The magnitude of the victory cannot be overstated. When the Stanford Cardinal stunned the best team in the history of college football (also known as USC) with a 24-23 victory on Saturday night, the national story obviously focused on the Trojans.
In case you hadn't noticed, Pete Carroll's squad has been pretty good lately. The Trojans had gone 63-6 since 2002; their 35-game home winning streak was the nation's longest; odds makers had favored them by an absurd 41 points. Added to all this was the fact that Stanford starting quarterback T.C. Ostrander was out for the game, replaced by a back-up who had one career pass completion. Even the most optimistic Cardinal fan would've felt nauseous thinking about all this around lunchtime on Saturday. By dinner time, though, even the most optimistic Trojan fan would have trouble finding the silver lining in this season-shattering loss.
Sure, Stanford had the inexperienced quarterback, but it was USC's Heisman candidate, John David Booty, who threw four intereceptions. Stanford's Tavita Pritchard, meanwhile, made the plays when he had to, converting a fourth and twenty to keep the game-winning drive alive only moments before lofting a touchdown pass on fourth and goal to break 90,000 hearts.
Yes, the Trojan offense dominated the game, outgaining the Card 459-235, but 110 of those yards came on two long USC touchdowns, and another fifty-six came on another pass play. You can't eliminate those yards, but if you could, the yardage differential would be much less significant.
USC's story may have ended, but the Cardinal's has only just begun. Some experts have called this the greatest upset in the history of Pac-10 football, and others have compared it to Appalachia State's win over Michigan last month, and at first glance that seems about right. Stanford, after all, entered the game at 1-3. Their only win had come against San Jose State, and they had been outscored 141-51. Somehow, though, those numbers don't tell the entire story.
If it's possible to play well while getting waxed, the Cardinal did exactly that in their losses to UCLA and Oregon. Against the Bruins, they actually stayed in the game into the fourth quarter. The 45-17 margin was inflated by one UCLA touchdown on a short field after a failed on-side kick and another tack-on score with 20 seconds left. Three weeks later Stanford looked on the verge of a shocking upset over the highly-ranked Oregon Ducks when they scored 28 points in the second quarter and took a 31-24 lead into halftime.
It almost didn't matter that Stanford wasn't winning these games. The attitude of the program under new head coach Jim Harbaugh had taken a 180° turn from the previous regime, a change which had begun with Harbaugh's first day on the job. He took the helm with confidence, announcing to the world that he would "attack the job with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind." He gave great interviews, calling out the University of Michigan and USC coach Pete Carroll, and somehow convinced ESPN to bring their cameras to Stanford's spring practice field.
Through the first four games of the season, I loved what I was seeing from this Stanford team. They were running the ball almost twice as effectively as last year, and the defense actually made plays. Every aspect of the team was better than the squads former coach Walt Harris had fielded, and I had no doubt that Harbaugh was the reason. My fear, though, was that moral victories would get old. I wondered how long Harbaugh would be able to keep his players focused on the effort rather than the scoreboard; I even wondered how long Harbaugh would be able to keep that focus.
I wonder no longer. This single victory (and it won't be the last of 2007) has given the program credibility. It gives the players a reason to work harder in practice each week, and it gives Harbaugh and his staff a story that will surely play well in living rooms on the recruiting trail. Perhaps the best story in the history of college football.