LOS ANGELES -- The head-to-head battle between Stanford's Andrew Luck and USC's Matt Barkley never materialized.
Something better happened. A classic.
Stanford defeated USC 56-48 in heart-stopping, back-and-forth, triple-overtime thriller a game at the Coliseum Saturday night.
It was the football equivalent of Game 6 of the World Series. Easily the Pacific-12 game of the year. And yes, maybe even the best college football game of the season.
It finally ended over four hours after it began when USC running back Curtis McNeal fumbled into the endzone with the Trojans needing a touchdown and 2-point conversion to force a fourth overtime. Stanford recovered, then stormed the field.
Its national title hopes were still intact, its 16-game winning streak was still alive, its heart was still racing.
When it was finally over both team were gassed, stunned and relieved.
For USC it was heart-breaking. After two years of enduring harsh NCAA sanctions, this could've been a breakthrough win for the Trojans. Instead it was a devastating loss.
McNeal, a hero all night with a career-high 145 yard and two touchdowns, was consoled on the field by his teammates.
Luck exhaled on the Stanford sideline, then sprinted to celebrate with the Stanford band. He was 28-of-39 for 302 touchdowns and three touchdowns on the night.
After a sluggish, defensive-oriented first half, both offenses came alive in the third quarter, trading scores and momentum on seemingly every possession.
Junior running back McNeal sparked USC with two third quarter touchdowns to stake USC to a 20-10 lead.
Stanford stormed back behind Luck, who engineered two workmanlike scoring drives to give Stanford a short-lived 24-20 lead.
But just as the assembled press corps was looking up new words for "perfect" in the thesaurus, Luck made a critical error, throwing an interception that USC cornerback Nickell Robey returned for a 32-yard touchdown to give the Trojans a 34-27 lead.
It would have and probably should've been enough to give USC the win in regulation, but safety T.J. McDonald was called for a personal foul on Stanford receiver Chris Owusu after an incomplete pass on third down. The penalty gave Stanford 15 yards, a first down and new life. The Cardinal scored with 38 seconds remaining to force overtime.
After the team traded touchdowns in the first two overtimes, Stanford took the lead on a five-yard run by Stepfan Taylor and an easy pass from Luck to Coby Fleener for the 2-point conversion.
USC nearly scored on its first play of the third overtime, but Marquise Lee stepped out of bounds at the 4-yard-line. McNeal fumbled two plays later.