Matt Barkley handed the ball off to running back Curtis McNeal at the Stanford thirty-yard line with just over ten and half minutes to play in the third quarter. McNeal took off through a gaping hole on the left side of the line and sprinted untouched to the corner of the end zone to give USC a commanding 20-10 lead over the Cardinal.
Given the amount of time left in the game and the typical efficiency of the Stanford offense, the ten-point lead was far from insurmountable, but with the way the game was going, I was concerned. Only moments earlier the Trojans had capped off their opening drive of the second half with a sixty-one yard McNeal touchdown, giving them their first lead of the game and Stanford's first deficit of the season. The Cardinal offense had responded to that taste of adversity with a three-and-out, and now Andrew Luck took the field amidst a sea of uncertainty.
Could the Cardinal respond in the face of adversity? Would the team's national championship aspirations evaporate in the heat of the Coliseum? Would Luck's season end without a Heisman Trophy? Most importantly, was the 2011 Stanford Cardinal just a good football team, or a great football team?
With so many questions, one thing was clear: this was the most important drive of Andrew Luck's career.
Two hours earlier, it certainly didn't look like the game was headed in this direction. The Cardinal took the opening kick off and moved the ball methodically down the field in what might have been the quintessential Stanford drive of 2011. It opened -- of course -- with a six-yard gain from Stepfan Taylor and proceeded for nine more plays of artistic poetry. Three different players ran the ball, including Tyler Gaffney out of the Sequoia, and Luck completed five passes to five different receivers, the last a ten-yard touchdown toss to Gaffney.
My phone rang as Gaffney was still celebrating his score, and the voice on the other end didn't bother saying hello. "Was that the perfect way to start a game, or what?" It was. It was such a broad and effective sampling of the playbook that it appeared Coach Shaw was sending a message to USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin: "This is who we are, this is what we do."
Monte was certainly paying attention, as we'd soon see.
The Trojan offense eventually responded to Stanford's opening score by notching a field goal in the closing seconds of the first quarter, but the story of the first half quickly became the Cardinal's inability to move the ball against the Trojan defense.
The formula was simple. By limiting the Cardinal running game, USC was able to put Stanford in some uncomfortable third-and-long situations and then unleash the blitz. Luck looked uncomfortable for much of the first half, and the offense was only able to find success when linebacker A.J. Tarpley came up with a huge play to intercept Barkley at the Trojan forty-one. That turnover was cashed in for a field goal a few plays later.
Luckily for the Cardinal, Barkley and the USC offense was also out of sync. Wide receiver Robert Woods was the most explosive player on the field all night long, but somehow he and Barkley were never able to hook for anything impressive in the first half. The Trojans would settle for a fifty-yard field goal at the end of the half, and the teams headed into the locker room with the score Stanford 10, USC 6.
Even if the offense had struggled, nothing we had seen over the previous seven games suggested anything other than a Stanford win. My expectation was that the coaching staff would make the necessary halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball, and the Cardinal would cruise to victory in the final two quarters.
After USC's first two drives resulted in relatively easy touchdowns and a ten-point lead, all of that went out the window.
If this truly was the most important drive of Stanford's season, it was telling that it began with a hand off to Anthony Wilkerson. That he gained only three yards didn't matter. Even as a season hung in the balance and a nation was put on Upset Alert, the Cardinal wouldn't panic.
A few plays later the Cardinal fell into a critical third-and-twelve play from their own forty, maybe the most important play of this most important drive. Luck took the shotgun snap, shuffled a bit to his left to avoid pressure, then fired a bullet to Griff Whalen for seventeen yards and a first down. Three plays later he'd hit Whalen again, this time for twenty-seven, setting up an easy five-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Hewitt.
The drive pulled Stanford within three points at 20-17 and calmed the anxiety sweeping across Mighty Card Nation, and it couldn't have happened without Griff Whalen. Just as Doug Baldwin rose to unexpected prominence last season, Whalen has emerged as Luck's favorite target. There are at least three receivers on the Cardinal roster who have more talent than Whalen, but his six receptions and 102 yards on Saturday night led both categories.
Following that Hewitt touchdown, the Stanford defense rose to the occasion and threw down a three-and-out, giving the ball back to Luck at his own fourteen. On the second play of the drive, Gaffney set up behind center and sent Luck out wide to the right. I never understood why everyone in the NFL got such a crush on the wildcat formation a few years back because I felt like you were just telling the defense that you were going to run the ball.
The evolution of Stanford's Sequoia formation, though, has made me a believer. Initially, it was just Gaffney running to a gap in the line. That worked well enough, but then the coaching staff started adding wrinkles. First they started putting Wilkerson in motion so he could flash in front of Gaffney, giving him the option to hand the ball to him on a sweep. Next they had Gaffney toss to a sweeping Drew Terrell who then threw a pass to Luck. Two weeks later, they added an option look.
On Saturday night, it got even more exotic. Wilkerson swept across from the left side and took the ball from Gaffney. Wilkerson then tossed it to Luck, who was coming back from his slot on the right. Luck turned and flipped the ball fifty yards down field for my favorite freshman, Ty Montgomery. Montgomery had to hold up slightly, so he wasn't able to score, but the play went for sixty-two yards and gave the Oregon defensive staff one more thing to worry about. Minutes later Luck was walking into the end zone on a nifty quarterback delay from the two-yard line and the Cardinal was back in the lead at 24-20.
