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Trojans work hard but don’t play smart against Stanford

Stanford had Heisman. USC had Oh, Man.

Stanford had a quarterback who would not crack. USC had its most inspirational effort of the season crack so deeply it crumbled.

Stanford had Andrew Luck. USC had no luck controlling a silly taunt, a botched clock, a banged head, a late hit and, finally, a running back who fumbled the final incredible seconds into history.

For Stanford, it was victory for the ages. For USC, the only enduring part will be the pain.

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Photos: USC vs. Stanford

The history books will record that on a raging Saturday night at the Coliseum, fourth-ranked and undefeated Stanford kept their national championship hopes alive by wearing down the storming Trojans for a 56-48 victory in three overtimes.

The scrapbooks, however, will remember this as a night when rollicking old-school Trojan football finally returned to Los Angeles, only to remind the city that these new guys are still a grimy work in progress.

For nearly four hours, the field was filled with Trojans flying and sprinting and bouncing and dancing and pushing a team with a 15-game winning streak to the ropes of defeat. But in the end, which is all that matters really, the field was filled with Stanford players running wildly in circles around USC players frozen on their knees while many of the 93,000 fans watched in stunned silence, everyone staring at the big one who got away.

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The Coliseum rocked, and then it was rolled.

“As a player, it was the most energetic and electric crowd I’ve ever seen at the Coliseum,” said Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley. “I’m just really bummed we couldn’t get them the win. I’ll definitely remember it was one of the toughest losses. I definitely won’t forget it.”

In the highest scoring game in Trojans history, nobody will soon forget how Stanford’s Luck may have clinched his Heisman Trophy by throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns and leading his team back from two deficits. Nor will anyone forget how Barkley tried to match him punch for punch, throwing for 284 yards and three touchdowns, pushing the Trojans to the brink of the biggest win of the Lane Kiffin era.

But then, too, nobody around here will soon forget that USC could have won -- should have won -- and didn’t.

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“It hurts right now because we’re so close,” said Barkley.

So close, and yet so scarred.

For the record, Stanford won when the Trojans’ Curtis McNeal fumbled into the end zone at the end of the third overtime, with Stanford’s AJ Tarpley falling on the ball to end it.

But for goodness sakes, the Trojans could have won this game earlier if they had just kept their heads while not trying to do such things as, you know, remove Stanford players from their own heads.

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Where do we start? How about at the end of regulation, when the Trojans could have attempted a game-winning, 51-yard field goal Robert Woods could have run the ball out of bounds or dropped to his knee in time for Coach Kiffin to use one of his two remaining timeouts.

Woods did neither. He was tackled before he could sprint across the field and out of bounds after catching a screen pass. The clock struck zero, the game went into overtime, and Kiffin went into a postgame tear, saying he had called timeout with one second left.

“I’m really disappointed in the officials, extremely disappointed,” Kiffin said. “It was communicated to them, they communicated to me, exactly the situation. ? I called timeout with one second left on the clock.”

But how could Kiffin call timeout before the end of the play? Apparently Kiffin thought Woods’ knee was down with one second left, and he thought the replay confirmed that, but he said the officials still wouldn’t allow the timeout.

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“He said that if there was one second, you wouldn’t have enough time to call a timeout,” Kiffin said of the referee. “Well, I’ve been around football a long time. You call timeouts in one second all the time.”

Here’s a thought. Before the play, why didn’t Kiffin tell Woods to fall to the ground the minute he crossed the 35-yard line with Barkley’s pass? Then Kiffin would have had several seconds to call a timeout.

That was all just part of the disappointment that filled the end of a game which the Trojans began by emerging from the Coliseum tunnel through billows of smoke for the first time in memory.

That theme would continue in ways both exhilarating and suffocating.

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It was exhilarating for the Trojans early in the third quarter when McNeal reeled off two long touchdown runs -- 61 and 25 yards -- to give the Trojans a stunning 10-point lead against a team that had yet to trail this season. By then, the entire Coliseum was burning with the sort of passion not felt around here since Pete Carroll walked these sidelines. Players danced, fans swayed, the aging rafters shook, it was yesterday once more.

And then, it wasn’t.

The Trojans regained the lead early in the fourth quarter on Barkley’s 28-yard slant pass to Marqise Lee, but here came the suffocating part. Lee was flagged for taunting Stanford’s Johnson Bademosi. The penalty on the ensuing kickoff gave Stanford the sort of field position it needed to drive down for a tying field goal.

That tie was broken with 3:08 remaining when Nickell Robey stepped in front of an underthrown pass by Luck for a 32-yard interception return, but it was time for more suffocation.

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Stanford’s ensuing drive was aided by a hit to the head delivered by Trojan safety T.J. McDonald, who nailed receiver Chris Owusu’s helmet with his shoulder after Robey broke up a third-down pass around midfield. Owusu lay on the ground for several minutes in a scene that is becoming frighteningly familiar.

This is the same McDonald who was assessed three personal foul penalties for similar hits in the Trojans’ loss against Arizona State. After that game, USC’s main response was to protest the calls, and McDonald showed little remorse.

“I’m not going to change the way I play,” said McDonald at the time, and, sure enough, he hasn’t.

Just wondering, but how many more opponents are going to be knocked motionless before somebody is going to discipline this kid?

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Seven plays after the penalty, Stanford scored on a two-yard run by Stepfan Taylor to tie the game.

Overtime wiped the slate clean, but the Trojan madness continued. In the third overtime, Jawanza Starling’s late hit out of bounds set up the Cardinal’s five-yard touchdown run by Stepfan Taylor.

It was the imperfect ending to a perfection of a college football game. Stanford now moves closer to a national title while USC fans must hope their young Trojans, in turning the final weeks of their NCAA probation into somewhat of a firestorm, will eventually get all that smoke out of their eyes.

Photos: USC vs. Stanford

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bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke


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