Today's most painful loss is... UCLA?
Few would have expected Stanford to be leading with five minutes left in the second quarter, or tied with 18 minutes to play. The Card fell apart in the final quarter, but USC's better, that was going to happen. Last year's outcome was the biggest upset ever, in a sport that has seen tens of thousands of games, for a reason: just like it was folly to expect the Card to upset USC again this season, it would be nonsensical to hold the 2008 Card to their 2007 counterparts' performance. Stanford played one of its best games of the season in its 2008 home finale, and has no reason to be ashamed.
Football isn't a game of absolutes, and it bothers me to no end when I hear the talking heads throw out football maxims like "You never take points off the board," or "You never want to kick it deep to this guy." Still, I'll break my own rule and throw out a maxim of my own: there's never any shame in losing as a double-digit underdog.
Stanford will be a double-digit underdog in five games this season, Arizona State (when they were good, remember?), TCU, Oregon, USC and Cal. (I'll guess Bears -12.) The Card haven't won any of those games yet and have only come close in one (Oregon, where they were significantly outgained, but were gifted four lost Duck fumbles and a safety). Stanford will need to win in Berkeley next week to make their first bowl in seven years.
Being a double-digit underdog means you're plain outmatched -- your opponent is significantly better and it's going to take a lot of luck for you to win. The Card got that luck last year against USC (five Trojan turnovers) and Cal (Bear quarterbacks that played like they were fighting for the final high school JV spot), and they nearly capitalized last week in Eugene. Nonetheless, all these double-digit favorites outclass Stanford, painfully so when each team's passing offense matches up against Stanford's pass defense, and, when it's Stanford's pass offense on the field, perhaps more so. The Card have not been able to throw on any of these teams this season, or stop any of them from passing at will, and that goes a long way toward explaining Stanford's 1-21 record against ranked teams since the Card's last bowl appearance.
If Stanford, now saddled with its first losing record of the season, does go on to drop Big Game, the natural tendancy will be to look at the Card's last three defeats, particularly because the last two will have come to Stanford's two biggest rivals. But those, nor Stanford's first two losses, will be where the season will have been lost.
Stanford was a seven-point underdog to Notre Dame, and never seems to play well on the East Coast or in the Midwest (in any sport), nor at South Bend, in particular, and so even that loss is excusable. Notre Dame's pass-first attack is also a really bad matchup for an overmatched Card secondary, plus Notre Dame is the inverse Oregon State -- start out hot, but then collapse down the stretch. The Card really didn't have a shot, and were lucky to close the final margin to seven.
Stanford is 2-0 in games where it was a double-digit favorite, at Washington State and versus San Jose State. They are 3-1 in its toss-up games (Vegas lines within seven), with wins over Oregon State, Washington (they're not as bad as their record suggests, and they were playing much harder a few months ago) and Arizona. That, of course, leaves the UCLA loss.
It's irrational to expect Stanford to sweep all its toss-ups: flip a coin four times, and it's coming up all heads just 1-in-16 tries. And that Stanford is an above average 3-1 against similarly-talented opponents is the only reason we're having this conversation in the first place, or aren't just spoilers next week. But still, who ever said fans were supposed to be rational?
I understand the macro trend, but I also know that Stanford knew the stakes in Westwood a month ago: come up with one stop against the Bruins, or the road to six gets exponentially harder. The Card have continued to play well their last three weeks, (Heck, they're even 3-0 against the spread in their last three, after this week's Jim Harbaugh backdoor cover,) but they're also Don Quixote tilting at windmills: Stanford can bring its A-game against Arizona State, TCU, Oregon and now USC, and unless they happen to catch their opponent on a C or D day (no, not that D Day), it's not going to matter. USC played its B game, grading out at a D in the first half, a C in the third quarter, and an A in quarter number four, and won handily. Cal is now in a position to do the same to the Cardinal, and while five wins is more than we had any right to expect this year, and while the program's long-term trajectory is excellent, and while (and here's another maxim I hate) "you never know what's going to happen in a rivalry game," fans aren't rational.
It's frustrating to know that Stanford is no longer in control of its bowl destiny, and needs an off-day from Cal, regardless of how well it plays in Berkeley Saturday, to snap a seven-year spell. It's frustrating to know that, at UCLA, Stanford was 15 seconds away from never putting itself in this position to begin with. It's frustrating to know that, 26 years after Elway just missed out on a bowl trip in a Cardinal uniform with a loss to Cal, this year's Stanford seniors are in peril of falling victim to the same fate. It's frustrating to think that Stanford's played well these past three weeks, and in their three "toss-up" wins, but their margin of error is so small that one mistake (or regression to the mean) could derail their season-long goals.
It's frustrating to know that frustration is nothing new to a Stanford fan, and that the sports bonds we Cardinaljunkies share are too often ones of heartbreak and agony. Our school does as much to make the world a better place as almost any institution, the vast majority of Stanford people are exceedingly nice -- why us?
It's frustrating to look at the final score, see USC 45, Stanford 23, and know that the Card played just about as well as they could have.
It's frustrating to think that Cal's likely to win, and be twice as happy after breaking our hearts in the process. It's frustrating to think of that post-game walk down Cal's Frat Row considering the stakes of a loss.
Of course, hope springs eternal in college football, and Cal's a great matchup for 2008 Stanford. They're best defending the run, which means we might be able to actually pass, and they're best running the ball, which means our secondary might not get torched like southern California is at the present moment.
Right now, the only solace to a fan who's 22 going on 45 thanks to his alma mater is that there's one more shot to do the unthinkable. And if the Mother of All Upsets (tm) does occur, all the doubts beforehand will only make it that much sweeter.
For Stanford football, literally nothing else matters right now. Beat Cal.
That's our take. Here's what other writers thought...
After a sluggish first half by Southern California, it looked as if there could be another Stanford stunner.
Mark Sanchez threw two touchdown passes and the Trojan ground game amassed 282 yards as sixth-ranked Southern California shook off a slow start with 28 second-half points to spoil the Stanford Cardinal upset bid with a 45-23 victory.
Redefining the terms
San Jose Mercury News
When the mouth of Jim Harbaugh opens and speaks, there is never a dull moment.
C.J. Gable's 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was one of several highlight-reel plays for the Trojans' kickoff return team in a 45-23 victory over Stanford on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
The stadium was different, but the feeling was hauntingly familiar.
At least for a while.
It was at [halftime], recalled Stafon Johnson, that the USC running backs huddled together, said they'd had enough, and vowed that they would take over the game in the final two quarters.
Sure, it's still technically possible. It's also technically possible for Pac-10 officials to call a perfect game.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg ? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up )!