LOS ANGELES -- Perfection, saved.

And add another breathtaking chapter to the expanding catalog of folk-hero exploits by Andrew Luck, Stanford quarterback, future No. 1 overall NFL draft pick -- and still your Heisman Trophy front-runner.

Luck and his Cardinal teammates, Stanford's unbeaten season in peril and its national championship hopes sagging, awakened in the second half and overtime Saturday night to rescue their grandest goals for the season, outlasting USC 56-48 before a roaring throng at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

With ESPN's "College GameDay" crew on hand and ABC's No. 1 broadcasting team delivering to a national TV audience (prime time on the East Coast), Luck overcame his own performance sins while effectively offsetting those committed by a Cardinal defensive unit bereft of answers to USC's speed and athleticism.

If not for Trojans tailback Curtis McNeal taking the handoff 4 yards from the end zone and fumbling away the ball on their final drive in overtime, USC might have scored all night.

And still, it would not have been enough. Not with Luck bringing Stanford back from whatever deficit or adversity it faced.

"We put the ball in our quarterback's hands," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "We put it on his shoulders. And the kid comes through.''

Luck had to come through, for his own sanity. His mishap almost gave USC the win.

He threw a fourth-quarter interception that USC cornerback Nickell Robey returned 33 yards for a touchdown, with 3:08 remaining in regulation. It was stunning and looked to be decisive, as if Stanford would fall for the first time, seriously damaging its championship aspirations and putting a blemish on the quarterback USC coach Lane Kiffin recently described as "perfect.''


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Luck simply regrouped and directed a 76-yard touchdown drive, forcing a 34-all tie with 38 seconds left in regulation.

"One thing you can't forget is Andrew is the most competitive guy on the team," Shaw said. "He made a bad play. He was down in the dumps. But he comes back. He was saying, 'We're going to get this done.' He was up and down (the benches) and told every guy we're going to get this done."

Stanford (8-0, 6-0 in the Pac-12) got it done because when it fell behind 20-10 early in the third quarter and an upset loomed, something seemed to click for Luck.

Maybe it was the vision of everything the team had built being threatened, conceivably taken away by a USC team ineligible for postseason play.

Somehow, Luck found another gear. He needed less than four minutes to lead a 75-yard drive, concluding with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Hewitt to pull Stanford to 20-17 with 6:34 remaining in the quarter.

After the Cardinal defense forced its first three-downs-and-a-punt series of the game, Luck and the offense took the field and went 86 yards for a touchdown. Stanford needed only 3:20 for Luck to dash in from the 2-yard line for a 24-20 lead with 1:22 left in the quarter.

But the Trojans (6-2, 3-2) responded. They used the passing game behind quarterback Matt Barkley to effectively loosen up Stanford's defense early, unleashed the running game behind McNeal (145 yards, 20 carries) then utilized a wonderful variety of plays to befuddle the Cardinal.

This third-quarter outburst, coming after a relatively quiet first half that ended with Stanford holding a 10-6 lead, suddenly signaled "game on," with both offenses pretty much having their way. The teams combined for 88 points after halftime.

If Stanford is in a game in which both offenses have their way, it has the advantage. It comes in the form of Luck, who completed 29 of 40 passes, for 330 yards and three touchdowns. Moreover, he led both teams in leadership.

"He is a great quarterback," Robey said. "He came at us with every angle you could possibly come at us with."

Stanford's lack of speed in the secondary was glaring against the amped-up Trojans, who pushed and poked and probed and even battered the Cardinal at times. Tight end Zach Ertz injured a knee on the opening kickoff. Wideout Chris Owusu left in the fourth quarter, after being flattened by Trojans safety T.J. McDonald, who was flagged for unnecessary roughness.

Yet the wounds weren't enough to steal Stanford's dreams. It all continues, the clean record, the win streak now at 16 games, the national credibility of Luck and the program.

And, too, the real possibility of a berth in the BCS championship game

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.