When Jim Harbaugh took over as Stanford's head coach following the 2006 season, it was as if he'd jumped into a gunfight with a slingshot.
Stanford had won 16 games in the previous five years, losing to UC Davis, an FCS school, in 2005, then going 1--11 in '06. USC had 59 victories in that span, with five straight BCS bowls and two national championships. Yet Harbaugh took dead aim at the Trojans.
In March 2007 he said that he'd heard USC coach Pete Carroll would stay at the school for only one more season. The comment irked Carroll, because it wasn't true and it threatened to undercut his recruiting. Harbaugh didn't back down. When asked about it again, he defended himself—Carroll actually left three years later—and made a statement that's emblazoned on the wall of Stanford's new football facility: WE BOW TO NO MAN. WE BOW TO NO PROGRAM HERE AT STANFORD UNIVERSITY.
"The psychology of what Jim did when he got here was very sound," says David Shaw, Stanford's offensive coordinator in 2007 and now its coach. "You look for the biggest bully on the block, and that's who you point yourself at. USC had not just beaten everybody. USC had dominated the conference."
September 8, 2014
Still, the Cardinal were 1--3 and fresh off a 41--3 home loss to Arizona State as they prepared to face the Trojans on Oct. 6. USC, ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll, had a 35-game home winning streak and a roster that featured 35 future NFL draft picks. To make matters worse, a week earlier star receiver Mark Bradford, a Los Angeles native who had spurned USC for Stanford, had flown home to attend his father's funeral, and no one knew when he'd be back. Then, on the Sunday before the game, Cardinal quarterback T.C. Ostrander suffered a seizure that knocked him out of action and thrust redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard into his first start. By kickoff USC was a 41-point favorite.
The repercussions from Stanford's 24--23 win at the L.A. Coliseum are still felt today. The Cardinal went from a laughingstock to a powerhouse that has reached four consecutive BCS games, and the Trojans' dynasty began to dim.
"That was a great lesson for all of our players that day," Harbaugh says. "Courage is, You know, but you do it anyway. Chances are that it's not going to go well. But you go in there and fight."
At 4:00 p.m. on a sunny, 74° Saturday afternoon, 85,000 poured into the Coliseum.
MICHAEL MOLINARI (game producer, Versus television): We prepared like it was going to be over in the first five minutes. We had video of [USC alum] Will Ferrell jumping into a pool. Everything possible. You have to prepare for the worst.
DOUG BALDWIN (Stanford receiver): I do remember, we were doing our walk-through and they came down from the top of the stadium, and they walked right through the middle of our practice. That s--- pissed us off.
BRADFORD: My dad had passed the week before. I was gone for a week. I flew back Monday. It was pretty crazy, but it put everything in perspective. I looked at it as a game. It wasn't life or death.
TERRELL THOMAS (USC cornerback): For some reason the D-line and some of the linebackers came out late that day. Coach Carroll was already out there waiting on us. We were never late about things like that. He was livid.
BALDWIN: I remember [Tavita] smiling when he got on the field. It was a very calming feeling because he had the same look that he always had. It was weird because it was the biggest game of his career, and he still was just the same old Tavita.
DAVID PRITCHARD (Tavita's dad): When we were telling people to pray for him to win or do well, I prayed that Tavita would survive the moment.
HARBAUGH: The first time I was in a tackling line in Ann Arbor, Mich., I was nine years old, and I was counting over seven spots to see who I would match up against, and Ralph is over there. At nine years old, he was about 150 pounds and had a five o'clock shadow. And I was like, Oh, dear Lord, please don't let that be Ralph over there. And I recounted, and there he was. Standing on the sideline looking over at USC, it was like 100 Ralphs.
From the outset the defenses dominated, especially after USC's attack suffered a severe setback.
JOHN DAVID BOOTY (USC quarterback): I threw a crossing route to Patrick Turner, and I hit my hand on the top of a helmet. It got swollen pretty quick. I'd broken bones before; I knew that feeling.
PAT RUEL (USC offensive line coach): We stayed with [Booty], but he really couldn't throw the ball.
DAVID PRITCHARD: [I was officiating a wedding], and when it was over, I grabbed the best man and said, "I'm going to run around the corner and check on the game." I remember fully expecting the game to be over. It was right before halftime. Lo and behold, they were still in it.
ANDREW LUCK (recruit verbally committed to Stanford): I was at my buddy's house. In Houston you watched A&M or Texas. For the first three quarters, my friends refused to watch Stanford. I was in his dad's office, watching by myself."
Even with Booty limited, the Trojans went up 9--0 with 7:15 remaining in the second quarter. Stanford end Pannel Egboh, who dominated with 10 tackles and 2½ tackles for a loss, blocked a kick that would have made it 10--0.
RUEL: The hardest part of that game was that I coached the extra point team. That was the only extra point we had blocked in the [five seasons] I was there. The block came right over the center, Will Collins. He had a torn hamstring, and we let him snap it anyway.