Barkley and the Trojans responded immediately and reclaimed a 27-24 lead with a quick seven-play, seventy-three yard drive capped off by a twenty-eight yard pass to the terribly athletic freshman wide receiver, Marqise Lee. (And by the way, if Barkley chooses to return next year, it will be because of the prospect of throwing to Woods and Lee, who will be the best receiving tandem the conference will have seen in years.)
Two possessions later a thirty-two-yard punt return from Terrell led to a short field and a twenty-nine-yard Eric Whitaker field goal, and the game was tied at 27. When Andrew Luck took the field eighty-three seconds later with 3:45 to play and the game still tied, it seemed the stage was set. The eventual Heisman Trophy winner would lead his offense down the field, gobbling up yardage and chewing up clock before eventually scoring the game-winning touchdown.
But it didn't happen that way.
Luck dropped back to pass on third and three from his own sixteen yard line and threw to his right towards Owusu. USC's Nickell Robey watched the play developing and broke to the ball faster than Owusu. He intercepted the pass easily and waltzed into the end zone for a 34-27 lead. It's possible that Owusu had misread the play, but Luck went to him immediately on the sidelines and tapped himself on the chest, taking the blame for the interception.
The good news, though, was that it had all happened fairly quickly. Luck returned to the field with 3:03 to play, seventy-six yards away from a tying touchdown. The big play came quickly. Facing a third and six from his own forty, Luck threw over the middle for Owusu. Owusu dropped the ball, but he was leveled by a shoulder to the head from USC's T.J. McDonald. McDonald was rightly assessed with a personal foul penalty, giving the Cardinal a first down at the USC 45. (For the Trojans, it must've been like déjà vu all over again. The Cardinal was in a similar situation last season against USC, when they started their final possession trailing the Trojans 35-34. On that afternoon it was linebacker Chris Galippo whose personal foul gave the Cardinal fifteen free yards.)
The drive continued from there, ending with a two-yard touchdown from Stepfan Taylor to tie the game at 34 with thirty-eight seconds to play.
My first thought was that Stanford and Andrew Luck would have a huge advantage in overtime, and my correspondent at the game texted to tell me the same thing. My second thought, though, was that there were still thirty-eight seconds left to play. Luckily for the Cardinal, the Trojans completely botched their final drive. Barkley was able to move the ball down field, but the clock ran out on them as Woods foolishly ran the width of the field for a seven-yard gain to the Stanford thirty-three. Coach Lane Kiffin watched time run out on his team with two unspent timeouts in his pocket.
Stanford took the ball first in overtime, and they did so with the clear intention of pressing their advantage against a tiring defense. They opened with a run from Taylor, a scramble from Luck, and another run from Taylor, bringing the ball to the thirteen. It seemed like they'd just keep running power, but then they did something I thought I'd never see. They ran the hook and ladder. Luck hit Montgomery with a quick pass at the line of scrimmage, and Montgomery immediately tossed the ball back to a sweeping Jeremy Stewart. The play only went for five yards, but it said a lot about the Stanford coaching staff. Even in this critical moment they trusted their players enough to call a play they'd never before run in a game situation.
Luck handed the ball to Stewart three more times, and eventually he found the end zone for a seven-point lead.
USC went back to McNeal, who was having the game of his life. He gobbled up five yards on each of two carries, bring the ball to the fifteen. The defense responded by pinching in a bit to stop the run, but this left the corners in one-on-one matchups with the dangerous Trojan receivers. Barkley noticed, and floated a pass to the back right corner of the end zone where Woods was easily able to gather it in for the tying score. 41-41.
USC got the ball first in the second overtime, and it didn't take them long to score -- though they were helped out by face mask penalty on Jarek Lancaster. If the Cardinal had lost this game, they would only have been able to blame themselves and their foolish penalties. They were penalized eleven times for ninety-one yards, including two delays of game, an illegal subsitution, and two defensive outsides, all mental mistakes that Stanford students aren't supposed to make. This Lancaster penalty led to a twelve-yard touchdown pass to Randall Telfer and 48-41 Trojan lead.
The Cardinal tied the game on a play that I've been waiting for since the summer of 2010. On second and eight from the eleven, Luck simply tossed the ball up high towards the left corner of the end zone. There were two people waiting there. One of them was USC linebacker Tre Madden, who's 6'1" and 220 pounds. The other was tight end Levine Toilolo, who's 6'8" and 263. Not surprisingly, Toilolo made the catch and the game was tied.
The Stanford offense came back out onto the field to start the third overtime period, and it took only three plays before Taylor was walking through the line for his second touchdown of the night. Mandated by rule to go for two, Luck calmly hit a wide-open Coby Fleener in the back of the end zone, and the Cardinal led by eight.
Barkley led his offense back out and immediately hit Lee for twenty-one yards to the four-yard line. It was looking like the game might never end, but it was quickly over. Barkley handed the ball to McNeal, the young running back who had enjoyed the most productive game of his career, and McNeal fumbled the ball. The boxscore credits Terrence Stephens for forcing the fumble, but my eyes told me it was Ben Gardner; either way, the ball was loose and bounding into the end zone. (Remember how I dreamed the game would end on a defensive turnover?) A.J. Tarpley recovered it, and the game was finally over.
I'll have more to say about this over the next few days, but for now let's leave it at this: this was the best football game I've ever seen.
Go Mighty Card.
[Photo Credits: 1, 2, 3: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images; 4,5: Jae C. Hong/AP Photo]