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From the Vault: Stanford-USC 2011

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Looking back at the historic grudge match and one of its best games.

Stanford v USC
Relive on of the greatest games in the bitter Stanford-USC rivalry.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Welcome back to “The Vault,” a weekly series where I’ll focus on an important game in Stanford’s recent history featuring the opponent that the Cardinal are scheduled to play in their upcoming match. Stanford has no meeting scheduled for this weekend, as the matchup with Rice in Sydney was allowed to take place a week in advance. As we all know, the next game looming ahead for the Cardinal is the annual showdown with USC. THIS is what The Vault was created for, to store the memories of the most important games in Stanford history, and boy do the Cardinal have some with USC.

Ask any Stanford fan what the USC Trojans mean to them and you’ll get a variety of responses, but there will be a common theme of torment and revenge in their stories. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a second and say what needs to be said: USC is West Coast football. As far as most people in America are concerned they’re the best in this region and it’s why they’re so hated by the rest of us. The Trojans are easily the most historically successful college football program west of the Rocky Mountains. They claim far more national titles than any other team in the PAC-12 and based on the AP and Coaches poll championships the Trojans have more titles (7) than all other PAC-12 schools combined (3). The NCAA’s recognized national championships (which include Cal’s and Stanford’s titles before the poll era) still give the Trojans two more championships (9) than the rest of the West (6 including BYU). Southern California’s 38 (or 40) conference championships more than doubles the total of the next closet school. Stanford’s 15 league titles place them 4th, having just fallen out of the top 3 when Washington won their 16th conference championship last season.

Cal will always be our traditional rivalry game, and when the Golden Bears get good again (however long that will take) The Big Game will once again bask in the spotlight it deserves. Until then, USC will forever occupy the minds of Stanford fans as the game that absolutely needs to be won for any season to be successful.

Since I have been afforded two weeks to talk about the upcoming USC game, I’ll be profiling TWO games instead of one. Plus, I’ll take advantage of the extra time by going into a bit more detail about the past history of these two programs. I will be splitting the history of the Stanford-USC series in two, with the early days profiled this week alongside the first game I’ve highlighted. The second half of the condensed history will come next week.

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To understand the Stanford-USC rivalry we have to go back to the beginning. The story is intertwined with the history of the rise of both programs and that of West Coast football.

The University of Southern California first fielded a football team in 1888. They called themselves the Methodists and played a pair of games against the Alliance Athletic Club of Los Angeles before calling it a season. The Southern California team remained a bit player in football on the West Coast for the next couple of decades. For the most part, the Methodists played smaller schools from the Los Angeles area such as Cal Tech, Loyola Marymount, Occidental, Pomona, and Whittier. Despite generally solid seasons, Southern California never made any waves outside of the LA region.

Stanford University’s first football team began play in 1891. Stanford played three games against local high schools and athletic clubs as well as their first meeting with the University of California, who they beat 14-10 on the Haight Street Grounds in San Francisco. Stanford quickly established themselves as one of the premier programs in the West, playing schools from out of state (such as Washington) by 1893. In 1894, Stanford played two exhibition games against the powerful Chicago Maroons, one of the best programs in the Midwest. Stanford lost the first game to Chicago in San Francisco but beat Amos Alonzo Stagg’s Maroons 12-0 in Los Angeles. The win was a big moment in Western football history, and the clash was the precursor to the first bowl game, which Stanford also attended. Held on January 1st, 1902, the Tournament East-West Game would go into the record books as the very first Rose Bowl. Stanford was run off the field by former head coach Fielding Yost’s mighty Michigan Wolverines 49-0. College football was much more developed back East, whereas in the West it was still very much in its infancy. It would take another few decades for the schools out West to challenge for national championships.

The 1894 Stanford football team.

The Stanford football team met the Southern California Methodists for the first time on a football field on November 4th, 1905. Stanford won the match 16-0 on the old Stanford Field. They would finish the season by beating Cal 12-5 at home but then Stanford promptly dropped its football team. Like many other schools at the time, Stanford was concerned by the number of injuries and fatalities associated with the sport. Stanford and Cal, alongside many other universities, discontinued varsity football. Stanford would instead play rugby until 1919, by that time most other schools who had discontinued football had brought it back years earlier.

