Stanford football has had some huge upset wins in the David Shaw era. The 17-14 upset of Oregon at Autzen Stadium in 2012 certainly set a high bar, and that 26-20 “upset” of Oregon in 2013 was as sweet as they come.
But in my mind, this 41-31 victory over USC on Saturday tops them all.
You can argue that USC had been propped up to unreasonable heights by lofty preseason expectations and that people shouldn’t have been so quick to count out a talented Stanford team after its loss to Northwestern.
But hindsight is always 20/20, and before the matchup, you would have been hard-pressed to find even the biggest Stanford homer or the biggest USC downer that would have expected Stanford to win in the way that it did — especially given the circumstances.
USC was unanimously seen as a program on the way up, a once-proud bastion of tradition and excellence brought to its knees by the unforgiving hand of sanctions finally free from its restraints to rebuild the proud Trojan empire in California.
Meanwhile, Stanford was seen by most outside The Farm as a program on the way back into the depths of mediocrity after enjoying its 15 minutes of fame. They argued that David Shaw couldn’t execute Stanford’s physical, run-first mentality without Jim Harbaugh’s recruits and that Shaw’s system couldn’t ever work with collegiate talent.
Cody Kessler, Sports Illustrated cover boy and owner of the most coveted job in college football, was an odds-on Heisman front-runner and was surrounded by the elite talent that only the tradition and esteem of USC Trojan football could rein in, year after year.
Kevin Hogan was seen as a perennially good-but-not-great quarterback that could be an adequate “game manager” but couldn’t be successful without playmakers like Zach Ertz and Ty Montgomery.
What’s undeniable is that USC was playing with everything to lose, with 90,000 strong at their backs and with a team loaded with more raw young talent than even Alabama and Ohio State. If the Trojans could give Stanford their best shot, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would run away with the game.
USC gave Stanford its best shot. And Stanford still won.
The Cardinal defense didn’t force a turnover. They gave up more than 30 points for just the second time since 2012. JuJu Smith-Schuster caught eight balls for 154 yards. Kessler was a sparkling 25-for-32 for 272 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Wherever you look on the USC side of the boxscore, everything screams that USC should have won easily.
And Stanford still won.
“Stanford beats USC by double digits in a shootout” was quite literally the last thing that anyone could have expected going into Saturday’s ballgame. But somehow, Stanford pulled it off, and in style.
And with that upset, a new era of Stanford football was ushered in.
The USC game marked a turning point, because up to this point in the Shaw era, Stanford won games with one identity: Run first, play shutdown defense, ask questions later. Even reading previews of Stanford-USC, you can see the prevalent theme of “Stanford is physical, Stanford will run the ball, yadda yadda yadda” dominating despite evidence to the contrary right under everybody’s nose over the last two weeks.
Because quietly, David Shaw has remade this Stanford team over the last two years. Once he didn’t have a power back that could fall forward for four yards on every play, he had to adjust. Very few people acknowledged that Shaw was adjusting, and when Stanford kept losing, people continued to blame Shaw and an “antiquated” scheme that couldn’t win games.
But the Stanford team we’ve seen in 2015 has been very different, and the USC game was the first time, on a big stage, where the transformation of Stanford football came full-circle.
Sure, the remnants of Stanford’s old system were there. The offensive line was incredibly reliable and Stanford was happy to run power when it wanted to — and did just that in the second half, with a lead.
But in the first half, when Hogan passed for over 200 yards, Stanford wasn’t afraid to go four-wide or five-wide and let Hogan be a true pocket-passer on “running downs.” The Cardinal didn’t solely rely on winning the trenches and used a wide array of dekes and play-fakes to get their playmakers the ball in space, taking advantage of the elite talent that Stanford has been recruiting at the skill positions.
And even when Stanford’s defense failed it, the offense showed that when it’s executing — there was only one drop and one dumb offensive line penalty — it can stay step-for-step with even the most elite offenses in the country. That’s not something that the Cardinal teams of 2012 or 2013 could have said, even when those offenses were working optimally. They just weren’t built for that.
But now, with Stanford recruiting at an elite level at all positions and with a rejuvenated David Shaw at the helm taking full advantage of his wealth of riches, Stanford looks very different — it just took everybody a long time to realize that.
I’m happily going to eat a lot of crow for the criticism that I directed at this coaching staff as well, because as I’ve watched this 2015 team evolve through the struggles and the highs as well, it’s been clear to me that David Shaw has a plan — and he’s had a plan all along. I hereby formally apologize for my knee-jerk reactions.
If Stanford keeps executing at an elite level, there are very few teams in the country that can slow the new-look Cardinal and their elite playmakers down.
The King of California™ is back, baby. And he wears Cardinal red. Trust the system — because it’s perfect for this year’s team, and it’s clear to me that David Shaw has this team in very good hands.
Do-Hyoung Park wasn’t kidding about the knee-jerk reactions. Although he’s now ready to give Stanford the title of King of California, his praises were not so high just a few weeks ago. Give the King of Overreactions a lesson in being level-headed at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.