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Andrew Luck's legend grows vs. USC

LOS ANGELES -- By now Stanford Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck is more legend than man. That happened last year, about the time he laid out USC Trojans cornerback Shareece Wright with a hit so vicious it still hurts to watch it on YouTube.

Since then he's added a one-handed reception along the sidelines, play-calling at the line of scrimmage not seen outside Indianapolis and the guy he's most often compared to, and enough games with completion percentages in the 70s that most people have stopped counting.

If he misses a pass, you assume the receiver slipped or dropped it. If he gets hit on a play, you worry more about the guy who hit him getting hurt. He doesn't just play quarterback, he gives a clinic.

He has done basically everything a college quarterback can do except win the Heisman Trophy -- which he'll take care of later this year -- and yet somehow he managed to break new ground in Stanford's thrilling 56-48 triple-overtime win over USC on Saturday night.

He became as big of a man as he already is a legend.

With the score tied 27-27 and 3 minutes 8 seconds to go in regulation, Luck spotted receiver Chris Owusu open. He did not, however, see USC cornerback Nickell Robey. The result was shocking: Andrew Luck threw a back-breaking pick-6 with the game on the line. Andrew Luck made a mistake. Andrew Luck failed.

You have to type it all out to believe it. This is not a person who fails at anything. School, life, football. Heck, I bet Luck's even really good at sneezing.

His face after throwing the interception said it all.

"For a couple of seconds there I wanted to go dig a hole and bury myself in it," Luck said after the game. "Fortunately, there was still more time on the clock."

What he did over the last three minutes of regulation and through all three overtime periods wasn't as statistically significant as some of his other remarkable games. He did not come up with any more highlights for his Heisman campaign.

What he did after throwing that interception was lead.

"To throw a pick-6 and then come back and drive your team down, put us in overtime, that was absolutely amazing," Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "It happened and he bounced back. After tonight, I think the legend keeps growing."

While there might have been a gasp around the country at the realization Luck is capable of making such a huge mistake, there was also something beautiful about his imperfect moment.

It humanized him. Made him more real than unreal.

Rationally you always knew that was true. Irrationally, it somehow felt better to believe he was as perfect as USC coach Lane Kiffin said earlier this week.

Legends don't often walk among us. They look and act like Andrew Luck even less frequently. It didn't feel good to see that myth undone on Saturday. But it felt great to see him come back from it and build it back up.

"He does make mistakes sometimes," Stanford's all-everything left tackle Jonathan Martin said after the game. "He makes very few mistakes. But when he does make them he just fights through them and keeps playing. That's the kind of competitor he is."

We forget about that last part too often, the competitive fire that helps players like Luck achieve legendary status in the first place. The hard work that helps them make everything look so easy. We forget about it until we see it in a game like Saturday, when Luck was not only challenged by USC's defense, but beaten.

He could've folded or frozen. The crowd inside the Coliseum was rocking like it used to back in Pete Carroll's glory years. The pundits were already writing off Stanford's national championship hopes and diminishing Luck's Heisman hopes. All the momentum belonged to the Trojans.

Instead he swallowed hard, slowed things down, kept playing and led Stanford down the field for a game-tying touchdown to send it into overtime.

"When it's like that," Stanford offensive lineman David DeCastro said, "your heart's already beating fast enough. You can't get caught up in the emotion of it all.

"For him to throw a pick like that and have to come right back, that's pretty amazing."

After the game, as is his habit, Luck waited with his father, Oliver, until the last player and coach had come out of Stanford's locker room. It's a long wait sometimes, but he's got no other place to be. Just the bus, then home. There's another game next week. The NFL as soon as he's ready.

Saturday night there was Kentucky Fried Chicken and orange Gatorade to wash down the victory. It was the kind of moment he came back this year to savor.

"I wouldn't want to be with any other guys or coaches in the locker room," he said. "I'm just happy to be a part of it."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.