USC abandoned football temporarily between 1911 and 1913 for the same reason. They reinstituted the sport in 1914, renamed the team the Trojans, and once more began playing schools in the Greater Los Angeles area. They also, however, begin to play teams further afield including Cal, Oregon, and Oregon State. Those three schools as well as the University of Washington founded the Pacific Coast Conference in 1915. The PCC would instantly become the most competitive sports conference west of the Mississippi and further gain in strength with a few key additions.

Stanford joined the PCC in 1918 and began playing football in the league immediately once the team was revived the following year. They opened Stanford Stadium in 1921, and were crushed by Cal in the inaugural matchup. Stanford also began playing USC once more, but things had changed. Going over a decade without football had curbed the growth of the Stanford program, and where they once won plenty of games against regional opponents they now struggled to maintain a winning record. The Trojans joined the PCC in 1922 and began hosting games in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1923. Southern Cal was immediately competitive in their new home and beat Stanford four times in five years from 1919 to 1923.

USC’s rise from local player in the Los Angeles football scene to one of the better programs on the West Coast was thanks to head coach Gus Henderson, hired in 1919. Gloomy Gus, as he was known, set the Trojans on the right path. Henderson engineered a 45-7 record in his six seasons in Los Angeles, including two back to back 10-1 campaigns in 1921 and 1922. The only team he couldn’t beat was California. The Golden Bears under head coach Andy Smith were the best team in college football in the early 1920’s. They went undefeated from 1920 to 1924 and won three consecutive national championships from 1920 to 1922. The Cal Bears brought West Coast football to the national stage, and their championships are the first claimed by a team west of Texas.

Andy Smith’s Wonder Boys were an impossible summit for either USC or Stanford to climb. After a few years both schools were fed up by this dominance and made big coaching changes. The men they brought in were two of the most legendary coaches in the history of college football. Stanford lured Pop Warner, the hottest hand in the sport not named Andy Smith, away from Pittsburgh in 1924. Warner was a master innovator and brought many big changes to the Stanford program. He was renowned for his success leading the Carlisle Indians and for this three national championships that he won at Pitt.

At the end of the ‘24 season, USC bought out Gus Henderson’s contract and brought in Howard Jones, who had guided Iowa to two undefeated seasons a few years back. Warner’s arrival in 1924, Jones’ arrival the following year, and the tragic early death of Andy Smith after the 1925 season would permanently alter the college football landscape in the PCC.

In 1924, Warner’s first season, Stanford went undefeated. It helped that they had one of the most electrifying players in the country in fullback Ernie Nevers. Stanford began the season 7-0 before tying Cal in Berkeley 20-20. They were selected to go to the Rose Bowl as the Western representative where they lost to Knute Rockne’s Four Horsemen. Stanford beat Cal and USC the following year (Howard Jones’ first in Los Angeles), but they were unable to defend their crown. The championship went to Washington, who lost the Rose Bowl to Alabama in what would become a seminal moment in Southern football history.

1926 was a big year in Stanford football. Warner’s squad defeated all-comers, going undefeated with a 10-0 record. Stanford easily breezed through the competition, the exception being a slight 13-12 victory over USC that nearly derailed their championship hopes. Stanford once again attended the Rose Bowl where they played Alabama to a 7-7 tie. They were still technically undefeated, and many news outlets proclaimed Stanford University’s football team to be the national champions of the 1926 season. Meanwhile, USC had a solid second year under Jones. The Trojans had lost only to Stanford and Notre Dame, who had just made their first ever end of season trek to Los Angeles to play SC.

Stanford in the Rose Bowl against Alabama.

Stanford once again dominated almost all of their PCC opponents in 1927. They were unbeaten in conference play outside of a 13-13 tie to Southern Cal. Stanford was still chosen to represent the West in the Rose Bowl, but a pair of non-conference losses to Saint Mary’s and Santa Clara prevented them from claiming a second national title. Still, Warner finally got his Rose Bowl win with a 7-6 victory over his former team. Warner had struck first, establishing Stanford as the premier football program on the West Coast, but his reign would be short lived. Just as his last few years in Pittsburgh were regressions from their national championship form, Stanford began to lose their edge, especially against USC.

