It's not often that you see the USC Trojans being the ones in the scrappy underdog role. Yet there they were, fighting, executing, and getting every chance to pull off a win for the ages in the Coliseum.
Matt Barkley, Curtis McNeal, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Randall Telfer, Matt Kalil, Nick Perry, ... the list of excellent performers from the Men of Troy goes on and on. If McNeal doesn't lose that football the Trojans and Cardinal could still be on the field in the hundredth overtime right now, because neither of those offenses showed any signs of being stopped on Saturday.
Barkley was almost the equal of Andrew Luck on the field, as he parried nearly every blow the Stanford QB threw at his team's defense. He spread the ball toward eight different receivers and found receivers other than Woods to catch the football, particularly the freshman Lee and the Trojan tight end. The unheralded McNeal might have solidified his hold on the top running spot, besting names like Marc Tyler and Dillon Baxter as he ran with a hard patience that got him through opposing defenders.
The USC defense too looked as solid as ever. Monte Kiffin finally looked in his element combating a pro-style quarterback, disguising blitz packages and coverages to try and fool Luck. It didn't work too much (he still completed 70% of his passes), but they forced Stanford to depart the field prematurely with three three-and-outs (the Cardinal had five all season). And of course the Nickell Robey pick nearly was the capper on what could've been a great upset.
That being said, they still have to tread those last nine yards.
USC committed a personal foul penalty on a 3rd down deep in Stanford territory after that pick-six when T.J. McDonald went high to the head of Chris Owusu. While it might have been accidental, the hit was up. USC then gave up everything from there, conceding four straight touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime. Some of it is just Luck being great (the Stanford offense has yet not to score in the red zone), but the defense could not get a stop on three occasions to give the offense the victory. The Cardinal waited for the Trojans to make a mistake, and they did, and that was the game.
And of course, that final playcall will mystify forever. Why did Kiffin order a slow developing screen on the edge of field goal territory? Why did Kiffin not tell Woods there were no timeouts?
After the game, Kiffin went after the refs, when he should've been on himself. If his team had executed better and he had managed the end of the game better, USC might have had a chance to win in regulation. They'll have to settle for most inspiring effort in defeat, which might give them a nice movie to watch some day.
The Trojans nearly got there. They're getting back there. As the Pac-12 transitions to 2012 and USC is back to competing for crowns, they'll be right there with any of the big contenders, winning the big ones.
They're just not quite there yet. Not this year, at least.