LOS ANGELES -- At first glance, this bit of epic college football poetry that was Stanford's 56-48 triple-overtime victory over USC ended with an inglorious thud. Trojans tailback Curtis McNeal fumbled on first-and-goal from the Cardinal 4-yard line. Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley picked up the ball. Game over. Four hours of tumultuous, thrilling football, and it ended with a sloppy miscue.
It was as though someone painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Or dumped a dollop of Miracle Whip on a beautiful rib eye. Or changed the ending of "The Usual Suspects," having agent Dave Kujan tell Verbal Kint, "Hey, I figured it out. You're Keyser Söze. You're under arrest." Roll credits.
That's the first glance, but the more measured view sees perfection in an artless ending. Sure, it would be nice to storyboard every game so it plays out like "Miracle on Ice," but the reality is the process of winning a national championship includes plenty of sausage making. It includes ugly wins, strange plays, favorable officiating and good fortune. It includes moments when your team looks eminently beatable.
Remember Terrence Cody, Alabama's 350-pound noseguard, blocking a 44-yard field goal attempt on the final play against a mediocre Tennessee team to preserve a 12-10 victory in 2009? And Auburn beat Clemson and Kentucky by three points each in 2010. Or recall the "Bush Push," a linchpin of USC's run to the 2005 title game.
When Andrew Luck, who is reputed to have been forged by Hephaestus to play quarterback better than anyone has before, hurled a 33-yard pick-six to cornerback Nickell Robey and the Trojans jumped ahead 34-27 with 3:08 left, an entire country gasped. Forget its un-Heisman-like statement. It looked as though Luck himself would be responsible for the end of the nation's longest winning streak as well as the Cardinal's national title dreams.
"For a couple of seconds, I wanted to dig a hole and throw myself in it," Luck said. "I was relieved there was more time left."
Said Stanford coach David Shaw, "He was upset for about 45 seconds. Then he flushed it."
After that quick trip to the mental port-a-potty, he then led the Cardinal 76 yards in 10 plays for the tying touchdown with 38 seconds left.
He threw his third touchdown pass to tie the game in the second overtime. His pass to tight end Coby Fleener for the required two-point conversion in the third overtime provided the Cardinal's final points. He finished with 330 yards passing, completing 29 of 40. He also rushed nine times for 36 yards and a score.
It wasn't Luck's most elegant, efficient day, if accounting for four touchdowns can be sniffed at. Further, the Stanford defense, previously stout, was a ragged bunch by game's end, yielding 432 yards. Still, it was a 16th consecutive victory on a day when two more previously unbeaten teams, Clemson and Kansas State, fell hard.
"We always talk about that adversity is an opportunity for greatness," defensive end Ben Gardner said. "This was really our first chance to show our mettle."
Overcoming adversity, in fact, was the theme coming out of Stanford's locker room. That hasn't been required from Stanford in more than a year. The Cardinal previously had won 10 games in a row by 25 or more points. They hadn't trailed all season.
Stanford, the least penalized Pac-12 team, had 11 for 91 yards on Saturday. A team that had given up only two sacks in its first seven games gave up two to USC. A team that had led the Pac-12 in sacks had none. A team that converts 53 percent of its third downs was 6-for-15.
It wasn't pretty. But it was a second consecutive victory over a ranked team.
It also was not without controversy. USC coach Lane Kiffin believed that he called a timeout with one second left in regulation, and that would have allowed the Trojans to attempt a 50-yard field goal for the win. He was rebuffed by game officials.
"Any coach can ask for a timeout, but he doesn't get one until an official grants or signifies one," referee Michael Batlan said in a postgame statement.
When Kiffin watches the film, he likely won't get too worked up over the officiating. The 19-yard play that started the Trojans' final drive in regulation was made possible by a non-call on holding by tackle Kevin Graf, who essentially tackled Gardner to prevent a sack.
Although USC isn't a program that embraces the idea of moral victories, that case can be made. QB Matt Barkley also threw a bad interception, but he completed 28 of 45 passes for 284 yards with three touchdowns, and the Trojans held up well on both lines. McNeal led all rushers with 145 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
"It hurts right now because we were so close," Barkley said. "It was almost like it slipped away. You can't blame Curtis. We had times when we didn't convert. It's good that we took them to the wire, but it's not good enough for us."
Both teams will slap their foreheads when watching this one on film. But that's often how the best college football games play out. Great plays and plenty of regrets and what-ifs. It was a great, if flawed, ride that had the Coliseum crowd clapping for both teams as they exited the field.
It made perfect sense, too. The messy moments when things are on the brink of collapsing but don't often are the most memorable during a special season.
And when Tarpley took the game ball that he had picked up and handed it to Shaw in the jubilant, exhausted postgame locker room, it was hard to imagine things being any more perfect for the Cardinal.
Ted Miller covers Pac-10 football for ESPN.com.