For those people who did not have an opportunity to watch the entire game, your heart thanks you. Stanford won a 56-48 triple overtime game against USC in the Coliseum. It was a masterpiece of a game to watch because it featured so many changes in momentum and so many big plays. The game turned from a defensive standoff to a high paced shootout. Winning a game like that, our fans here on campus were not only relieved but elated.
Missing Players – Some of you may have noticed that Eric Whitaker took the kickoffs and not Jordan Williamson. Williamson was ruled out for the game before kickoff. Also, Delano Howell was also out for the second consecutive week. Going against a passing attack like USC’s, that is a tough loss. But even more surprising, I did not realize until afterward that tight end Zach Ertz was injured on the opening kickoff. Normally Stanford can create several matchup nightmares through their size in three tight end sets. Without Ertz, some of that flexibility was gone. That may help to explain the Stanford’s slow start on offense in the first half.
Defenses Dominate First Half – Considering that the game ended with over a 100 total points scored, it is rather amazing that the score at half time was 10-6 Stanford. Quarterback Andrew Luck and the offense took the ball straight down the field on their first possession but struggled after that to score. The Cardinal scored a field only after being given a short field on a AJ Tarpley interception. It felt like Stanford should be able to just bury USC but the Trojan defense held strong.
USC’s pressure – The Trojans’ defensive line in particular played extremely well. They managed to generate pressure with the the front four, freeing up the linebackers and the defensive backs to play coverage. Even more dangerous than blitzing teams are those teams which do not need to blitz, because when they do bring an extra man, the quarterback is going to be in trouble. Luck was forced out of the pocket many more times than he would have liked. He was sacked twice. That may not seem like a high number, but considering that Stanford had only given up two sacks all year and Luck is extremely mobile, USC was effective. To Luck’s credit, he was still able to make some amazing throws on the run. Even someone as good as Luck, however, will have their general accuracy go down when under duress.
Defending the Big Play – Stanford’s defense thrives on stopping the run and then generating pressure from the edge. The Trojans, especially Matt Kalil, did a good job in this game of keeping the Barkley upright. On several plays, the the front almost managed to get to Barkley but just could not quite reach him. As a result, USC was able to do what they wanted. Both Robert Woods and Marqise Hill played well. They made huge gains on short crossing routes, showing their speed and ability to break tackles. What was most worrisome, however, were the big plays USC had in the running game. Backup running back Curtis McNeal was able to gash the Stanford defense on a couple big plays behind Kalil.
Need for Adversity – In basically all the interviews I watched, the Stanford players and coaches talked about adversity. Not just playing through adversity either but the need for it. Coming into this game, Stanford had the nation’s longest streak of games won by over 25 points. After back to back touchdown runs from McNeal on consecutive drives, the Cardinal were suddenly down 10-20. They would not be running away with the game. Luck, however, was sharp and managed to answer back with some crisp passing to take back the lead with a couple drives of his own. At 27-27, the game was tight but I had full confidence in Luck. After all, if it came down to a shootout between Luck and Barkley, Luck would be the logical winner. But it was Luck who made the big mistake.
On 2nd and 10 at the Stanford 17, under four minutes left in the game, Luck tried to throw a ball to Owusu on a hitch route. Cornerback Nickell Robey took a chance, jumping the route and intercepting the ball, running it all the way back for a touchdown. Just like that, the game seemed over. Luck proved himself to be human. He is not infallible as we would like to believe. I had to knock myself out of that feeling because the game was not over. Luck was going to get the ball back. The team rallied behind their quarterback and turned the page on the mistake. Games are not won or lost on a single play, no matter how important that play may seem.
Did I believe that Luck could engineer a drive to tie the game? Certainly. Did I believe he could bounce back from a mistake? Of course. Was I still in awe when he did these things? Without a doubt. To come back and drive the ball down the field and tie the game with 38 seconds left on the clock is an amazing feat. I was more impressed by Luck’s efforts to keep his team in the game than his final drive to win it because on that last drive there would be no second chances. Luck showed his mental toughness. Once runningback Stepfan Taylor ran in the ball to tie the game, I was certain we would win. If it comes down to Barkley versus Luck, the answer seems clear.
Barkley and Luck – This matchup never actually happened. As much as it was hyped, the game did not revolve around the two quarterbacks. If anything, USC found their rhythm when they started pounding the ball with McNeal. Luck, however, definitely put on a show. He had to make all those throws because his team was down for much of the second half. Barkley did make some fantastic throws but he also missed some easy ones. I’ll always remember that look on Barkley’s face after the pick six. He was so happy. But when the game went into overtime, he already looked worried. Barkley played fine but I don’t think that even he wanted the game on his shoulders. Luck showed why he is the best quarterback in college football in how much he shined when compared to one of his peers. You could also tell, even after the pick six, Luck wanted the ball.
Overtime – College football’s overtime system is not simple. The sudden death system of the pros is brutal but it has a certain charm. I still prefer the pro system but the college overtime system has some definite merits. Score or lose is the mantra. Both teams managed to keep scoring touchdowns. Their offenses, however, showed a difference in philosophy. Luck and the Stanford offense made methodical drives. One their first overtime drive, they just pounded the ball in. After that, they mixed it up with both pass and run. They picked apart the Trojan defense with plays designed and executed. USC, however, scored with their physical dominance. They only needed a couple plays. They just got the ball in the hands of their playmakers and then the receivers did the rest. For whatever the Trojans are, no one can doubt their talent. With the game on the line, in the third overtime, at the Stanford 5, coach Lane Kiffin gave the ball to McNeal. McNeal, still just a freshman, who fumbled the ball and ended USC’s chance to be the spoiler.
A Classic Game – For those who watched it, the game was amazing. It was both a tragedy and a comedy, which in turn creates good drama. Luck was the hero of this particular play. He fulfilled his role as admirably as one could want. He made all the throws he needed to. He even got himself out of a bad situation after throwing the pick six. The game could have ended in any number of other ways. Kiffin wanted the chance to end the game with a field goal at the end of regulation but was denied. USC seemed to be able to stop Luck. In the end, however, the only thing that really matters is that Stanford won. Whatever could have happened, whatever could have been different is irrelevant. At the end of the game, Stanford made one extra play and USC made one extra mistake. There was only a couple hairs difference in performances between the two teams.
This was an emotional game, one which I will remember for a long time. Stanford plays against Oregon State next week and will need to be wary of a possible let down. As for now, let’s just enjoy the win a little bit longer. Fans have that luxury. The players do not.