Ever since Jim Harbaugh returned the Stanford football program to national relevance, its annual matchup against USC has rarely stayed out of the headlines.
There was the “biggest upset ever” in 2007, when a Stanford team that had gone 1-11 the previous year took down the No. 1 Trojans after backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard converted two consecutive fourth downs in his first career start. There was the 2009 Stanford upset of No. 9 USC, famous almost as much for the “What’s your deal?” confrontation between Harbaugh and Pete Carroll at its end as for its sheer improbability. And then there was the 2011 shootout between star quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley that could only be settled when a ball was stripped in triple overtime.
In an era in which the Big Game hasn’t had much impact on the postseason, the Cardinal-Trojans rivalry has truly taken up the mantle and become one of Stanford’s most important and exciting games.
Here’s a look at the last three meetings in this battle of heavyweights, one which is sure to produce plenty more stories and controversy when it takes place again this Saturday.
2012: Not so fast
Just a year after the never-ending struggle in Los Angeles, the Trojans-Cardinal matchup in 2012 looked set to take a step back in terms of excitement. Stanford was still figuring out how to retool its offense under Josh Nunes, Luck’s now almost-forgotten successor, while USC had brought back Barkley and nearly all of the weapons responsible for the 48-point performance the previous season. Victory for the No. 2 Trojans seemed a forgone conclusion, especially after they had put two touchdowns on the board just minutes into the second quarter.
In a true break from the days of Luck, Stanford flipped its game plan and opted to count on its defense to keep Barkley’s side within reach. To the surprise of many, the unit stepped up. The group, full of would-be stars who largely hadn’t made names for themselves yet, intercepted Barkley twice before halftime and somehow held the Trojans scoreless for the rest of the game.
Nunes, meanwhile, shook off some early struggles of his own and was able to establish an effective passing game to tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Running back Stepfan Taylor did the rest, collecting 213 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
Down 21-14 in the fourth quarter, USC had one final chance to drive to tie the game. By then, however, the party in the backfield had already begun. Linebackers Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas recorded sacks on consecutive plays, forcing the Trojans to turn to a practical Hail Mary just to reach a midfield first-down marker. Barkley’s toss-up was tipped incomplete, however, and Cardinal fans rushed the field as the upset became official.
2013: Card can almost smell the roses
Between 2012 and 2013, Stanford and USC had undergone a practical reversal of fortunes in the Pac-12. The Cardinal had become the team to beat in the conference after soundly defeating the Oregon Ducks the week prior and looked primed for their second consecutive Rose Bowl. The Trojans, meanwhile, were in the midst of a tumultuous season in which Ed Orgeron had replaced Lane Kiffin at coach and Cody Kessler had won a long and protracted battle to start at quarterback.
All of this newness seemed to catch the Cardinal off guard, however, and the Trojans gained the early edge as they scored with relative ease on each of their first three drives. Stanford’s offense, now led by quarterback Kevin Hogan and running back Tyler Gaffney, succeeded in tying the score by early in the third quarter and looked like it might start building a lead of its own. But a blocked 30-yard Conrad Ukropina field goal attempt and an interception at the USC 6-yard-line kept the scoreline level going into the final minutes of the game.
The Cardinal looked like they might have the last word when they got the ball near midfield with three minutes to go, but a lob pass from Hogan was intercepted by USC’s Su’a Cravens to put the Trojans in decent field position of their own. Stanford’s defense, which had stopped seven consecutive USC drives after conceding on the first three, played tough, but Orgeron gambled on a fourth-and-2 and Kessler found wide receiver Marqise Lee to keep the drive alive.
The five following plays would only net the Trojans six yards, but it proved to be enough when kicker Andre Heidari, who had missed an extra point earlier in the game, hit a 47-yard field goal to put his team up three with virtually no time left. To complete the utter rewind of the previous year’s matchup, USC fans stormed the field for the first time in school history.
Stanford would still reach the Rose Bowl after Oregon was upset by Arizona the following week, but the loss in the Coliseum certainly put a damper on the team’s victory parade and, in some ways, set the tone for what was to come.
2014: Stuck in the mud
After two epic upsets in a row and with Stanford and USC effectively tied in the national rankings, at No. 13 and No. 14 respectively, the 2014 Trojan-Cardinal battle looked like it would surely be yet another exciting classic in this long series.
In reality, things played out a little differently. Jordan Williamson missed a 26-yard field goal, which caused Stanford later to punt from both the 32 and, infamously, the 29-yard line.
The Cardinal went for it on fourth-and-1 with its third-string fullback and failed. USC had a linebacker ejected for targeting and a cornerback miss the game after he invented a sensationalist story for how he had hurt his ankle.
Touchdowns were so few and far between that it made the previous two matchups look like they were between TCU and Baylor. And just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any more bizarre, USC athletic director Pat Haden ran on to the field, yelled at some refs, then apparently decided to set up camp there while the game trudged on in front of him (a decision for which he was later fined and reprimanded). It was just about everything a college football game shouldn’t be.
In the end, despite an unfathomable number of blown opportunities, Stanford still had itself a chance to force overtime or even win the game when it advanced the ball to the USC 25 down a field goal with 30 seconds to play. Then, first round draft pick Andrus Peat and the Cardinal’s highly-rated offensive line utterly failed to pick up a Trojan blitz on third down, allowing linebacker J.R. Tavai to strip Hogan and effectively end the game.
Even Stanford’s best had come up short when it mattered most, and therefore, despite outgaining USC by well over 100 yards, the Cardinal fell flat, 13-10.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.