With 13 seconds left in the half, USC had a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, and Carroll elected to go for a touchdown. Defensive backs Nick Sanchez and Bo McNally stuffed tailback Chauncey Washington at the one-yard line.
THOMAS: That goal line stand was the biggest play of the game. I remember telling Lawrence Jackson, "Man, that's gonna cost us," as we ran into the tunnel.
SHAW: People who call me up and talk about turning around the program, I always say the first step to winning is learning how not to lose. That's what this was: Get turnovers but don't turn it over, play field position, punt—that's O.K. A lot of the principles that we taught at the very beginning showed up in this one game.
Despite the close score, USC didn't make any major changes when play resumed.
BOOTY: At halftime there was discussion if I thought I could still play. Obviously I said yes. With the shorter and intermediate throws, it was fine. It was when I really had to put something on it. I wasn't what I normally was.
SCOTT SHAFER (Stanford defensive coordinator): Early in the third quarter I called an all-out double-dog black press blitz. You usually only call one of those a game, and it's in the red zone. I knew Booty was feeling a little erratic, and when you sense blood in the water, you go there.
LANCE ANDERSON (Stanford defensive line coach): I don't know that Booty ever saw our guy coming to cover the fullback [Stanley Havili].
On the third-and-one, safety Austin Yancy snared the first of Stanford's four interceptions and coasted 31 yards for the score, cutting the lead to 9--7.
YANCY: It was pretty much a gift. I just caught the ball, and when I looked up, it was me and my friends running to the end zone.
Stanford's offense came to life, scoring on a nine-play, 75-yard drive, but USC regained control with its second long touchdown pass of the half, giving the Trojans a 23--14 lead with 11:04 to go. Stanford responded with a 12-play, 61-yard drive capped by the game's savviest play call. On a third-and-nine at the USC 10, Stanford ran the ball for one yard and kicked a field goal.
USC led 23--17 with less than three minutes remaining, but the aggressive "win forever" mentality that built the Trojans' dynasty also undid it. As they pushed for another score, cornerback Wopamo Osaisai picked off another Booty pass and took it back to the USC 45-yard line. With 1:45 left, Stanford faced a fourth-and-20 from the 29.
TAVITA PRITCHARD: Coach Harbaugh was maybe 30 yards away from me. I missed the signal, and Coach started trying to yell the play at me. It was the Coliseum, fourth quarter, and we were driving to score.
SHAW: Initially, I thought the play call went in. I didn't know [it didn't] until later, especially after I saw the replay.
TAVITA PRITCHARD: I was like, Well, I've just got to call a play. That can sound a little more involved than it actually was because on fourth-and-20, not a lot of plays can get called. It's like, You go run down by the Chevy.
RICHARD SHERMAN (Stanford receiver): It was double go, middle read, and when you're the single high receiver, you're supposed to run a basic route. I ran a post because it was 19 yards, and we didn't have a 19-yard basic.
TAVITA PRITCHARD: [USC safety] Kevin Ellison, man, he was a physical dude. For the ball not to get dislodged is pretty incredible, for Richard to secure that catch. He got popped.
BRADFORD: I was shocked he held on to the ball [for a 20-yard gain]. He got hit pretty hard. I was looking and expecting the ball to come out.
SHERMAN: I remember my rib cracking and not feeling very good.
SANCHEZ: Richard hadn't totally proved himself yet. That [first down] was a big moment for him as far as gaining the respect of everyone on the team.
THOMAS: We were in a similar coverage to [what Carroll runs in Seattle]. It was an unfortunate situation because we should have been in man. We always asked for man, and he always went to the zone.
CHRIS DALMAN (Stanford offensive line coach): There was a TV timeout to measure for the first down, and two of my linemen were dancing. I'm out at the numbers screaming at them.
CHRIS MARINELLI (Stanford right tackle): Their band only plays one song, don't they? I think it was the "Fight On" song. I feel like I danced with extremely fluid hips, and my rhythm was off the charts.
On first-and-goal from the nine, Pritchard scrambled for four yards, then threw two incompletions to 6'7" receiver Evan Moore, leaving Stanford with a fourth-and-goal with 54 seconds left. The Cardinal called time out but returned to the huddle with 12 players, leading to a five-yard penalty for too many men.
SHAW: The penalty was inexcusable. There was a lot of chaos, of course, which always happens, but still inexcusable.
THOMAS: We thought they did that on purpose to get more room.
TAVITA PRITCHARD: The penalty ended up helping us. It gave us more room on that fade ball.
SHAW: [Receiver] Ryan Whalen had been split wide left, and I made the adjustment [from the box during the timeout] to send [Bradford to the left side] in isolation.
BRADFORD: I remember feeling like I knew the ball was going to come to me. We went to Evan a couple of times before that. [Mozique McCurtis] was single coverage on me, and I wanted to make the best move I could and get past him.
SHAW: I don't think I've ever seen one play where there was such an exaggerated coverage. You can't even see the safeties in the end zone shot because they are shaded so far over [toward Moore and Sherman]. That's not a slight of USC. That's part of coaching, to say, This is what they've done, this is who they keep going to.
