For a few seconds Saturday, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck's poker face melted. His eyes went wide as silver dollars. His jaw went slack. For the first time in a season of routs, Luck seemed to experience something that looked an awful lot like doubt. Targeting receiver Chris Owusu, Luck had flicked a pass into the flat. He threw a split-second late. USC cornerback Nickell Robey pounced, grabbing the ball and racing 33 yards for a touchdown that gave the Trojans a seven-point lead with 3:08 remaining.
Stanford was done. Crushed. Deflated. "For a couple of seconds," the presumed No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft said, "I wanted to go dig a hole and bury myself in it."
On the other side of the field, USC quarterback Matt Barkley -- the golden-haired golden boy who has spent his NCAA sanction-saddled career waiting for a moment like this -- wore a smile visible in the Hollywood Hills. USC had risen up. The Trojans couldn't go to a bowl game, but they could derail someone else's national title dreams.
But by the time the Trojans finished celebrating the touchdown, the shame had drained from Luck's face. He called for a water bottle, took a swig and prepared for the next possession with all the emotion of a guy brushing his teeth. Six touchdowns later, Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley landed on Curtis McNeal's fumble in the end zone, and Luck stood with his arms raised as the Cardinal celebrated a 56-48, triple-overtime win.
"Guys believed in me," said Luck, who threw for 330 yards with three touchdowns and that one brutal interception. "For that, I was very grateful. I was so happy to still see time on the game clock. It was another chance to go out there. I was just relieved that there was some more time yet."
Luck, who had been goaded into several uncharacteristic mistakes by a USC defense that challenged Stanford more than any opponent since Oregon almost 13 months ago, calmly guided the Cardinal down the field. He got an assist when officials flagged USC safety T.J. McDonald for a head shot on Owusu on a third-and-six play. Luck then ran for 15 yards before hitting receiver Griff Whalen for six and tight end Levine Toilolo for 11. Stepfan Taylor did the rest, carrying the ball three times for the remaining 13 yards. Still, Taylor's two-yard touchdown run came with 38 seconds on the clock, and the Trojans still had all three timeouts. The Cardinal didn't know it yet, but Clemson had already checked out of the national title race with a loss at Georgia Tech. Would Stanford be the next contender to fall?
Barkley moved the Trojans, completing three of five passes. But on that third completion, Robert Woods kept running, and the clock kept ticking. Woods' knee touched the ground near the Stanford sideline with a second remaining. The final second ticked away, but almost everyone at the Coliseum assumed Woods had gone out of bounds at the Stanford 33-yard line and stopped the clock. Andre Heidari, who had kicked a 50-yarder earlier in the night, would get a chance to boot the game-winner as time expired. But officials reviewed the play and realized Woods had gone down in bounds. Referee Michael Batlan announced the end of regulation. Trojans coach Lane Kiffin pleaded with officials, arguing that he had asked for a timeout along officials along the USC sideline the moment Woods went down. "I saw Kiffin call timeout," Barkely said, "but [the officials] didn't see it." Said Batlan: "Any coach can ask for a timeout, but he doesn't get one until an official grants or signifies it." Said Kiffin: "It was explained to me by the referee that if there was one second left, you wouldn't have time to call timeout. But I've been around football long enough and seen plenty of timeouts called with one second on the clock."
Kiffin could not move the officials. Heidari would not kick. Even worse for the Trojans, Luck would get the ball back.
The Cardinal played with a limited playbook the entire game after tight end Zach Ertz -- a key cog in Stanford's offense -- injured his right knee on the opening kickoff. That rendered most of Stanford's three tight-end sets unusable, so coach David Shaw had to scrap "25-30 percent" of the offense. That didn't stop the Cardinal from using jumbo sets that sometimes included six or seven offensive linemen. In the first overtime, Stanford threw once for zero yards. The Cardinal scored anyway. "They are who they are," USC linebacker Chris Galippo said. "They're not trying to hide a whole lot. They know what works."
So does Barkley, and we he saw Woods single-covered on the third play of USC's first overtime possession, he found him in the end zone to force a second overtime. In that period, Barkley hit tight end Randall Telfer for a 12-yard touchdown to take a 48-41 lead. (Before Saturday, Stanford had not trailed all season. The Cardinal trailed for most of the second half against USC.)
Enter Luck again. Losing Ertz might have hurt, but Stanford must have a lab on campus where scientists genetically engineer massive tight ends. When Luck looked to his left and saw the 6-foot-8, 262-pound Toilolo covered one-on-one by 6-0, 220-pound linebacker Tre Madden, his only thought was "Don't make a terrible throw." "It's hard to miss someone like that," Luck said of his 11-yard touchdown toss to Toilolo.
In the third overtime, Luck hit Coby Fleener for a two-point conversion to cap a Taylor touchdown. Stanford's defense would have to hold, or they might still be playing. McNeal, who energized USC's offense by running for 145 yards and two touchdowns closed in on a third score when Stanford defensive tackle Terrence Stephens popped the ball loose and sent it skittering into the end zone. Tarpley landed on it, and the celebration began. "I don't know if you can credit the defense too much," Tarpley said. "We did let up [almost] 50 points. But we kept making sure Luck got the ball back."
Luck made sure he didn't fail his teammates again. Shaw said he sees the kind of emotion Luck showed Saturday nearly every day in practice. In practice, Shaw said, Luck never shuts up. On gameday, Luck usually masks his emotions. Saturday, he couldn't help himself. He had dug a hole for his team, but he couldn't bury himself in it. He had to pull the Cardinal out of it.
"He knows he's our heartbeat," Shaw said. "He can't not have it one day."