LOS ANGELES -- There is no such thing as a moral victory for USC. Let's make that clear up front.
The Trojans lost 56-48 in triple overtime to the Stanford Cardinal on Saturday night, but you aren't going to find any USC players or coaches proud of being part of college football high drama. While the Trojans might not be feeling a sense of accomplishment after taking part in such a well-played game, they do have a lot for which to be proud.
This game had all the trappings of a big-time atmosphere, with the Cardinal coming to town unbeaten and featuring a Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback. The Trojans were fresh off a physical beating of Notre Dame in South Bend and feeling confident about the direction their program was headed. ESPN GameDay made an appearance, a sure sign these days that the college football world would be paying attention to what went on in the stadium that night.
Well, is there anybody out there who watched the game and felt cheated?
You had Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley, arguably the top two quarterbacks in the country, each throwing for three touchdowns. You had two young head coaches engaged in a high-level chess match of schemes and play calls. And, in the end, you had two teams who just wouldn't quit -- not after regulation, not after the first overtime and not after the second overtime. It wasn't until a Curtis McNeal fumble in the third overtime was recovered by a Stanford defender that the game finally came to an end.
"I'm proud of the way this team kept fighting," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "Stanford had never been in that situation before, to be behind that late in a game, but we just didn't finish it off."
It might not have been good enough to win the game, but the way the Trojans played should show their players, coaches and fans that this team has made some huge progress in recent weeks.
This is a USC program dealing with the distractions of heavy NCAA sanctions and the inability to go to a bowl game. Its coach came into the season with the weight of unproven expectations hanging over his head. The offensive line was unsettled, the defense had troubles covering anybody in 2010, and there was speculation from around the country that USC was headed for a dark period over the next few years.
These last two weeks, however, have proven that any talk of the Trojans' demise is greatly exaggerated. To go into Notre Dame Stadium and get that win was a sign of life, but still there were doubters as the Stanford game approached. The Cardinal are big and physical and had put up a string of statistics that served as evidence of a team clicking on all cylinders.
The sellout Coliseum crowd was alive as the game began, and Luck got started right away with a long opening drive that resulted in a Cardinal touchdown. USC tried to answer, but the normally sure-handed Robert Woods dropped a perfect Barkley pass as he headed to the end zone.
That missed opportunity briefly took some air out of the stadium, but the USC defense stiffened for the remainder of the first half. Stanford added only a field goal while the Trojans hit two, including a 50-yarder from freshman Andre Heidari, and the Cardinal took a 10-6 lead into the locker room.
The Trojans came out running the ball in the second half, led by Curtis McNeal, who scored two quick touchdowns to put USC up for the first time in the game. The teams traded scores back and forth, and the score was tied midway through the fourth quarter. When Nickell Robey stepped in front of a Luck pass and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Trojans a 34-27 lead with just over three minutes left, it ignited a celebration in the Coliseum as the crowd sensed a victory was near.
Luck had hopes of marching his team down the field once again, but on third down his pass missed, and it looked like the Cardinal would have to punt. However, USC defensive back T.J. McDonald was called for a personal foul for targeting Stanford wide receiver Chris Owusu's head, giving Stanford new life. A few plays later, the Cardinal were in the end zone, the score was tied, 34-34, and the Trojans were left with only 33 seconds to mount a final drive. Barkley got them past midfield, but Woods was unable to get out of bounds in time at the Stanford 35 on the final play, which would have allowed for a potential game-winning kick.
The overtime periods showed how good both teams were on this night, as only touchdowns were scored. In fact, the Trojans almost scored again on their third overtime possession, but Marqise Lee barely stepped out of bounds on the play before the McNeal fumble.
It was a game that didn't deserve to have a loser. Stanford showed that it deserves to be ranked as one of the top teams in the nation. It might have taken a superb effort from its talented quarterback, but the Cardinal won for the third time in a row in the Coliseum. USC, on the other hand, stood toe-to-toe with one of the most physical teams around and didn't blink an eye.
"I think the way we played reflects well on the seniors and leaders of this team," Barkley said. "We've kept our focus on USC football and prepared well all year.
"Tonight was the most energy I've felt in the Coliseum, I just loved the way our fans responded. The game was a matchup to remember, but it's still one of those tough losses. It was so close, and we let it slip away."
The game might have slipped away, but something else might have been gained in the meantime -- a measure of respect. This was a game to be proud of, in victory or defeat. That might be of little solace right now for the Trojans, but it's a reality that could pay dividends in the future.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.