Imagine you are a USC fan who fell into a deep, Rip Van Winkle-esque slumber in 2006 before finally awakening in 2013.
Now imagine the shock on your face when you get around to checking how your Trojans have been doing.
In the span of just six years, Troy had fallen. Crippled by the battering ram of NCAA sanctions and an ineffectual leader in Lane Kiffin, a coach who looked the part on the outside but left a lot to be desired underneath (in other words, a modern-day Trojan horse), USC took the deep plunge from proud Pac-10 royalty to a mere plebian fighting for relevance in a revamped conference.
But, perhaps most disconcertingly, an upstart empire just north had slowly risen from the ashes. Despite USC’s ardent attempts to salt the northern California earth, football had again grown on The Farm and Stanford, in turn, toppled the balance of power out west, most recently conquering the Trojans’ winter palace in Pasadena that January.
Again, imagine the shock, the despair, the sheer confusion: southern Cal had lost its mojo.
I have heard from a number of friends who support USC that there was something different about Nov. 16, 2013. Eerily different.
I could feel it too, watching the game on TV. Propelled by a fiery savior in Ed Orgeron, the sense of belief emanating through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was palpable. Ninety thousand strong were united in a way unknown to a premier program that had tasted nothing but success in the last decade — not by the expectation of winning championships, but by a deeper, more visceral desire to feel proud of their team, to be relevant again.
And as the chilling renditions of “Tribute to Troy” and the warm Hollywood sun gave way to football under the lights, this sense of belief only grew.
The Cardinal were forced to burn two timeouts on the game’s opening drive and simply couldn’t silence the deafening roars all around them. Despite a heroic performance from Tyler Gaffney, who amassed 158 yards on 24 carries, a costly turnover late in the game doomed the Cardinal by setting up Andre Heidari’s game-winning 47-yard kick.
Then, for your USC colleague fresh out of a coma, a surreal scene morphed into the blatantly impossible.
As the scoreboard flashed all zeros, the men and women of Troy stormed the field for the first time in school history as Brent Musburger captured the emotions of an entire fanbase with a single, goosebump-inducing call: “The Trojans are relevant again!”
This magical moment was not entirely graceful, however. In the mad rush to take the field and embrace the open arms of a victory six years in the making, several fans suffered life-threatening injuries. The Coliseum, quite simply, was never equipped for that kind of activity. After all, what could be more unseemly for a program as confident (some might say arrogant) and tradition-rich as USC than to storm the field after a victory, regardless of the opponent?
What we saw on that night in mid-November was a mighty juggernaut at its most vulnerable. Without a permanent head coach and no sight of light at the end of the tunnel, USC rallied around a charismatic leader in Orgeron and united against an enemy in Stanford. The result was easily one of the top college football spectacles I have seen in my lifetime.
Just three years after Stanford rushed its own field after toppling the Trojans and staking its claim as the Kings of California, USC returned the favor and ripped a national championship appearance from the Cardinal’s grasp. Coming off of a win over Oregon the week before, the Cardinal came into Los Angeles on a wave of euphoria, but USC reminded Stanford — and the world — that they were indeed a force to be reckoned with.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once said: “Look back over the past with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.”
In Stanford and USC, we have witnessed both the rise and fall of empires and the subsequent struggle to maintain that power. And, if the philosopher-king’s words hold true, we should be in store for more of the completely absurd when this rivalry again returns to the magic of the Coliseum.
Vihan Lakshman hasn’t seen the Cardinal beat USC since his freshman year, when Stanford came out with a 21-14 victory. Now as a senior, he’s hoping for a win against the Trojans to bookend his four years at Stanford. Help him celebrate the upset or get over the Cardinal’s third-straight loss to one of its fiercest rivals at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.