Nothing has come to better symbolize this upward trajectory than the rivalry with USC.
After Mark Bradford pulled down Tavita Pritchard's fade to secure 2007's unfathomable upset, a worthy encore in the Stanford-USC rivalry seemed impossible. But then came 2009's 55-21 Coliseum beatdown, and the Cardinal found something even more glorious.
That had to be it, right? It couldn't get any better than causing a traffic jam on the Harbor Freeway in the third quarter.
Wrong. A heroic do-or-die drive as time expired added a legendary chapter to the saga in 2010. Impressive, until the epic triple overtime war of 2011, a stomach-turning nailbiter that made the previous barnburners look like child's play and launched the entire series into hyperspace.
The fairy tale was supposed to end with that. Andrew Luck left to the NFL, and Matt Barkley returned in 2012 to complete "unfinished business," armed with the greatest wide receiver duo in NCAA history.
It turns out that business will remain unfinished. The extra physical work Gardner and his teammates invested this time shone brighter than ever. After the Trojans scored early in the second quarter to take a 14-7 lead, the Cardinal morphed into a foreign creature, a kind recently seen only in SEC territory and at Harbaugh's Candlestick Park. That extra muscle, that extra speed, and that extra nasty were all unleashed in a furious Stanford defense that was good enough to handily overcome its own sputtering offense and USC's electric machine.
Quarterback Josh Nunes followed the Tim Tebow model. After a putrid 5-for-16, two-interception first half, the unthinkable started happening. He scrambled for what David Shaw admitted were "shocking" first downs while shaking athletic Trojan defenders out of their uniforms. Unfazed by a handful of inaccurate balls downfield, his 37-yard laser beam to Zach Ertz left USC staggering, dazed, and wounded with 10 minutes to play. Stanford Stadium pulsated as the Cardinal grabbed a 21-14 lead. The maturation of a quarterback unfolded in real time before 50 thousand shaking fans.
As the Trojans staggered, Stanford bled them to death. With freshman Andrus Peat at left tackle, an offensive line in "Hulk" mode also blossomed on the big stage, grinding away six minutes of clock against a helpless USC defense as time waned. It was "character and cruelty" at its finest, spearheaded by 153-yard man Stepfan Taylor. The senior looked like the elder Barry Sanders early. (His 59-yard touchdown run came in the teeth of a nine-man box and featured a complete stop and direction change.) He looked like Toby Gerhart late. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry while slipping through an offensive line that generated greater and greater push against an athletic, yet relatively undersized, Trojan front.
"It's just weight," Shaw said of his team's butcher shop-like pounding. "It's mass. It's pure mass."
When it came time for the final kill, the Stanford defense put an exclamation point on a legendary performance that will go down as one of the finest in conference history. There was Barkley, the USC golden boy projected by some to lead his team to a spectacular 50-point output, being body slammed by Trent Murphy. Two plays later, Chase Thomas concluded the party with another violent ransacking of the once-untouchable quarterback. The Trojans met their grisly demise, crumbling in the face of a 4th-and-40 from which even superhuman forces Marqise Lee and Robert Woods couldn't rescue Troy.
Barkley had been sacked only eight times throughout all of 2011, but the Cardinal dropped him five times on this night (including former walk-on David Parry's forced backfield fumble). The count must have felt more like 10 to Barkley given the savage nature of the takedowns. Josh Mauro and Ben Gardner also both got in on the party in the backfield, while Henry Anderson used his length to deflect a critical pass for the second straight week. As a whole, the defensive line blasted USC off the ball. They shifted to take full advantage of redshirt freshman third string center Cyrus Hobbi, who filled in for the injured Khaled Holmes. Troy's starter dressed, warmed up, and did everything in his power to play, but was just physically not able to come to his team's aid.
After USC took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Stanford defense kicked its play into a gear that had possibly not been seen in program history. The Trojans' final nine drives, summarized: fumble, interception, interception, time expiration (halftime), turnover on downs, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs.
Brief injuries to both USC running backs, Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, helped kick-start the malaise while spectacular fireworks from the Cardinal secondary helped make it permanent. Perhaps the game's biggest play came courtesy of Stanford's sixth defensive back with the Cardinal trailing midway through the third quarter. The Trojans, unsure of walk-on kicker Alex Wood, opted to go for it on fourth down with their kicking personnel group on the field. Reserve nickel back Ronnie Harris, on the field goal block unit, seized his moment of opportunity. He used full extension to disrupt what looked to be a perfect touchdown strike from Barkley to Soma Vainaku. A 21-7 deficit, which would have been near-fatal to Stanford's chances, was avoided. Harris had saved the football game. The tide turned.
In more conventional formations, Jordan Richards elevated his game to an unprecedented level. The strong safety, who struggled so mightily at times during his true freshman campaign, looked like one of the best at his position in the conference. He intercepted Barkley once, laid wood on larger USC tight ends coming across the middle and complemented the solid, team-leading tackling of Ed Reynolds and Terrence Brown (six stops apiece). Brown picked off another errant Barkley throw, giving the Cardinal two interceptions on consecutive defensive plays during a crucial second-quarter stretch. The Trojan quarterback had thrown just seven picks in 446 attempts a year earlier.
As the game progressed, Stanford turned primarily to its veterans on the second level. Shayne Skov (who laid wood even away from the ball), Jarek Lancaster, A.J. Tarpley, and Alex Debniak combined with Murphy and Thomas to limit USC to 26 total rushing yards. Despite their large offensive line, top-flight backfield talent, and legitimate passing threat downfield, the Trojans were not able to muster even one yard per carry (0.9 per).
The resulting one-dimensional Barkley was toast. His USC team went 1-for-13 on third down. The Trojans were shut out for the final two-thirds of the game. They were badly outpaced in the yardage department by Stanford, too. The final tally, 417-285, was especially shocking considering that the Cardinal spent much of the evening trying to figure out how to move the ball themselves.
Time and time again in the first half, Stanford lit golden opportunities on fire. The Cardinal wasted Ty Montgomery's game-opening 64-yard kickoff return and squandered a first and goal from the USC two yard line. In both instances, they came up completely empty, thanks in large part to the disconcerting struggles of kicker Jordan Williamson, who finished 0-for-3.
In the immediate afterglow of this victory, though, those concerns were secondary. Because on this Saturday evening, sloppiness was rendered moot. The superhuman Stanford defense overcame anything and everything. On Pete Carroll's 61st birthday, no less, the unit smothered USC and kept giving the Cardinal offense the gift of the football. 21-14 the final, unlike anything ever experienced before in Stanford football history.
To those who thought 2011's triple overtime epic was unbeatable, how was that for an encore?
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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