LOS ANGELES (AP) — David Shaw waited through nearly a full year of blowout victories to see what Stanford would do when faced with real pressure and dire circumstances.
They don’t get much more dire than a triple-overtime game against rival Southern California in a sold-out Coliseum, and the fourth-ranked Cardinal emerged with a victory that told their coach more about his team’s character than any blowout ever could.
“I tell you what, our guys fight,” said Shaw, who still hasn’t lost as a rookie head coach after the 56-48 victory. “They just kept fighting.”
When they finally caught their breath after three tense overtimes ended with Curtis McNeal’s fumble for USC inside the Stanford 5, the Cardinal (8-0, 6-0 Pac-12) felt stronger. Just about everybody in the Stanford locker room appreciated this valuable tuneup for their showdown Nov. 12 with No. 6 Oregon, the only team to beat Stanford during an improbable two-year run of near-perfection for a program that struggled through most of the previous decade.
“We always talk about how adversity is an opportunity for greatness,” Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner said. “It was really our first chance to show our mettle and show what we’re made of. We got behind, but never lost faith.”
The Cardinal realized they almost needed to be slapped around a bit by a tough opponent, and the No. 21 Trojans (6-2, 3-2) complied. Not much on the Cardinal’s schedule this season had prepared them for big stages: Stanford played its nonconference games against lowly San Jose State and Duke, followed by four straight second-tier Pac-12 opponents before facing Washington and USC the last two weeks.
For the second straight trip to the Coliseum, Stanford produced the most points ever scored against USC — but the Cardinal did it under pressure they haven’t faced since last November, when they began a streak of 10 straight victories by at least 25 points. USC had 93,000-plus fans in the Coliseum on a cool L.A. night, but Stanford weathered it all.
“That’s the best team effort I’ve ever been a part of,” safety Michael Thomas said. “I love my team because we just kept fighting. We knew we had a challenge. We just had to keep fighting. A lot of people thought we cared about that 25-point-plus record, but we really didn’t. We care about the W.”
After such a draining game, Stanford probably won’t need much help getting focused for Saturday’s visit to Oregon State, the final prelude to what might be a season-defining visit from the Ducks. A BCS title game spot is still attainable for Stanford, and its experience in the Coliseum can only help.
The Cardinal trailed USC by 10 points in the second half after not falling behind in any of their first seven games this season. The Trojans moved the ball with relative ease, cutting up Stanford’s vaunted run defense with several big plays. Matt Barkley wasn’t sacked and connected on several big passes — and without a few inexplicable mistakes by USC star Robert Woods, who played with injuries, Stanford’s trouble might have been even bigger.
Andrew Luck also had to persevere through a less-than-perfect performance that included two sacks, three three-and-out series by an offense that had only done it four times all season and a mistake that nearly cost Stanford the game.
Although the Heisman Trophy favorite had long stretches of his usual sharp play while going 29 of 40 for 330 yards and three touchdowns, he also misread a coverage and threw an interception returned 33 yards for a go-ahead score by Nickell Robey with 3:08 left in regulation.
“There were a couple of seconds there where I wanted to dig a hole and bury myself,” Luck said. “But the guys believed in me.”
Luck calmly led a 76-yard drive to tie it with 38 seconds left, and Stanford scored on all three of its overtime possessions.
USC scored 28 points in the second half and 14 more in overtime, but Stanford’s Terrence Stephens forced McNeal’s fumble into the end zone to end it.
While Luck and his offense got valuable experience performing under pressure, the Stanford defense will have plenty to discuss this week in practice. A week after giving up 430 yards to Washington, the Cardinal surrendered 432 to USC.
“I don’t know if you can credit the defense too much,” said Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who recovered McNeal’s fumble. “We just gave up 50 points.”
USC’s offensive outburst cost the Cardinal’s vaunted defense in several statistical categories. Stanford dropped from fourth to 13th nationally in scoring defense when the Trojans singlehandedly raised the scoring average of Stanford’s opponents by nearly 4 1/2 points, and the Cardinal also dropped from 18th to 23rd in total defense.
The Cardinal won’t care if it made them mentally tougher for the challenges ahead in the next two months.
“As a defense, it was a struggle for us,” Gardner said. “But fortunately, when it came down to it, we made a play.”