Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Stanford shows it vulnerable side, but makes it out of USC very much alive

Stanford 56, USC 48 (Triple Overtime).
The first thing Andrew Luck said after one of the biggest, most dramatic wins of his career — well, after shoving his way to the end zone seats to celebrate one of the biggest, most dramatic wins of his career with a few Stanford fans, anyway — was "We needed this." Behind the canned answer for the cameras was an admission that the weekly blowouts that have piled up over the course of the nation's longest winning streak have dulled the Cardinal's edge, and a close call might help them sharpen it again.

But the celebration was more honest: For all the lessons, doubts and surprises on a night like this, none of them mean anything without survival.

Stanford shows it vulnerable side, but makes it out of USC very much aliveThat anyone would even consider haggling over the merits of a win at USC, of any variety, is another testament of just how far Stanford has come (and USC, too, though the Trojans came in at 6-1) since miraculously upsetting the top-ranked Trojans as a 32-point underdog in 2007. Lately, though, it's tended to go a little easier: Before Saturday, the Cardinal had taken ten straight by at least 25 points, and hadn't been in a game that was still in doubt in the fourth quarter in almost a year, since a comeback win at Arizona State last November. That was the last time any significant chinks showed in the armor. After Saturday, there are a few holes in the armor.

Most of those are on defense, which was pierced for 400-plus yards (373 in regulation) for the second week in a row, and for quick touchdowns on three of the Trojans' first four possessions of the second half. But the offensive line had uncharacteristic issues, too, failing to generate four yards per carry on the ground (two full yards below the Cardinal's season average after obliterating Washington for 446 yards on more than 10 per carry last week) and yielding two sacks on Luck, who faced more pressure from the USC front than he'd faced in the first seven games combined. The Chosen One himself was brought low in the fourth quarter, when he served up an easy pick-six for USC cornerback Nickell Robey, putting the Trojans up 34-27 with less than four minutes to play.

Stanford's response: A 10-play, 76-yard march for the tying touchdown, on which Luck hit four of six passes for 32 yards and added another 16 rushing. That was after they had responded to a 10-point deficit in the third quarter with back-to-back touchdown drives to retake the lead, and responded again with a field goal to tie before Robey's interception. Three times in the second half, USC had the Cardinal reeling for the first time this season, and all three times the Cardinal punched themselves right back into it. Eventually, when it was USC's turn to respond in the third overtime, the defense managed to punch the ball out of Curtis McNeal's hands to seal the win.

One measure of a championship season is dominance, which Stanford has displayed in spades. The rest is escape. Colorado had the Fifth Down in 1990. Miami had "Wide Right" in 1991, and "Wide Left" in 2002. Nebraska had the "Flea Kicker" in 1997. Tennessee had Stoerner's stumble in 1998. USC had 4th-and-10 and the Bush Push in 2005. Florida had Jarvis Moss' block in 2006. In 2009, Alabama had Terrence Cody's armpit block against Tennessee, just ahead of the extra second that punched Texas' ticket to the title game. Last year, Oregon had Giorgio Tavecchio's stutter step, and Auburn had almost every game it played. As Luck said, every championship team needs a game when its season flashes before its eyes.

His team's not in that category yet, not with Oregon and Notre Dame and a potential Pac-12 Championship Game still in front of it and BCS standings that continue to favor the Alabama/LSU winner and Oklahoma State until one or the other loses. Stanford is still alive after two very bloody weeks that have cut the ranks of its unbeaten peers nearly in half. It passed its toughest test. When all of your major goals are still within sight — the Pac-12 championship, a perfect season, a shot at the BCS championship — survival is its own virtue.

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Matt Hinton is
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