You can take a breath now, the game is over. With four seconds left, Cardinal kicker Nate Whitaker put his leg into a thirty-yard field goal attempt that split the uprights, giving the Mighty Card a 37-35 victory over the visiting Trojans.
With apologies to Whitaker, however, this game was about Andrew Luck, plain and simple.
The big variable with this team has always been the defense (more on that later), but if there's been one constant throughout the season, it's been this: this is one of the best offenses in the country. They showed it on Saturday night at Stanford Stadium.
The offensive line is the anchor for everything that happens, and they performed well again against the Trojans, paving the way for 210 yards total rushing while allowing only a single sack. Stepfan Taylor eclipsed the century mark for the third game in a row, as he rushed 23 times for 104 yards and a touchdown.
As I said, though, this was about Andrew Luck. Paired up against Matt Barkley, another of the conference's great young quarterbacks, Luck matched Barkley's three touchdowns with three of his own and was in control of the game throughout. How good was Luck? He completed twenty of twenty-four passes, but those numbers could easily have been better. His first pass of the game was a running back screen in the flat, but a wide-open Taylor turned up field before securing the ball and dropped it. On the next Cardinal possession Luck was forced to throw the ball away to avoid a sack, notching his second incompletion. His third misfire was simply a bad throw -- his only of the day -- directed at Zach Ertz. Finally, with 11:32 remaining in the third quarter, Luck tried squeezing a pass into a well-covered Ryan Whalen, but the ball glanced off his hands. He was perfect the rest of the way, 12 of 12 for 156 yards and a touchdown. Which isn't bad.
While all of that is good, Luck's most impressive play came after a Stepfan Taylor fumble just before the half. As the ball skipped along the turf at midfield, USC linebacker Shareece Wright scooped it up and saw nothing but the end zone in front of him. With his eyes focused downfield like that, he likely didn't see what was coming at him from his left -- a freight train named Andrew Luck. Luck laid him out, separating him from the ball, and giving Wright a moment neither he, nor his teammates will ever forget. Take a peek:
I suppose that we knew Barkley might have a good day, but what we had no idea about was a true freshman wide receiver named Robert Woods. In a breakout performance, Woods caught twelve balls for 224 yards and three touchdowns. Most of that yardage came after the catch, as Woods made would-be tacklers miss all night, then used his breakaway speed to race downfield. In addition to a 61-yard touchdown in the third quarter, Barkley and Woods also connected on completions of 33, 23, and 31 yards.
With all of this firepower on both sides of the field, it came as no surprise that the Trojans and Cardinal would trade scores throughout the game. After Stanford answered USC's opening score with a touchdown of their own and then scored another to go up by seven, they were never able to gain any separation. The Trojans answered every Stanford touchdown with an immediate equalizer of their own, so Luck never had the ball in his hands with a lead until Stanford took over with a 34-28 lead and 6:54 to play in the game. (Whitaker had missed the extra point after Luck had hit Doug Baldwin for a 7-yard touchdown on the previous possession. Obviously a big miss.)
As the Stanford offense came out on to the field with that six-point lead and less than seven minutes to play, it certainly looked like the game was over. Luck would hand the ball a few times to Taylor, possibly throw a safe pass or two to gain a first downs, and the offense would secure the victory. Except it didn't happen that way. On first and ten at midfield, Stepfan Taylor fumbled on one of the stranger plays you'll ever see. After Taylor was tackled following a two-yard gain, both teams simply got up and went back to their huddles, then walked back up to the line for second down. Suddenly the official jumped in to stop play. No Trojan defender had claimed he had recovered a fumble, and the announcers made no mention of a possible turnover. No one, it seemed, had seen anything. A minute later the officials were telling us that it was USC ball and the game was in doubt again. (To be fair, replays supported the call.)
What happened next came as no surprise. With the possibility of victory before them, the Trojan offense made quick work of the real estate between them and the goal line, arriving at the three-yard line with 1:15 to play. I had been texting updates to a friend throughout the game, and now I sent this message: "First and goal, 1:15, I say let them score." Allen Bradford did, in fact, truck the ball into the end zone on the next play, but I saw no evidence suggesting he had been allowed to score. Either way, the purpose was served. Andrew Luck would get the ball back with more than a minute to drive his team into field goal range.
The final drive was a thing of beauty, but it started out with an ugly assist from USC linebacker Chris Galippo. On first and ten Luck completed a short pass to Doug Baldwin who was wrapped up -- but not brought down -- by Shane Horton. The whistle blew as forward progress was stopped, and then Galippo came in and hit Baldwin with two hands to the face. It was an easy call. Galippo claimed afterwards that it could have been called either way, and he was right. Either a late hit or hands to the face, but a personal foul all the way.
With the ball advanced to the Stanford 45, the outcome already seemed certain. Luck filled in the blanks by completing a pass to Coby Fleener for eleven yards and another to Baldwin for thirteen before handing the ball to Taylor a couple of times to bring things into Whitaker's range. Whitaker's kick climbed into the night as the final seconds spun off the clock, and the game ended just as we knew it would. Stanford 37, USC 35.
As amazing as the finish was, the aftermath was just as interesting. The students, finally back from their long summer vacation and watching their Cardinal in person for the first time, responded to Whitaker's game-winner by rushing the field. Harbaugh parted the sea of humanity and climbed into the stands to see his father, wife, and daughter. The ABC camera crew caught him perched along the bleachers, but he declined their interview request, imploring them instead to "talk to the players." He looked for all the world like a man who'd just coached his team to a Rose Bowl win or a national championship. For all his talk about this being just another game, it clearly wasn't.
If the Trojans had taken a bit longer to score, or if Whitaker's kick had fluttered outside the goalposts, a completely different scene would have unfolded following the game. Thankfully, though, we don't need to worry about that now.