BRADFORD: At that point, the ball was coming to me. This is it, this is my chance.
SHAW: As soon as we lined up, I was glad we made the adjustment. Mark Bradford, who was also a great basketball player who played here at Stanford, he's a real explosive jumper.
BRADFORD: I caught the ball and made sure I got my body in. I was expecting something to go wrong. I didn't know if the ref was going to say I bobbled it or call a pass interference. I was lying there like, Is this it? Does this count? When he put his hands up, I just went crazy. I felt like we were conquerors.
MARINELLI: That game was all about Mark Bradford, the situation he faced with his dad passing away. Being from L.A. and being a huge, huge recruit. It felt like destiny he made that play.
MATT DOYLE (Stanford associate AD): We kicked off, and there was a face-mask penalty. It was like, Oh, my God.
USC took over with 49 seconds left at its own 40-yard line, needing only a field goal.
BOOTY: On third down I threw a ball a little high. It was a seam route to Patrick Turner. It was catchable, but he didn't come down with it. We could have kicked a field goal and won if he caught it.
MCNALLY: All four of our defensive backs had an interception. I was the last one to the party [on the next play]. That moment was the most quiet that stadium has ever been in the history of the games played there. It was silent. Dead silent.
BOOTY: This game is the only thing I still get called about. I'm sure it was a great game for college football fans to watch, but it wasn't fun.
TAVITA PRITCHARD: I'll never forget going out to take the final snap. I heard Coach call my name. I thought he was going to say, "Make sure you get the snap." Instead he just goes, "Save the ball!" I still have it on my desk at my house.
Since 2009, Stanford has gone 55--13, while USC, limited by scholarship reductions and a bowl ban resulting from impermissible benefits accepted by running back Reggie Bush, has gone 45--21.
KELLY STOUFFER (Versus commentator): Harbaugh was uncontrollably running and jumping. In the stadium there were 85,000 people who thought they just saw Bigfoot.
LUCK: By the fourth quarter, I'd forced my friends to change the channel. When they won, I was running around the house screaming, I ended up in the cul-de-sac.
BOB BOWLSBY (Stanford athletic director): Jim hugged me so hard that my back cracked from the base of my neck all the way down to my tailbone.
WILLIE TAGGART (Stanford running backs coach): After the game we were getting on the bus, and Coach Harbaugh went up to the driver and said, "I'd like you to honk the horn all the way to the interstate."
DEREK BELCH (Stanford kicker): The iPhone had just come out. Evan Moore had one. So on the bus, Evan quieted everyone down and read the AP article. Everyone was going crazy.
BOWLSBY: The plane could have flown home without the pilots and fuel. We were riding high.
SHAFER: It was around 1 a.m. when we finally got back. As we turned the corner into campus, there were all these students waiting for us, jumping up and down. That's what college football is all about.
CLAYTON WHITE (Stanford defensive backs coach): It was like a Michael Jackson concert when we got back. I kind of wasn't expecting that. It was the wildest scene I've ever been a part of.
SHAW: Jim grabbed a bullhorn and, completely impromptu, got the crowd even crazier than they already were. I got chills listening to him talk about who we were, what we wanted to accomplish and what we were building. It was unreal. Not just the game, but that moment was one of my alltime Stanford moments. To see the student body, professors and people that live in the area all come to support Stanford. It was unreal.
MCNALLY: That night I experienced what it would be like at an SEC school.
JOHN DENNISTON (friend of Harbaugh's): My wife, Dena, and I picked up Jim and Sarah and took them home. We bought a magnum of champagne with no intention to drink it, but we felt it was reflective of a good celebration. We sat on their couch with the sound off on ESPN, and as the night went on, Jim became more interested in the TCU-Wyoming highlights. Stanford played TCU the next week, and Jim was riveted, telling us about this young quarterback TCU had named Andy Dalton.
SHAW: I refer to this game as the beginning of the program. This was where all of Bob Bowlsby's determination to take football seriously and have people take our football seriously paid off. This is where Jim Harbaugh's brashness and confidence started to be seen as real. Those around him always knew it was real.
HARBAUGH: The players went out there and did it. Coaches and people try to say, Let me say how we did this. That's not what it was. That diminishes it somehow to me. It was great. Summarizing it or explaining it does not give justice to what the players accomplished.
"THEY WALKED RIGHT THROUGH THE MIDDLE OF OUR PRACTICE. THAT S--- PISSED US OFF."
"WE SHOULD HAVE BEEN IN MAN. WE ALWAYS ASKED FOR MAN, AND HE ALWAYS WENT TO THE ZONE."
 A goal line stand at the end of the first half kept the Cardinal in striking distance.
 Sherman, one of several Cardinal players from L.A., took special joy in the win.
 An early hand injury messed with Booty's ability to throw, leading to four interceptions on the day.
 The Coliseum was packed for a game that seemed as though it would be little more than a slaughter.
 Pritchard got his first start after Stanford's usual signal-caller had a seizure.
 An early fumble by USC tight end Fred Davis helped keep the game close into the second half.