A.J. Tarpley knew what he was after the moment he spotted the loose ball in the end zone. The opportunistic linebacker has managed to be in the right place at the right time more than once this season.
By falling on the ball Tarpley wrote the finish to another unlikely scenario in a long line of fairy tale endings between Stanford and USC.
It all seemed so improbable. The Trojans, ranked 20th in the country, countered everything Stanford threw at them, except for holding onto the ball just one time.
Stepfan Taylor ran for the tying touchdown with 38 seconds left in regulation and the go-ahead score in the third overtime, and Stanford's defense preserved its 16-game winning streak by forcing Curtis McNeal's fumble into the end zone to finish a 56-48 victory over USC on Saturday night.
Stanford moved to No. 4 in the BCS standings this week, and is No. 4 according to The Associated Press.
"It was one of the best and one of the worst games I've ever been a part of," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "There were a roller coaster of emotions.I have to look at the film to see if we were really that sloppy to get called for 11 penalties."
A few minutes after his Stanford teammates left the field, Andrew Luck sprinted toward the Coliseum tunnel with both arms thrust triumphantly skyward, his heart still pounding from 56 points, three overtimes and a season's worth of drama packed into one crazy night.
After nearly a full calendar year of blowout victories, Luck and the fourth-ranked Cardinal (6-0, 8-0) might have forgotten what a thriller feels like.
"I might need a couple minutes to digest it, but it's definitely up there," Luck said when asked where the night ranked among his football memories. "More than anything, I'm just happy to get a win."
Luck, the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, showed why by engineering four late scoring drives, coolly keeping it together after he nearly cost the Cardinal the game by throwing a crucial interception late in the fourth quarter.
"I was very disappointed in myself," Luck said. "For a couple of seconds, I wanted to go dig a hole and bury myself in it, but guys believed in me. I was so happy to still see time on the game clock. It was another chance to get out there."
Shaw saw the same thing.
"When he came back he was upset for maybe 35 seconds and then he flushed it," Shaw said. "He went back out and marched to a touchdown. We put a lot of faith and trust in Andrew. He takes it on himself to make it right."
Four years after Tavita Pritchard, who is an assistant coach for the Cardinal, engineered Stanford's stunning upset of USC with a one-point victory as a 41-point underdog, the schools played another classic on a cool Coliseum night, and once again, the Cardinal ruled.
Both teams scored in the first two overtimes, compounding the tension. After Taylor's run in the third OT, a wide open Coby Fleener caught the 2-point conversion pass in the back of the end zone.
USC quickly got to first-and-goal at the 4, but Ben Gardner forced the ball from McNeal. It squirted into the end zone and Tarpley jumped on it.
"No excuse, I just fumbled," said McNeal, who rushed for 145 yards and made second-half touchdown runs of 61 and 25 yards to keep USC in it. "I feel like beating myself up, but I've just got to keep pushing."
Luck passed for 330 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a key score, but the Cardinal were in serious trouble after he made a rare mistake on his fourth interception of the season, just the second that wasn't off a tipped pass.
"I told the team these guys would make plays," Shaw said. "I didn't know they would make this many, but when that happens, just regroup."
The Cardinal was tested for the first time since the middle of last season, which ended with an Orange Bowl victory. USC nearly pulled off another upset last season at Stanford Stadium, sticking with the Cardinal until Luck engineered a last-minute drive ending in a field goal for a two-point victory.
USC chipped away much of Stanford's dominant aura accumulated during the nation's longest winning streak.
Stanford fell behind by 10 points in the third quarter, and the Cardinal won by fewer than 25 points for the first time in 11 games. Stanford had limited its last 13 opponents to 21 points or fewer, the school's longest stretch since 1939-41, before USC scored 34 points in regulation.
Stanford had gone three-and-out on offense just four times all season before USC forced three more three-and-outs. Luck had been sacked just twice all season before the Trojans put him down twice.
Eric Whitaker assumed the kicking duties in place of the injured Jordan Williamson and made every kick that counted.
"It's almost better when you don't know and you're thrust into the game," Shaw said. "We thought Jordan would be ready but he wasn't. Eric had a great game."
Stanford also lost tight end Zach Ertz, Chris Owusu, who took another blow to the head, and Cameron Fleming to injuries during the game. Delano Howell missed his second game and Tarpley was in the game because Shayne Skov is lost for the season.
"That's why we rotate guys in," Shaw said. "Guys have top be ready to step in. When the next guy goes in, we expect him to play like a starter."
From Ty Montgomery to Tarpley, they all delivered.