No. 16: We've Got the Axe

It's tempting to remember the 2007 USC shocker as the one turnaround point for Stanford football. But the team still struggled after that game. Jim Harbaugh's first season wasn't a true success until the campaign was closed out in thrilling fashion at home.

We continue our ambitious offseason series, counting down the top 40 moments of the Harbaugh/ Shaw era.

No matter how you slice it, Stanford football has arrived. Though we've since assumed all the trappings of a football powerhouse – the three straight runner-up finishes in Heisman voting, the two straight BCS bowl berths and top-10 finishes, the top-ten 2012 recruiting class, or the eminent graduation of top pro prospect of the last decade – it wasn't that long ago that Stanford football was an afterthought.

On December 19, 2006, new athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback, but an unproven coach who had never worked at the FBS level. The rest, as they say, was history.

We are pleased present Stanford football's 40 most memorable moments, trends, games and personalities from the magical five-plus years that followed that December 2006 announcement.

16. We've Got the Axe
2007 Big Game win the first in six years for Stanford

Today, five years after the great turnaround began, it's tempting to oversimplify how it all happened. It's easy to consider October 6, 2007 - the night of the "Greatest Upset Ever" against USC - as the one that single-handedly reversed Stanford football's direction.

To be sure, Richard Sherman's fourth-down conversion, Tavita Pritchard's connection with Mark Bradford, and Bo McNally's game-sealing interception at the Coliseum will be forever enshrined in Stanford lore as moments that sparked the Harbaugh resurrection. But in the larger picture, that epic 24-23 shocker was no more than a spark. It was wildly re-energizing, but it wasn't even a return to .500 football on the Farm. Don't forget that the Cardinal still struggled mightily even after that glorious night, so much so that they entered the season-ending Big Game on a four game losing streak sporting a paltry 3-8 record.

With each passing loss, the USC win looked less like a course-correcting victory and more like a gigantic fluke. Heading into the Big Game, Stanford had even lost to the most putrid Notre Dame team of all time at home. A win against Cal looked extremely unlikely, yet the success of 2007 - and momentum moving into the pivotal 2008 recruiting season - hinged on the rivalry game.

And so the table was set, the Tavita Pritchard/T.C. Ostrander quarterback platoon pitted against Nate Longshore and company for the first Big Game in the new Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal hadn't beaten the Golden Bears in six years, and not many were expecting them to do it against a Cal team that had whipped Tennessee (who finished 6-2 in the SEC) earlier in the year.

But the Bears' first possession set a tone of Cal offensive futility that would last the entire game. Clinton Snyder sacked Longshore and forced a fumbled on third down to set up a 28-yard Ostrander-to-Bradford touchdown strike on the very next play. Stanford never trailed, and they grabbed the game by throat on Austin Gunder's touchdown catch in the third quarter. Nick Sanchez intercepted Longshore twice to spearhead a scrappy defense that held Cal to a single field goal in the second half.

On that note, it can be said that Harbaugh's 2007 team started the job in unfathomable fashion against USC, and finished it in surprising form at home against Cal. A gritty 20-13 win brought the Axe back to Stanford. When the crowd stormed the field, the new stadium had seen its first great football moment. The Red Zone's takeover was wild (as the KZSU sideline reporter for that game, I had the choice of either cutting my mic and joining the mob or staying on air while getting trampled; I chose the former). Though 2007's final 4-8 tally was not sexy, the win finished the foundation for the biggest offseason in Cardinal history.

Three months later, Harbaugh successfully inked the heralded recruiting class of 2008, which included Andrew Luck. And we all know how that panned out.

50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, Luck, and a phantom clipping call
40. Fake out - Luck stuns UW with a naked bootleg in 2010
39. Polls and bowls - Stanford climbs into college football's beauty contests
38. Steamrolled - Card run for 446 yards in 2011 beatdown of UW
37. Opening act - 2009 win over Ducks launches a November to remember
36. Going bowling - Loss to Sooners doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001
35. "Shut up and play football" - Cal jaws pregame, falls behind 45-0 in 2010
34. Look ma, no legs - Luck throws a 52- yard dart while in free fall
33. Sit down - Burfict's head leads to go- ahead TD, Wilkerson's ices W at ASU
32. Injury bug - Despite multiple injuries, 2011 Card manage to rally
31. Whale watching - Stanford starts recruiting at an elite level
30. Suck for Luck - The media machine anoints the next football savior
29. Outta my way - Luck bounces off Cattouse for a 50-yard run
28. 0 for 3 - Card post three shutouts in 2010 campaign
27. Laying the wood - Luck lays out Wright
26. Concussed - Owusu is knocked out of four games
25. Jumping ahead - A 21-3 lead vanishes in Autzen in 2010
24. So close, yet so far - Luck's worst game costs Card 2009 Big Game
23. Run, Toby, run - Gerhart takes over against the Irish
22. Xs and Os… and Ys and Zs - Stanford toys with defensive coordinators
21. "The perfect football player" - Marecic makes purists weep
20. Rumor Mill - Report: Harbaugh to take every NFL job
19. "What's Your Deal?" - Stanford hands USC worst home beatdown ever
18. Continuity Unknown to Mankind - David Shaw named Harbaugh's successor
17. Whitaker Beats USC - Cardinal hand the Trojans another soul-crusher

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