Oct. 9, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - In Andrew Luck's storied two-season run as Stanford's starting quarterback, one thing has been missing from his legacy: a signature comeback drive.
Luck's poise and Nate Whitaker's foot - atoning for a near-fatal error - accounted for the winning margin as time expired to give Stanford a 37-35 victory over USC on Saturday night.
Whitaker pushed through a 30-yard field goal on the final play, making up for his missed extra-point try in the fourth quarter that glanced off the left upright. The miss had allowed the Trojans to take a 35-34 lead, after a touchdown and successful point-after.
Luck, the redshirt sophomore, had two timeouts, 85 yards, and 1:02 to work with. Though he has been described as a potential No. 1 NFL draft pick, and even the best quarterback in the country, by his coach and others, he never had the signature drive that could help define his Stanford career.
That changed in this order:
A four-yard pass to Doug Baldwin, with 15 yards tacked on for a late hit to the Stanford 45-yard line.
Eleven-yard pass to Coby Fleener to the USC 44.
Thirteen-yard pass to Baldwin to the 31.
Sixteen-yard run by Stepfan Taylor to the 15.
Five-yard run by Taylor to the 10.
Two-yard rushing loss by Luck to move the ball to the center of the field, followed by a timeout with four seconds left.
Seven plays, 62 yards, and victory for No. 16 Stanford (5-1 overall, 2-1 in conference play).
Luck, who had thrown four interceptions in the past two games, this time was a near-perfect 20-of-24 for 285 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Luck converted six of eight third-down plays and completed his final 13 passes.
It marked the second time Luck had led Stanford to a fourth-quarter comeback victory, the other being a 45-38 victory over Notre Dame in the 2009 regular-season finale. However, in that one, the winning drive came with the score tied. This was his first successful two-minute drill from a deficit.
But the victory, Stanford's third in four years against the Trojans, was about more than Luck. For instance, it was a game of redemption not only for Whitaker, but for Taylor, who fumbled twice, including one at midfield with 4:14 left that launched USC's go-ahead touchdown drive.
But Taylor rushed for 112 yards on 23 carries to earn his third consecutive 100-yard performance. Plus, he provided two big runs to get the Cardinal into winning field-goal position.
As for Whitaker, "I knew I had to make it, that's it," he said. "It would have been a rough night otherwise."
Instead, he converted his 15th consecutive field-goal attempt, dating back to last season. And when his kick cleared the goalposts, many of the 51,607 in attendance - the largest crowd in the five years of the new Stanford Stadium - stormed the field.
"We predicted this all week, that it would be a 3½-hour arm-wrestling match," Harbaugh said. "But we felt like we would be winners if we didn't give in and quit. There were hurdles and obstacles that had to be overcome."
Two such obstacles were USC quarterback Matt Barkley and receiver freshman receiver Robert Woods. Barkley completed 28 of 45 passes for 390 yards and three touchdowns. Of those yards, 224 on 12 receptions, and all three scores, were provided by Woods.
After Stanford took a 34-28 lead after Luck hit Baldwin for a seven-yard score on an inside seam route on third and goal with 9:27 left, it seemed the Cardinal responded with the much-needed stop to put it over the top.
The Trojans (4-2, 1-2) had converted two third-and-longs on a drive that reached the Stanford 32, but the Cardinal defense held, with a heavy Chase Thomas backside blitz forcing Barkley to overthrow his intended receiver on fourth down.
Stanford was content to chew up clock, but lost that opportunity on Taylor's fumble. Barkley converted a fourth-down pass to fullback Stanley Havili for 15 yards on the ensuing drive, and then hit Woods on third-and-eight. On first down from the 3, Allen Bradford ran it in to give USC its first lead.
Faced with a do-or-die drive to stay alive in the Pac-10 race, "no one panicked," Luck said.
"We had confidence," he said. "If you don't go out there with confidence and think that you're going to score or be in scoring position, it's not going to happen."
Harbaugh seemed stunned afterward.
"That was a great college football game," he said. "We're going to talk about this many times 30 or 40 years from now. To a man, they found a way."
That included Chris Owusu. A week after suffering a hard-to-watch concussion against Oregon last week, Owusu responded with three catches for 73 yards and a crucial kickoff return.
After USC tied the score 28-28 early in the fourth quarter, Owusu found a seam on the ensuing kickoff and returned it 88 yards, setting up Baldwin's second touchdown reception. Baldwin had eight receptions for 98 yards.
It was after another Luck touchdown pass - an on-the-run early-fourth quarter throw to Fleener - that Harbaugh could be seen greeting his quarterback as he stepped off the field.
"Big time!" he yelled.
And, after Luck's performance, who can argue?
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics