Card wins triple-overtime thriller

That was easily the most exciting, heart-wrenching, back and forth football game I have ever seen in person. All night, Stanford and USC battled it out at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; whenever it seemed that one team got the upper hand, the other stormed back and grabbed the momentum once more.

It took three overtimes to decide it, but eventually Stanford emerged with a 56-48 victory. Unlike the Cardinal's previous seven victories, this one was no blowout of an overmatched opponent. USC played an incredible game, and didn't give in until the final play.

It will be almost impossible to put the emotion, excitement and energy of that game into words, but I'm going to try anyway. Here were the biggest storylines in this one, which will definitely go into the books as one of the best chapters of the Stanford-USC rivalry.

Play of the game I: There were so many great plays and game-changing moments in this one that it's impossible to narrow it down to one, so I'm going to cheat a little and name two. The first one happened in the third quarter, and it was probably the second-best trick play I've ever seen (after Boise State's Statue of Liberty play). I'm going to call it the "Wildcat fleaflicker": Tyler Gaffney took the snap in the Wildcat formation and handed it off on a reverse to Anthony Wilkerson, who tossed it back to Andrew Luck (who was running a reverse the other way), who threw a 62-yard bomb to Ty Montgomery that positioned Stanford deep inside USC territory. Stanford would go on to score a touchdown, completing a huge momentum swing after going down by 10 early in the second half.

Play of the game II: Stanford was down 34-27 in the fourth quarter and had three minutes to go down the field and tie the game, after starting from its own 24-yard line. All hope seemed to be lost for the Cardinal when an Andrew Luck pass missed Chris Owusu on third-and- long; however, USC safety T.J. McDonald drilled Owusu with a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit after the ball had sailed past, and was flagged for a personal foul. Owusu left the game, but Stanford did keep the drive alive with a first down and 15 free yards. The Cardinal would tie the game on that possession and win in overtime.

Overtime recap: The three overtimes easily had some of the wildest football of this season. In the first overtime period, each team had a markedly different approach. Stanford bulldozed through the Trojans using its power running game, scoring on a one-yard touchdown run, while USC scored on a quick strike from Matt Barkley to Robert Woods. The order was reversed in the second OT period, but each time managed to score a touchdown through the air— USC on a pass from Barkley to Randall Telfer, and Stanford on a connection between Luck and Levine Toilolo. The third overtime was decisive. Stanford got the ball first, and Stepfan Taylor scored on a five-yard run after a late hit penalty got the Card a first down on the USC five-yard line. It was not to be for USC on its possession, however: Terrence Stephens forced a Curtis McNeal fumble at the one-yard line, which was recovered by A.J. Tarpley in the end zone to end the game.

Luck the leader: With the game on the line, star quarterback Andrew Luck seemed to almost will Stanford to victory. After an interception was returned for a touchdown to put USC up, 34-27, Luck seemingly put the team on his back and made a lot of critical plays to tie the game in regulation. Luck then played mistake-free football in overtime, as the Cardinal converted all of its possessions into touchdowns.
"We put the ball in our quarterback's hands and the kid comes through," said head coach David Shaw. "He missed a throw, an interception for a touchdown. He was so upset, for about 45 seconds and then he flushed it. And then moved on and made the plays to help us win the game."

Defense—the good, the bad, the ugly: Stanford's defensive performance left me with very conflicted opinions about the unit. Yes, the defense stepped up and made the play to end the game; yes, it prevented USC from scoring again in regulation after the game was tied 34-34; yes, it made a couple of other critical third down stops. However, the unit also gave up 41 points (I'm not counting the Luck pick-six) and 432 offensive yards. The secondary at times looked thoroughly overmatched by receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, both of whom had huge days, not to mention the two big runs early in the third quarter from Curtis McNeal.
"I don't know what the average would be, because some was really good and some was not really good," Shaw said, when asked to grade his defense's performance. "The resiliency we showed was the key."
He also had a lot of praise for USC's offense and its playmakers, especially Robert Woods. "USC has a lot of playmakers," Shaw said. "Robert Woods, I know he wasn't healthy, but the kid is a fighter and made some unbelievable plays for a guy who's probably 75, 80 percent."

USC plays complete game: No summary of this game would be complete without talking about the fantastic play of USC. Despite a bowl ban and various other NCAA sanctions, the Trojans fielded a very strong football team that could probably go toe-to-toe with most of the country's elite squads. If a couple bounces had gone the other way, I might very well be writing a very different recap right now.
"It was an extremely competitive game as far as effort," said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. "The crowd was awesome and electric. It was great to have that back. Unfortunately we just didn't finish."

Penalties still an issue for Stanford: The Cardinal might not have played such a close game if it had been more disciplined and avoided penalties. Stanford was penalized 11 times for 91 yards, and more than one of those penalties were critical in helping the Trojans to sustain drives or knocking the Card back too far to get another first down.
"We were sloppy to have 11 penalties against us and a couple against them," Shaw said. "That's hard for us to deal with. We've got to go back and get some stuff cleaned up."

Whitaker steps in brilliantly: Starting kicker Jordan Williamson didn't play in this one; Shaw said he suffered a minor leg injury late in the week, and that the coaches had thought he would be ready to play but did not recover as quickly as expected. Eric Whitaker, the younger brother of departed kicker Nate Whitaker, stepped in and had a nearly perfect night, going two-for-two on field goals and six-for-six on extra points. Whitaker did have a rough night on kickoffs, with two of his seven kicks going out of bounds.

Polls and bowls: USC is ineligible for both the BCS standings and for any bowl game due to NCAA sanctions. The Trojans could lose their AP poll ranking, currently sitting at No. 20, but I actually wouldn't be surprised if the Trojans stayed in the AP top 25.
For the Cardinal, this win ensures that it remains in the national title discussion, as well as preserving its perfect 8-0 record and 16-game win streak. Stanford also stays in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 North, making it fairly certain that the winner of Nov. 12's matchup with Oregon will be the North's representative at the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. Stanford is also likely to move up to No. 5 in the BCS standings, following Georgia Tech's win over Clemson.

Next week, Stanford heads to Corvallis to play Oregon State, while USC has a Friday night date in Boulder with Colorado. The Cardinal is now 8-0 and 6-0 in the Pac-12, while USC is 6-2 and 3-2 in the conference.


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