After three overtimes and four hours of ugly but brilliant football, the Stanford Cardinal finally emerged victorious with a 56-48 victory that is the clubhouse leader as game of the year. Andrew Luck was perfect to start, a cold-blooded killer to finish and far from perfect on one particular play. Did it potentially take imperfection to add some shine to his Heisman Trophy candidacy?
Andrew Luck has quietly gone about his business in 2011. The promotion is happening, but week in and week out, other Heisman Trophy candidates have done something to get tongues wagging. Stanford was coming off a thumping of Washington in which Luck threw for a mere 169 yards. He was still in line as a Heisman favorite, but looking for a signature moment. A monstrous Oregon game remains on the horizon, but for now, Luck may have had a signature moment.
Luck was perfect to start the game, completing five consecutive passes on Stanford's opening drive to grab a 7-0 lead. USC responded with a first down but then went three and out. Obviously Stanford was about to roll the Trojans and that would be that.
And then a funny thing happened. While Luck did continue to make some plays, the USC defense stiffened up and for the rest of the first half, they gave little ground to the Cardinal. Andrew Luck was five for his next ten and Stanford managed a mere three points until taking over at the 10:30 mark of the third quarter with his Cardinal suddenly trailing 20-10.
How did USC contain Luck for a quarter and a half? Monte Kiffin put together an interesting mix of blitzes and basic rushes that allowed him to keep sufficient Trojans back in coverage. The key was athletic defenders blowing past a normally dominant Stanford offensive line. And for a while it looked like it might be enough to secure the upset.
After USC jumped on top 20-10, Luck and the Cardinal responded in an efficient manner. Stanford went 75 yards in nine plays over 3:56 and quickly cut the lead to 20-17. The defense threw up a three and out and Stanford added another touchdown on a seven play, 86-yard drive to take a 24-20 lead. Luck was 7 of 8 for 86 yards with a passing touchdown and rushing touchdown.
If this was a heavyweight boxing match, the 20-10 lead would have staggered the champ in the early rounds but the champ would have regained his footing with his own staggering blows. We had two teams throwing some serious haymakers but Stanford seemed to have sufficiently regained its footing.
Just when it seemed Stanford was ready to pull away for a second time, USC came right back and answered with their own gutsy drive. After giving up 14 straight points, Matt Barkley and the Trojans responded with a seven play, 73-yard drive that put USC back up by three. This was a QB duel that was at times kind of ugly, but both quarterbacks stepped up in a big way.
Stanford would tie the game at 27 with 5:10 left in the fourth quarter. USC got the ball out to midfield on their next drive but stalled out and punted the ball back to Stanford with 3:51 remaining. Time for that Heisman moment, right? Wrong. On a short 3rd and 4 with just over three minutes remaining, disaster struck as Andrew Luck threw a pick-six to Nickell Robey. In a matter of seconds, USC had taken a 34-27 lead as Robery returned the pick 33 yards for the score. It was only one play, but had Stanford lost, it might well have submarined Andrew Luck's Heisman Trophy campaign.
And yet, it was his response to this exceedingly imperfect moment that might create as much Heisman Trophy buzz as any other moment this season. Trailing 34-27, Luck came back on the field with 3:08 to play and relatively calmly put together a ten play, 76 yard drive to score the game-tying touchdown with 38 seconds remaining. On the game-tying drive, Luck was 4 of 6 for 32 yards and also rushed 16 yards for a first down. The Cardinal benefitted from a monster personal foul on an incomplete 2nd and 6 pass and Stepfan Taylor put together some huge rushes in compiling 13 yards. But however you look at this drive, the team got it down and tied things up.
Overtime was far from anticlimactic as the two teams threw up back-to-back touchdowns on the first two drives of the session. Stanford is dominant in the red zone and starting from the 25 was almost like child's play for Luck and company. The first drive was all rushing for Stanford as Andrew Luck, Stepfan Taylor and Jeremy Stewart combined on seven rushes for 25 yards and a touchdown.
USC responded with a tying touchdown and then a leading touchdown but Stanford came right back with their own score. Luck showed the veteran savvy that has him at the top of the leaderboard on his eleven yard touchdown pass. The play before the touchdown a key USC linebacker went down with an injury. The Trojans brought in freshman linebacker Tre Madden to cover tight end Levine Toilolo. Luck immediately threw a fade pattern to Toilolo for the touchdown. It was like clockwork.
Stanford started the third overtime with the ball and proceeded to score on three plays. Luck picked on the freshman Madden, this time in converting the subsequent required two point conversion. Tight end Coby Fleener made his way past Madden into the end zone and was wide open for the conversion.
The Stanford defense managed to force a key fumble on USC's next position and all of a sudden the epic game had come to close. Stanford's BCS national title hopes remained alive. They showed their mettle, but will also be tested mightily by an incredibly athletic Oregon team in two weeks.
For Andrew Luck, the shine came off the dominant performances, but somehow he fought back to get the victory and arguably improve his Heisman credentials. He showed that while he could apparently be human for a play, he retains the cold-blooded efficiency necessary to bring his team back from the brink. He continually shows why he is probably the best quarterback to come along since Peyton Manning. He may not have every possible throw in the book in his arsenal, but he is deadly on short and intermediate throws. He fantastic pocket awareness, just enough mobility to be dangerous, and incredible leadership savvy and smarts as he works to run the offense from the field.
Luck will need another strong performance to help get his Cardinal past the Oregon Ducks in two weeks. It should be a riveting matchup and one has to wonder if this victory gives the Heisman favorite even more confidence moving forward. The Cardinal will need to avoid a possible trap game against the Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis, but if they can get past the Beavers, it sets up a fantastic showdown with Oregon.