LOS ANGELES -- Atlas doesn’t carry this much on his shoulders. And yet, Stanford’s world keeps turning.
Stanford is still in the hunt. Still in the conversation. Still perfect on a night when the Cardinal were anything but. Still in the game when fate’s dice seemed so unbelievably loaded.
In an epic contest that made last year’s last-minute nail biter look like a Swedish massage, the Cardinal overcame three deficits before topping USC 56-48 in triple-overtime.
It wasn’t just the fact that they won. It was the burdens they had to carry on their way to victory lane.
For the second consecutive week, they were without safety Delano Howell (and he was missed).
Before kickoff, it was decided that kicker Jordan Williamson, Mr. Accuracy himself, would not play.
Add the weight of the nation’s longest win streak (now 16 games) and playing in a hostile environment with national championship aspirations and it would be easy to see how they’d collapse.
And they almost did.
But they didn’t.
“We talk about fighting adversity, but I didn’t know it was going to be this much adversity,” said head coach David Shaw. “But the kids fought through it and I love them to death for it.”
The Cardinal overcame their first deficit of the season – three deficits in regulation, to be exact – but fought back each time. They overcame injuries to three starting offensive linemen that cost all of them some time. And with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game, they overcame a horrendous miscue from Luck, their unflappable signal caller.
With the score tied at 27-27, the stage was set for Luck to march the Cardinal down the field for the go-ahead score. But even though we’re in sight of the Hollywood sign, things don’t always go as scripted. USC corner back Nickell Robey jumped Luck’s pass intended for Chris Owusu and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown and a 34-27 lead.
The weight could have been crushing. It wasn’t.
“I was very disappointed in myself,” said Luck, calling it a bad decision from the start. “There were a couple of seconds there when I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself. But the guys believed in me. For that I was grateful. I was happy there was still some time on the play clock to go down there again.”
And they did, moving 76 yards on 10 plays and capping the overtime-forcing drive with a 2-yard Stepfan Taylor run. From there, the Cardinal and Trojans went blow-for-blow until Taylor’s 5-yard score put them ahead and USC failed to answer, with Curtis McNeal fumbling into the end zone to cap the game.
“When a bad play happens, he goes completely down in the dumps,” Shaw said of his quarterback. “He’s so mad, so upset, so furious. Then it’s like flushing a toilet. He flushes it and it’s like it never happened and he moves on more determined. The look in his eye was ‘We’re going to get this done.’ That’s what he said. He went up and down and told everybody, ‘We’re going to get this done.’ He was so mad at himself. He was not going to let that play lose the game for us.”
Without Ertz, much of Stanford’s offensive identity is lost. The Cardinal’s three-tight end formations are as much their calling card as Luck.
“It’s probably 25-30 percent (of our offense),” Shaw said. “It's a healthy chunk. And we also have a lot of two-tight-end stuff. And between those two, it’s doggone near 50 percent. We had to count on other guys stepping up.”
To lose that significant portion of the offense right before it takes the field has to be daunting. There are game plans. Scripted plays. It would crush most teams. Right?
“We had to regroup and restructure part of our game plan,” said offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. “… It was a character-building game. Our group, collectively they do a great job of maintaining their focus. Tonight was a night where we had a lot of adversity … It’s a testament to the poise of our head coach. What you see is what you get. He never panics. I tend to get emotionally hijacked at times. He calmed us all down. Our kids feed off his temperament. It was a night when we were only as good as our last play and we were focused on winning each play.”
And then there was the kicker situation. An undisclosed injury kept Williamson out of the game. So it was up to Eric Whitaker – who was yet to kick a field goal in a game this season — to step in and perform. While he was shaky on kickoffs, putting two of them out of bounds, he made both of his field goals (33 and 29 yards) and converted all six PATs – including two in overtime.
The weight could have been crushing. It wasn’t. Not when the Cardinal fell behind by 10 points in the third quarter.
“We had talked all week about the fact that Stanford hadn’t had to go into the fourth quarter trailing,” said USC head coach Lane Kiffin. “Our goal was to keep it close and take the lead in the second half and see what happened. They haven’t been in that situation before.”
Now they have. Even when Luck’s pick-six put them in the hole, the players had overtime on their minds.
“We always talk about how adversity is an opportunity for greatness,” said defensive end Ben Gardner. “This was our first chance to show our mettle in the face of adversity. We got behind, but we never lost faith. It was a struggle, but when the time came, we made the plays.”