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.
5. Dream On
2011: Stanford 56, USC 48 (3 OT)
The majestic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has played host to two Olympic Games, a number of Super Bowls, a World Series, and decades of USC football glory. Stanford's gut-wrenching, heartrending, hair-pulling, epic triple-overtime victory Saturday night, though, is subservient to no event in the legendary arena's storied history.
To begin, let me set the record straight: I did not enjoy any part of Stanford's 56-48 thrilling triumph, except for the A.J. Tarpley end zone fumble recovery that sealed the deal and ended the suffering. This was over four hours of epic torture: watching a beaten-up and significantly short-handed Stanford team, with everything at stake, slog its way through a legendary battle against a freakishly talented USC football team.
In 2007, the Coliseum saw lowly Stanford shock USC as 41-point underdogs in an unfathomable 24-23 triumph. With the Hollywood sign glowing over the massive stadium, that game produced a film-ready movie script. In 2009, the Cardinal provided an even more stunning encore in their return visit to USC's hallowed grounds with a 55-21 humiliation that caused a traffic jam on the Harbor Freeway with a full quarter left to play in the game.
There seemed to be no way that the 2011 installment could top the previous two versions of the saga.
Then, a 15-round prize fight enthralled the Los Angeles Coliseum, drained the emotional energy of the 93,607 people that packed the iconic stadium, and proved us all wrong. 2007 and 2009 made way for a new instant classic. And this one was an all-timer that left many fans literally shaking hours after they left the stadium.
Sports have a tendency of frequently catching us off guard. As soon as you think you've seen it all, you're again shocked with something new and remarkable. Over the course of a week, we were reminded of this at least three times: with Michigan State's last-second Hail Mary win over Wisconsin, with the St. Louis Cardinals' dizzying double comeback in the World Series, and with this triple overtime doozy in Los Angeles.
Stanford safety Michael Thomas, along with many of his teammates, shed tears of joy when the battle ended. The articulate Andrew Luck could hardly speak in full sentences after the game. He had to dig courageously deep to defy defeat with the odds stacked against his team, especially after an uncharacteristic gaffe brought the house down and gave USC the lead on Nickell Robey's interception return with only three minutes remaining.
"By then," LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote, "the entire Coliseum was burning with the sort of passion not felt around here since Pete Carroll walked these sidelines. Players danced, fans swayed, the aging rafters shook, it was yesterday once more."
In the middle of this furiously hostile environment - right in the eye of this violent hurricane, with everything transpiring against them - David Shaw's Stanford players found a way to scratch and claw their way to victory. As a result, just minutes later, the Coliseum felt the same way it did at the end of Stanford's last two visits to the building in 2007 and 2009: as quiet as a church.
Never mind the fact that the stadium public address announcer had already all but announced a USC victory by warning potential celebratory fans to stay off the field. Andrew Luck was not going to let his team lose this football game. After delivering The Upset in 2007 and The Beatdown in 2009, Stanford returned to Los Angeles to post The Catharsis in 2011.
I had still suffered chills whenever I was reminded of Stanford's demise in the 2009 Big Game against Cal. The Cardinal, down by six but driving at will behind the unstoppable force of Toby Gerhart as time waned, passed their Rose Bowl dreams away when Luck was intercepted by Mike Mohamed in the final minute. Announcing that game for the radio, I can still remember my color commentator, Christian Jennings, throwing his headset against the press box window in disgust as Luck made the game's fatal mistake. Our sideline reporter, Wyndam Makowsky, has said that he still wakes up from nightmares in a cold sweat, thinking back to that torturous moment of that agonizing defeat.
This epic Stanford victory, though, was a cleansing. The Cardinal prevailed in a rousing battle with such a devastating ending to the opposition. Tarpley's fumble recovery was a magic moment; an explosion of sudden relief and elation.
Still, the three-plus hours leading up to it were torture I never want to live through again.
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 'SC worst home beatdown ever
18. Continuity Unknown to Mankind - Shaw named Harbaugh's successor
17. Whitaker Beats USC - Cardinal hand the Trojans another soul-crusher
16. We've Got the Axe - Stanford wins first Big Game in six years
15. Return of the Red Zone - Cardinal students populate the stadium in force
14. Blown Away - Stanford takes VT to the woodshed in Orange Bowl
13. Streaking - Stanford wins 10 straight games by 25+ points
12. Dance With Girl Who Brung Ya - Card settle for FG attempt, loses Fiesta Bowl
11. College Gameday to The Farm - Campus welcomes ESPN
10. Thanks, John - Card build new stadium, enter arms race
9. The Stanford-USC rivalry - Stanford takes four of five in thrilling fashion
8. Andrew Luck returns - QB shocks nation with decision
7. Enthusiasm Unknown to Mankind - Harbaugh reignites program's fire
6. Dreams Deferred - Oregon 53, Stanford 30
David Lombardi, a TV and radio (95.7 The Game SF) personality in the Bay Area, is a Stanford and Pac-12 Conference enthusiast. He has broadcast the Cardinal on KZSU for several years. You can check out several of his Stanford calls and other writing at www.davidlombardisports.com.
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