Oct. 30, 2011
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Robert Woods inexplicably didn't fall down to stop the clock on the final play of regulation, preventing Southern California from trying a long field goal to stun Stanford. Curtis McNeal then fumbled into the end zone three overtimes later, ending an unforgettable game in ugly fashion.
Although the 20th-ranked Trojans made too many outstanding plays to count Saturday night, they'll probably remember their 56-48 triple-overtime loss to the No. 4 Cardinal for the two decisive plays they couldn't explain.
"It hurts right now because we were so close," said Matt Barkley, who passed for 284 yards and three touchdowns. "It was almost like it slipped away. You can't blame it on Curtis. It's good that we took them to the wire, but it's not good enough for us. We're disappointed, because we knew we had them."
USC really did have the Cardinal for a moment when Nickell Robey stepped in front of Andrew Luck's pass and returned it 33 yards for the go-ahead score with 3:08 left in regulation. The sold-out Coliseum rocked on its foundations in anticipation of the signature victory in coach Lane Kiffin's rebuilding effort - and the end of the nation's longest winning streak.
But Luck immediately engineered a 76-yard drive capped by Stepfan Taylor's tying TD with 38 seconds left. Both teams scored in the first two overtimes, compounding the tension in the sold-out Coliseum.
After Taylor's run in the third OT, Coby Fleener caught the 2-point conversion pass. Stanford's defense preserved its 16-game winning streak when Terrence Stephens forced McNeal's fumble and A.J. Tarpley fell on it.
"No excuse, I just fumbled," said McNeal, who rushed for 145 yards and made second-half touchdown runs of 61 and 25 yards to keep USC in it. "I feel like beating myself up, but I've just got to keep pushing. I'm going to face worse things in life. I just have to keep my head up."
Barkley got the Trojans into Stanford territory in the final seconds of regulation, but Woods used up the final 9 seconds running to the sideline, preventing USC from trying a long field goal.
Kiffin said he was "really disappointed in the officials" when they didn't allow him to call a timeout before it ended, even though the kick would have been a 50-plus-yarder by Andre Heidari, who's kicking on a gimpy ankle.
Luck burnished his Heisman Trophy credentials by engineering four late scoring drives for Stanford (8-0, 6-0 Pac-12), coolly keeping it together after Robey's interception. Four years after Stanford stunned USC (6-2, 3-2) with a one-point victory as a 41-point underdog, the schools played another classic on a cool Coliseum night - and once again, the Cardinal ruled.
"I was very disappointed in myself," Luck said. "For a couple of seconds, I wanted to go dig a hole and bury myself in it, but guys believed in me. I was so happy to still see time on the game clock. It was another chance to get out there."
Luck passed for 330 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a key score, but the Cardinal were in serious trouble after he made a rare mistake on his fourth interception of the season, just the second that wasn't off a tipped pass.
"He was so mad at himself," said David Shaw, who's still perfect as Stanford's coach. "He wasn't going to let that play lose the game for us. ... We put the ball in our quarterback's hands, put it on his shoulders, and the kid came through."
The Cardinal were truly tested for the first time since the middle of last season, which ended with an Orange Bowl victory. USC nearly pulled off another upset last season at Stanford Stadium, sticking with the Cardinal until Luck engineered a last-minute drive ending in a field goal for a two-point victory.
"It's a great rivalry," Kiffin said. "We've had two great games with them that we haven't been able to finish off."
Although the Trojans fell agonizingly short of the biggest win in Kiffin's two seasons, USC chipped away much of Stanford's dominant aura accumulated during the nation's longest winning streak.
Stanford fell behind by 10 points in the third quarter, and the Cardinal won by fewer than 25 points for the first time in 11 games since last November. Stanford had limited its last 13 opponents to 21 points or fewer, the school's longest stretch since 1939-41, before USC scored 34 points in regulation.
Stanford had gone three-and-out on offense just four times all season before USC forced three more three-and-outs. Luck had been sacked just twice all season before the Trojans put him down twice, including a huge third-down sack by Devon Kennard that knocked Stanford out of range for a potential tying field goal with less than 9 minutes to play.
"We talked about fighting adversity," Shaw said. "I didn't know there was going to be this much adversity, but the kids fought through, and I love them to death for it."
USC took a 20-10 lead shortly after halftime, but Luck rushed for a go-ahead score in the third quarter. The Trojans pushed back ahead on Marqise Lee's 28-yard TD catch with 13:04 to play.
After Robey's TD, the Coliseum announcer warned fans in the sold-out stadium against rushing the field after the final gun.
Turns out, that gun was still about an hour away.