Olin Buchanan Rivals.com College Football Senior Writer
LOS ANGELES - Outside of venerable Los Angeles Coliseum on Saturday, a coppery haze of smog distorted the view of the San Gabriel Mountains to the east.
Inside the historic stadium, the view wasn't any clearer.
Seriously, what is to be made of the undefeated Stanford Cardinal, who showed remarkable resiliency - or was it vulnerability? - in a 56-48 triple-overtime tug-of-war over USC.
Should Stanford be praised for facing a dangerous, jacked-up opponent in a hostile environment and staving off an upset with a clutch drive in the final minutes of regulation? Or should the Cardinal's reputation - and its BCS resume - be in question for struggling to survive against the Trojans, who barely beat the likes of Minnesota, Utah and Arizona?
That answer likely varies depending on one's address, but what should be taken away from this game - especially by BCS voters - is that Stanford has the physical and mental makeup to threaten the SEC's 5-year hold on the national championship.
"Adversity" may be the favorite word among football coaches. The great teams, we're told, overcome it.
Stanford faced adversity by the truckload late in the fourth quarter, when USC cornerback Nickell Robey returned an Andrew Luck interception 33 yards for a touchdown and a 34-27 lead. That interception appeared to send the Cardinal's undefeated season, national championship hopes and Luck's Heisman campaign right down the toilet.
"One thing you can't forget about Andrew is he's the most competitive guy on the team," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "When he makes a bad play, he can get down, but then he flushes it. He was so mad at himself, he was not going to let that be the play that lost the game for us.
"He was so upset for about 45 seconds. Then he flushed it and moved on and then made the plays."
Luck admitted he was momentarily despondent about the interception. He got over it quickly, though.
"I was very disappointed in myself for a couple of seconds," he said. "I wanted to find a big hole and bury myself in it. But the guys believed in me and for that I am grateful. It was a relief that there was still time on the clock."
There was 3:08 left, and the 93,607 on hand were raising decibels to levels usually only reached in Baton Rouge and a few other SEC environs.
Yet, once he shook off the shock, Luck began walking up and down the sideline, encouraging his teammates, promising them he would lead the Cardinal to a game-tying touchdown.
They believed him.
"I always have faith in our offense," Stanford free safety Michael Thomas said. "I never doubted they would score. It was just a little adversity."
Added defensive end Ben Gardner: "We always talk about adversity being an opportunity for greatness. This was the first time we had a chance to show our mettle in the face of adversity."
After the ensuing kickoff, Luck completed four passes for 33 yards and ran for another 15 to lead a 10-play, 76-yard drive in 2 1/2 minutes. It ended with Stepfan Taylor's game-tying 2-yard touchdown run.
Then, after time barely ran out on USC in regulation, Luck led the Cardinal to touchdowns on each of their three OT possessions, and he also completed a two-point conversion pass in the third OT.
He finished with 330 yards and three touchdowns in a performance that cemented his status as the current Heisman front-runner. But the win wasn't secured until USC tailback Curtis McNeal fumbled into the end zone in the third OT and linebacker AJ Tarpley pounced on it.
That fumble marred a tremendous effort from McNeal, who rushed for 145 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of 61 and 25 yards.
McNeal's success likely leads skeptics to doubt whether Stanford is a legitimate threat to win the national title. If the Cardinal can't contain a diminutive running back such as the 5-foot-8, 175-pound McNeal, how could it slow Alabama's Trent Richardson? How would the Cardinal defense hold up against LSU's powerful offensive line? And good luck if Stanford needs a late drive against the defenses of the Crimson Tide or Tigers.
But Stanford shouldn't be doubted for surviving a close call. Rather, that should be seen as evidence to how good Stanford truly is.
Stanford was trailing. The home crowd was roaring. A message warning USC fans not to storm the field was announced twice over the public-address system. Stanford was on the brink of a loss.
Yet the Cardinal found a way to avoid becoming an upset victim; that's something Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Clemson haven't been able to do in the past two weeks. Luck's play was the reason.
"Outside of the one interception, he was fantastic,' USC coach Lane Kiffin said of Luck. "The stats aren't going to show the plays he made, but he's a really special pocket passer and makes plays with his feet. It's why he'll be the first pick in the draft."
The Cardinal's remaining regular-season schedule includes the Nov. 12 Pac-12 North Division showdown with Oregon and a regular-season finale against Notre Dame ; there's also the possibility of the Pac-12 championship game, most likely against Arizona State.
The Cardinal, which could rise as high as No. 4 in the next BCS standings, still need No. 3 Oklahoma State to fall. And in that scenario, Stanford may indeed find its way to New Orleans to play for the national championship.
If the Cardinal make it that far, don't dismiss its chances. Stanford showed something Saturday night.
"Hopefully, we showed to a national television audience that we're not just one guy," Shaw said. "We're not just Andrew Luck. We've got really, really good college football players - and we've got a lot of them."