By Jose Saldana
After a sterling performance versus Rice, No. 14 Stanford football (1-0, 0-0 Pac-12) heads down to Los Angeles to face a familiar foe, No. 6 USC Trojans (1-0, 0-0) on Saturday. The narratives for this game are coming to a head as the Cardinal-Trojans rivalry is reaching a peak in terms of excitement.
However, nothing was more exciting than the one of the greatest upsets in college football that happened 10 years ago. Stanford was a 41-point underdog against the Trojans. And rightfully so, Stanford was coming off an 1-11 season and an era of football futility while USC was in the middle of four consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and were ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Stanford had no chance, right?
Former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh was in his first season with the Cardinal, and he changed the culture of the previously lowly Stanford football program. Nothing epitomized this shift more than this game. The Cardinal forced five USC turnovers and had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter after intercepting Trojans quarterback John David Booty with three minutes left in the game.
Stanford engineered a 45-yard touchdown drive, including converting a 4th-and-20 when former Cardinal quarterback Tavita Pritchard threw a bullet down the middle of the field to wide receiver and current NFL cornerback Richard Sherman. Pritchard would throw the game winning score to Mark Bradford on a 10-yard lob to the left-end of the endzone.
The touchdown put Stanford up 24-23 with just under a minute remaining and was enough to complete one of the greatest upsets in sports.
10 years later, both teams are on different paths.
Stanford has seen an unprecedented level of success this decade. The Cardinal had their first 11-win season, and they made the Orange Bowl and three Rose Bowls. A far cry from the 11-loss team in 2006.
USC hasn’t reached the same success it had in the last decade. Under former head coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans compiled a 47-23 record which was not up to the standards USC has set throughout its program’s history. However, optimism is high this year as last season, head coach Clay Helton and quarterback Sam Darnold led USC to its first Rose Bowl win since 2008.
Stanford defeated Rice using an explosive running game and a suffocating defense. Against a great team in USC and in a hostile environment on the road, the Cardinal need to use the running game to start off well against the Trojans.
At the head of the rushing attack is junior running back Bryce Love who ran for 180 yards against Rice which ranks first in the Pac-12 and ninth in the nation. Love will need to establish himself as the run has been important in defeating USC in the past.
Last season, former Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey bulldozed the Trojans defense for 172 yards on 31 carries. Stanford won the game 27-10.
The Trojans gave up 263 yards rushing to Western Michigan last week so if the Cardinal offensive line can push the trenches to allow the running backs to reach the secondary then Love and junior running back Cameron Scarlett can have huge games.
Additionally, a good running game takes pressure away from senior quarterback Keller Chryst who had a good game against Rice. Chryst tore his ACL in the Sun Bowl last season and will, undoubtedly, now have to face his hardest challenge yet in USC. But Stanford head coach David Shaw has the utmost confidence in his signal caller.
“What he has done since last December is nothing short of amazing,” Shaw said. “He pushed himself and wanted to come back and play in Game 1.”
Watching the receivers in the game against Rice, it was obvious the quality Stanford has in the tight end position. The veteran of the tight end group senior Dalton Schultz agrees.
“I think it’s pretty incredible that we have four guys that can go out there and play,” Schultz said, referring to sophomores Kaden Smith and Scooter Harrington and freshman Colby Parkinson. “It’s kind of fun seeing each other in the huddle.”
Coach Shaw understands the talent he has at the tight end position and wants to utilize as many tight ends as he can for passing and run blocking.
“We made a point of spreading the ball around without sacrificing the physicality of our running game,” Shaw said.
The Cardinal defense allowed fewer than a hundred passing yards against Rice but will have a hard time doing that against one of the Heisman favorites in Sam Darnold. He threw for 289 yards against Western Michigan and had one of the more memorable performances in the Rose Bowl where he had 453 passing yards and five touchdowns.
“He seems like a true gunslinger,” fifth-year senior outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi said. “If you don’t contain him in the pocket, he can really hurt you.”
However, stopping the opponent’s run game has always been the Stanford defense’s priority, and it will certainly have to be in high gear with Trojans running back Ronald Jones II waiting in the back field. Jones rushed for 159 yards on 18 carries against the Broncos last week and has averaged over 6.3 yards in his collegiate career.
USC doesn’t have the talent at wide receiver that it use to have in past years. That doesn’t mean the Cardinal secondary can take plays off as Trojans wide receiver Deontay Burnett has made his presence known. Against Western Michigan, Burnett had seven receptions for 142 yards. Stanford cornerbacks junior Quenton Meeks and senior Alijah Holder will have their hands full guarding Burnett especially when Darnold comes out of the pocket.
Stanford has won seven of the last nine games against USC and the Cardinal have won the last three games, including a Pac-12 championship game. Even with the recent success over the Trojans, coach Shaw understands the magnitude of this game against USC.
“It’s one of those games where you can’t ever take your foot off the gas pedal. That’s what makes any exciting rivalry.”
Another chapter in the Stanford-USC rivalry will be written on Saturday in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Opening kickoff begins at 5:30 p.m. and will be televised on FOX.
Contact Jose Saldana at jsaldana ‘at’ stanford.edu.