Southern California finished first or second in the PCC every year from 1928 to 1932, usually with Stanford right behind them. The Trojans went 9-0-1 in 1928 and claim the season as their first national championship. In 1931, USC lost to Saint Mary’s to begin the season and then reeled off 25 consecutive wins. The Trojan’s first NCAA recognized national championships came in those ’31 and ’32 seasons. Southern California was in their ascendancy, and in a certain way they’ve never lost their dominance. No West Coast program outside of USC has ever won back to back championships since.

Howard Jones, architect of USC football.
Garfield Studios, Los Angeles

Pop Warner called it quits after the 1932 season. The newly nicknamed Stanford Indians finished a disappointing 6-4-1 including a shutout at home against USC. Warner moved on to a new coaching challenge at Temple University. Stanford brought in Claude “Tiny” Thornhill to replace Warner. Thornhill immediately reenergized the team, and the Indians were able to beat USC for the first time in six attempts. The 1933 team called themselves the Vow Boys, after a pledge that the freshman class made the year before to never lose to the Trojans again. The Vow Boys kept their promise, beating SC again in 1934 and ’35. They went to the Rose Bowl each of those three years and finally won it over SMU in 1936.

Tiny Thornhill’s winning ways wouldn’t last. The Indians wouldn’t have another winning record under him and he was fired following the 1939 season. It didn’t help that after a couple of off years Jones guided the Trojans to two consecutive Rose Bowl victories in 1938 and ’39. The Trojans claim the 1939 season as their fourth national championship under Jones, although they only finished 3rd in the AP Poll.

The 1940 season was another pivotal year in the history of both Stanford and USC. After Thornhill’s departure, Stanford brought in offensive genius Clark Shaughnessy, whose innovative T-formation rocked the nation. He turned what had been a 1-7-1 squad the year before into the only modern Stanford team ever to finish a season unbeaten and untied. Called the Wow Boys, the Indians managed to go 9-0 in the regular season, finishing 2nd in the AP Poll to fellow unbeaten Minnesota, who were in the middle of their last great dynasty. Unfortunately, the polls at the time didn’t take into account postseason play. The Gohpers didn’t play any bowl game, as was the standard at the time for the Big Ten. The Indians, meanwhile, beat 8-1 Nebraska 21-13 in the Rose Bowl to complete a clean 10-0 record. The 1940 season remains Stanford’s closest brush with a national championship since 1926.

The Wow Boys, Stanford’s last undefeated and untied team.
Tournament of Roses Archive.

That same season, USC collapsed, going 3-4-2. A few months before the 1941 season began, Howard Jones suffered a heart attack and died at age 55. Though he was barely outlasted by Clark Shaugnessy. The Indians finished the 1941 season 6-3 and Shaughnessy resigned to coach Maryland with the belief that Stanford would discontinue their football program when World War II began. He was right.

Stanford and USC would follow a similar pattern in later decades. Stanford would come close, and hire many coaches who could beat USC, but none stayed around long enough to turn the tide of history that had already been set. The Trojans enjoyed long stretches of dominance under their legendary head coaches that followed in Howard Jones’ footsteps. Those men would all leave as well, but not before adding a number of wins over Stanford and a national championship or two to the trophy cases.

Part I of the Stanford-USC history ends here. Tune in next week for the second installment that will look at the more recent history of this storied rivalry.

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The game I want to profile this week is what I consider to be the second most important contest that Stanford and USC have played since the arrival of Jim Harbaugh in 2007. You might be surprised to learn that this has been the only game between the Cardinal and Trojans in the Harbaugh-Shaw era to feature two teams that would finish the season in the AP Poll’s top ten. Yes, despite all of the high stakes games in the emotional rollercoaster that has been the Stanford-SC series in the past ten years, only one has been contested by two real top ten teams, and boy were they loaded.

Stanford v Arizona
Shaw and Luck, the leaders of the 2011 Cardinal.

