By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
There wasn't much separating Stanford and a second straight loss. Fifth-year senior place kicker Nate Whitaker was four seconds away from playing the villain.
Instead, he stepped up and, heroically, directed his 30-yard field goal through the uprights as the clock wound down to 0:00, giving the 14th-ranked Cardinal an unlikely 37-35 victory over visiting USC Saturday in a very important Pac-10 football game.
Whitaker walked on the field with his focus on the game-winning kick and not the missed extra point that might have been the difference.
"I knew I had to make it," Whitaker said. "There wasn't too much else going through (my mind) except it was my chance to redeem myself and give the team what it needed."
Whitaker missed his earlier kick after Stanford's final touchdown and that looked as if it could be the difference after USC took a 35-34 lead on Allen Bradford's three-yard run and an extra point by Joe Houston with 1:08 remaining.
Whitaker made the first 66 extra point attempts of his college career before missing twice against Wake Forest, also at home, earlier in the year. He missed his third against the Trojans. He didn't miss his shot at redemption.
"This is the biggest kick I've ever made," said Whitaker, who has connected on his past 15 field goal tries dating to last year. "The holder and snapper were great. I can't do my job without them."
Stanford (2-1, 5-1) goes into its bye week on a good note thanks to the heroics of several players. Andrew Luck drove the Cardinal down field after taking over at the 26 with 1:02 left and two timeouts. A critical personal foul against the Trojans also helped.
Luck threw completions to Coby Fleener and Doug Baldwin, who had a career-high eight catches for 98 yards, to move the ball to the USC 31. Stepfan Taylor, who gained 104 total yards on 23 carries, went 21 yards on two running plays to help set up Whitaker's kick.
"I didn't say anything after the miss and didn't say anything before the kick," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I had faith in Nate. He went in and drilled it. It wasn't even close."
Whitaker was mobbed after his first game-winning kick at any level.
"I didn't know if I would make it out from being down there," Whitaker said. "I couldn't breathe for too long. It felt good."
The Trojans (4-2, 1-2) lost for the second straight week on a field goal on the final play. USC lost 32-31 at home to Washington last week on Erik Folk's 32-yard field goal as time expired and allowed another game-winning drive this week.
"We had confidence," said Luck, who also made a tackle that not only got the job down but produced a fumble. "If you don't go out on the field with confidence you're not going to score or get the ball in scoring position, it's not going to happen. We haven't been in too many situations like that in my career at Stanford. We practice it a lot. That practice paid off."
Luck completed 20 of 24 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns as the second half turned into an offensive slugfest.
"We thought it might unfold the way it did," Harbaugh said. "It was like a 3-and-a-half hour arm wrestling match. Andrew Luck; what more can you say about him? What more can a quarterback do in a game? He was a brilliant leader."
Luck led two long scoring drives in the second half and Chris Owusu's 88-yard kickoff return set up another touchdown as Stanford's offense looked as efficient as always.
Owusu was escorted into a training room afterward with his left hand wrapped in a towel full of ice.
The most memorable play in the first half came in the final minute when Taylor lost his first fumble.
Shareece Wright picked up the loose ball and started to run before Luck flattened him with a linebacker-type hit.
Wright lost the ball after the collision but the Trojans recovered. Wright needed crutches to walk off the field following the game.
"We had a few dropped balls, a few fumbles at midfield," Luck said. "We were a little disappointed at halftime and had a little motivation coming out."