A hushed silence fell over a sellout crowd of 93,607 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday.
For four quarters and almost three overtimes, No. 20 USC fought, scratched and clawed with No. 4 Stanford in a back-and-forth affair. In the third overtime, junior tailback Curtis McNeal took a handoff, on the verge of bringing USC (6-2, 3-2) within a two-point score of Stanford (8-0, 4-0). But the ball popped loose and slipped from his grasp. With it, the Trojans’ chances of upending the Cardinal slipped away, too, as Stanford escaped with a 56-48 victory.
“Both teams played extremely hard and played great football,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It’s unfortunate that we were on the wrong end of it.”
Though Stanford managed to put up 56 points, the offensive outburst was not indicative of USC’s defensive play. Sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey picked off Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and returned the interception for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter and the Trojans sacked Luck twice for a loss of 20 yards. Entering the game, Stanford’s offensive line had only allowed two sacks through seven games.
“I thought the defensive line did some good things, especially early on,” Kiffin said. “They really got after [Luck] versus a very good offensive line.”
And it was the defense that kept USC within striking distance of Stanford in the first half, limiting the Cardinal to just 10 points and 168 total yards for an offense that came in averaging just less than 49 points and more than 500 yards per contest. USC, however, was only able to manage two field goals in the first two quarters despite not much opposition from the Cardinal defense.
Because of the offense’s struggles in the first two quarters, the Trojans trailed 10-6 at halftime. But in the second half, the USC offense came alive. Junior quarterback Matt Barkley connected with sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods twice before the running game took over. On the third play of the drive, McNeal sprinted for a 61-yard touchdown run, giving USC a 13-10 lead. It was the first time Stanford had trailed all season.
A Stanford three-and-out gave way to USC’s offense, and it was McNeal who again gave the Trojans a lift. The Los Angeles native scampered 25 yards to the end zone for his second touchdown of the quarter, extending USC’s lead to 20-10. In the third quarter alone, McNeal finished with 11 rushes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. For the game, McNeal registered 20 carries for 139 yards and two scores.
“He played great for us all night long and came up with some huge plays,” Kiffin said. “He was banged up and it was great to see him play so well.”
Despite McNeal’s third quarter performance, Stanford hung around in part because of Luck’s play. The senior signal caller orchestrated drives of 75 yards and 86 yards to end the third quarter to give the Cardinal the 24-20 lead heading into the fourth. In the final quarter and three overtimes, Luck completed 12 of 17 passes for 94 yards and one touchdown to help Stanford avoid its first loss of the season.
“Luck is a great player, a great quarterback,” Robey said. “He played one of his best games. He came at us with all he could. Our defense did our job and did everything coach asked us to do. The chips just didn’t fall the way we wanted them to.”
Luck finished with 29-of-40 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Stanford’s vaunted running game, which had entered the contest averaging 5.1 yards per carry was limited to just 3.9 yards per carry. Running back Stepfan Taylor, who scored the game-winning touchdown, finished with 23 carries for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
On the other side, Barkley completed 28 of 45 passes for 284 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Woods notched nine receptions for 89 yards and a score, while freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee finished with seven receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown, his fifth in six games. Freshman tight end Randall Telfer also notched five receptions for 45 yards and in the second overtime, broke a couple tackles and lunged past the goal line for his second score of the year.
Though the team took a top-five opponent down to the wire Saturday, the Trojans must regroup quickly as the face Colorado in Boulder, Colo., on Friday on a shorter week’s worth of practice.
“It hurts right now because we were so close,” Barkley said. “It was almost like it slipped away. Call it a moral victory or whatever you want to call it. It’s good that we took them to the wire, but it’s not good enough for us.”