 of his 133 rushing yards in the final 13 minutes), and it worked. With Davis’ emergence, this might be a different title game.

5. Kalen Ballage and Arizona State's linemen push UCLA right out of the South driver’s seat.

When the Bruins stomped defending South champion Arizona 56-30 on Sept. 26, many bought stock in UCLA's chances to reach the promised land. In their return home a week later, though, the Bruins got a reality check.

With the help of his linemen, Ballage moved the pile 23 yards into the end zone to seal the Sun Devils' 38-23 win and simultaneously expose a UCLA run defense that would cost them again later in the year. Since the Bruins eventually finished one game behind USC, this loss proved costly in the long run -- just like Falk’s last-minute heroics in Washington State’s 31-27 win at the Rose Bowl a month later. Both setbacks conspired to keep a four-loss USC team alive heading into the final weekend, when they capitalized and beat the Bruins to take the South.