On the morning of Sunday October 7th, the front page of the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times read “Unfathomable” above a picture of Stanford Free Safety Bo McNally holding USC Quarterback John David Booty’s 4th interception in his hand and embracing his teammates – signaling the demise of Troy in their own stadium. The unthinkable had just occurred- Stanford had beaten USC.
USC was not supposed to lose on Saturday, October 6th. They had not lost a game at home since 2001. They had four years of the best recruiting classes in the nation playing on the field. They had a coach, Pete Carroll, who had already won the AP National Championship twice. They had a team this year that Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh considered “the best team in the history of college football” at the start of this season. They were ranked number 1 in the Coaches poll at the start of the game.
Moreover, Stanford was 1-3. They had just lost two consecutive conference games at home. The recruiting has been consistently mediocre for the last few years- talent that could beat San Jose State maybe, but certainly not a Southern California dynasty. First year coach Jim Harbaugh had not yet even coached a road game. Redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard would be making his first career start. Las Vegas odds-makers had Stanford as a 41 point underdog – odds considered too steep to overcome.
Unfortunately for USC, the game was not played on paper, or on a recruiting website, or in a Las Vegas Casino. The Stanford defense rose to the occasion and surpassed all expectations. The same defense that surrendered 96 points in the two previous games was breaking up plays against USC. A lot of people like to talk about quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers; but it was the defensive core that kept the Cardinal in the game. Play after play, defensive linemen and linebackers penetrated the USC offensive line. According to all the football experts, USC’s offensive line was supposed to push our defensive line out of the way and control the game. The experts were wrong as the defense sacked USC Quarterback John David Booty four times, forced five turnovers, and contained the rushing game.
In addition to the defense, Pritchard performed well enough to keep the Cardinal in the game. His game stats were not outstanding (11/30 pass completions, 149 yards, 1 TD, 1 Int), but he looked to be mature beyond his experience level. He did not make the mistakes that inexperienced quarterbacks tend to make such as waiting too long to throw the football, taking sacks, or struggling to maintain administrative control of the offense. He got better as the game progressed and the pressure became ever more real. His ability to scramble out of the pocket is something that should help Stanford in the weeks ahead. He handled two 4th downs on the winning drive with a demeanor that one would have expected in a Senior Quarterback (the way John David Booty should have played). The clutch play of receivers Richard Sherman and Mark Bradford certainly helped as well as they caught passes on the winning drive that converted a 4th and 20 and scored the game-winning touchdown, respectively. Playing against one of the best defenses in the nation, in front of a hostile crowd of 85,000 in his first start, Pritchard surpassed all expectations and gave the Cardinal a chance to win.
I will not say that Stanford is a better football team than USC – but they were better on that day. The win shows that they can win on any given day. Mistakes such as those in the TCU game will still happen as the team develops. They will still need to fight hard in every game to scrape out wins. But as the Cardinal go into the remainder of their schedule they should be able to feel confidence in every game they play. The toughest team for the rest of the season is Cal – but after beating the best program of the 21st century they should not fear anyone. Hopefully this new-found optimism will permeate into the fan-base as well.
One of my first thoughts after the win was that it might help them get to a bowl game this year. It would still be very difficult given that they need to get at least 6 wins to be eligible- and even then that would not guarantee a spot. However, the win speaks for itself. Most people did not even expect this team to compete at all this season in any capacity – much less against arguably the best team in the nation. With a group of young players and a new coach, the Stanford football team has already surpassed all expectations for this year.
This win should definitely help Coach Harbaugh with recruiting. At the very least, it brings Stanford respect as a football program in addition to its prestige as a top-notch academic institution. While, the USCs, LSUs, and Floridas of the country will still dominate recruiting, Stanford should have a better chance at quality athletes that also would like to receive a quality education. A regional victory against the fiercest team in the west coast should also give Harbaugh an opportunity to access the great high school talents in California. After this win, and hopefully a strong finish to the season, recruiting should improve significantly. Also, with almost all of the starters returning next year, the team should be improved through the natural maturation process. I anticipate Stanford becoming a reliable bowl game qualifier in the near future.
From the perspective of a Stanford student, this one upset justifies being a witness to football mediocrity for the past four years. The entire country is – at least temporarily- in awe of our football team. No one was supposed to beat USC this year. When people think of Stanford football, the first thing that comes to mind might not be “The Play” anymore or some ill-advised Stanford Band Halftime Show. Now people will think about the night that our school fought hard, did not quit, and defied the odds to beat the unbeatable. Overall, this win is something that the Stanford community can be proud of for years to come.