Some scores will live forever in Stanford football history. 20-19 in 1982. 24-23 in 2007. But 56-48 in 2011 might outrank them all.
In the most dramatic game of the 2011 college football season, the Stanford football team rallied from a 10-point deficit in the second half to force extra football against the USC Trojans before pulling off a 56-48 victory in triple overtime.
The No. 4 Cardinal (8-0, 6-0 Pac-12) was pushed to the limit over and over again on a wild night in Los Angeles, but redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck turned in the greatest performance of his career when it mattered most—right after what could have been the single worst moment in his time with Stanford.
With 3:45 left in the fourth quarter and the score tied at 27, the Cardinal got the ball on its own 16-yard line, leaving Luck in prime position to pull off the fifth fourth-quarter comeback victory of his career.
Facing a third down after a 7-yard run by junior running back Stepfan Taylor, Luck dropped back, looked right and fired toward diving senior wide receiver Chris Owusu, but Trojan safety Nickell Robey pounced on the pass and dashed into the end zone as the sellout crowd of 93,607 let forth a deafening roar at the superstar’s sudden misfortune.
“I was very disappointed in myself,” Luck said after the game. “For a couple seconds, I wanted to dig a hole and go bury myself in it.”
Now down 34-27, Luck would get the ball back with a chance to redeem himself with 3:03 to go—a moment that inspired resiliency, not dejection, on the Stanford sideline.
“We always have faith in our offense,” said senior safety Michael Thomas. “I never once doubted that they would come back and score.”
“We put the ball in our quarterback’s hands. We put it on his shoulders, and [the] kid comes through,” said head coach David Shaw. “He was so upset, and he was upset about it for about 45 seconds. Then he flushed it, and he made the plays to help us come back and win the game…He was not going to let that play lose the game for us.”
With the clock rapidly fading, Luck and company charged 76 yards in 10 plays—spurred by a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Owusu on a third-down incompletion—before Taylor barreled over the right side of the line for a 2-yard touchdown with 38 seconds left.
The Trojans then completed a trio of passes to get close to field-goal range, but wide receiver Robert Woods couldn’t get out of bounds quickly enough on the last play of regulation for USC to attempt a field goal, sending the game into overtime. This time, the Cardinal’s feeling of resiliency turned into confidence.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to do it. We’re going to win this game,’” said senior tackle Jonathan Martin. “Overtime, we knew we were going to win from the start. We knew that we can fight through everything.”
In overtime, Stanford took the ball first and kept to the ground, running seven straight times before senior Jeremy Stewart dove over the goal line for a score. USC responded with a perfect touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Barkley to Woods to send the game to another overtime period.
In double overtime, Barkley flipped a pass to tight end Randall Telfer, who broke through four Stanford defenders before stretching across the plane to rock the momentum back to USC. Luck responded by returning to the air, where he found redshirt sophomore tight end Levine Toilolo for an 11-yard touchdown to extend the game one more time.
On the second play of triple overtime, Taylor took a handoff and scampered untouched for his second touchdown of the night, which Luck then capped by finding redshirt senior tight end Coby Fleener wide open in the end zone for a two-point conversion that made it 56-48.
Barkley answered back with a 21-yard pass to put USC on the doorstep again, but Trojan running back Curtis McNeal had the ball punched free from his arms by junior defensive tackle Terrence Stephens immediately after taking the handoff. The football skipped off McNeal into the end zone, where Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley pounced on the ball.
This time, the Coliseum was silent—except, of course, for the Stanford fans, located all the way on the other side of the stadium, hundreds of yards away from where the drama finally ended.
In a hoarse voice, Shaw praised his team for standing tall when the Cardinal faced its toughest test of football in almost an entire calendar year.
“We talked about fighting adversity—I didn’t know it would be this much adversity—but the kids fought through, and I love them to death for it,” he said.
Shaw, who said on Tuesday that he was running out of words to describe his quarterback, found a new, peculiar metaphor to describe Luck’s role as the heart and soul of Cardinal football.
“The thing you can’t forget about Andrew is that he is the most competitive guy on our team,” he said. “So when a bad play happens, he goes completely down in the dumps. He’s so upset, furious, and then it’s like flushing a toilet. It’s like it never happened, and he moves on.”
Luck finished the day 29-of-40 for 330 yards with three touchdowns and the lone interception through the air, and he added 36 yards and a touchdown on the ground. But the reason for the hyperbole that will stick firmly to this performance was not because of the stats, but because Luck responded when the nuclear clock for the Cardinal was very close to striking midnight several times. In fact, the Trojans’ stirring second half led to several stadium-wide announcements asking fans to stay off the field at the end of the game.
After a defensive struggle in the first half left Stanford with a 10-6 lead, the Trojans scored on their first two drives of the second half with a pair of long rushing touchdowns from McNeal to give USC a 20-10 lead.
And although Stanford had not trailed to a single opponent yet this season, the suddenly raucous atmosphere failed to frazzle the Cardinal.
“We always talk about adversity as an opportunity for greatness,” said junior defensive end Ben Gardner. “So this was really our first opportunity to show up mentally and show what we’re made of. We got behind, but we never lost faith.”
Luck then led Stanford to touchdowns on its next two possessions in the third quarter to take the lead back at 24-20, passing his first major test of the year and setting the table for his fourth-quarter heroics.
And while the Cardinal can no longer boast that it has beaten all comers by 25 or more points, Luck and company escaped the upset to remain undefeated and in the heart of the hunt for the BCS National Championship Game with four games left on its schedule—but that doesn’t mean that those presumptuous stadium-wide announcements didn’t register.
“I heard it,” Thomas said. “But that’s why you gotta keep playing.”
Stanford will go on the road again this weekend as it heads to Corvallis, Ore., to tangle with Oregon State on Saturday.