The 2011 Stanford Cardinal featured a glut of future NFL talent, headlined, of course, by Andrew Luck. The backfield also contained junior running backs Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. Gaffney would win two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. Wide receiver Griff Whalen and tight ends Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, and Levine Toilolo were all targets for Luck, all of whom have made it to the NFL Playoffs. The offensive line featured a brutal front led by David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Cameron Fleming, and David Yankey. Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro, and Henry Anderson held down the D-line. Linebackers Trent Murphy, Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas and safety Ed Reynolds formed one of the best defensive units in Stanford history.

The 2011 Trojans were almost as talented. Matt Barkley was the most prolific quarterback SC has fielded since Pete Carroll was churning them out year after year. Fullback and team captain Rhett Ellison has also made his way to the NFL. USC’s wide receivers were a potent group led by Marqise Lee and Robert Woods that stacked up well with Stanford’s tight end corps. Tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble were also talented options for Barkley to find. SC’s O-line featured standouts Khaled Holmes, Matt Kalil, and Kevin Graf. The Southern Cal defense was also very strong, with defensive ends Nick Perry, Devon Kennard, and Wes Horton anchoring the line. Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and safety T.J. McDonald were standouts in the secondary. USC’s roster was this impressive despite suffering from a reduction in scholarships handed down by the NCAA for the Reggie Bush fiasco.

In their previous meeting, #16 Stanford edged out an unranked USC squad 37-35 when Nate Whitaker kicked a field goal as time expired to seal the win. It was pandemonium on The Farm as fans rushed the field. The year before, the Cardinal’s last trip to the Los Angeles Coliseum, was the infamous 55-21 beat down. It was the worst loss SC had ever suffered at home and became famous for the “What’s your deal” sparring between Harbaugh and Carroll. Stanford had won three of the last four meetings with SC, completely reversing the trend set by Carroll. The Trojans were out for blood, having suddenly transformed into the underdog in a rivalry that they had dominated for so long.

Stanford was undefeated, with a 7-0 record and ranked 4th in the nation. 6-1 #20 USC had lost to Arizona State in late September but acquitted themselves nicely by beating their next three opponents. Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll were gone, but David Shaw and Lane Kiffen had done a good job filling their shoes. Without being able to play in the postseason, the Trojans were treating this like a bowl game.

The game was held on October 29th in the late evening. The shadows had already crept across the field as Stanford received the opening kickoff. The Cardinal executed a textbook drive, relying equally on Andrew Luck finding his favorite receivers and Stepfan Taylor (rather unsuccessfully) attempting to find weaknesses in the stout Trojan line. The culmination of the six minute drive was a short touchdown pass from Luck to Tyler Gaffney. The rest of the first quarter saw both teams trade punts until USC’s Andre Heidari kicked a field goal to put the Trojans on the board. Heidari and Eric Whitaker would trade field goals in the second quarter, bringing the score to 10-6 at the half. So far, this wasn’t the thrilling, high octane event we remember. The third quarter would change that.

USC came out swinging. On the third play from scrimmage Curtis McNeal torched the Stanford secondary on a 61 yard run into the endzone. The Trojans took their first lead. A shanked punt by Stanford’s David Green gave SC the ball on the Cardinal’s 40 yard line. It took only four plays for McNeal to race into the endzone for the second time, this time on a 25 yard run. In four and a half minutes the game had been turned on its head. Stanford’s 10-6 halftime lead was suddenly a 20-10 Southern California advantage.

Stanford v USC
Curtis McNeal had a big game against Stanford.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Cardinal held fast. Stanford responded with a 4 minute drive that saw Andrew Luck cut up the SC secondary with short passes. The Cardinal rush attack had been struggling all game to gain yards and Luck stepped up when needed. His 5 yard pass to Ryan Hewitt eroded the Trojan lead to three points. Following a three and out on Southern Cal’s part, Stanford pulled out the trickeration. On their first play, Luck received the ball on a reverse out of the wildcat and heaved a strike to freshman Ty Montgomery, moving the chains from the Stanford 25 to the USC 13. The Trojan defense nearly held out, forcing a fourth down conversion, but two plays later Andrew Luck took matters into his own hands on a QB keeper for the score.

The third quarter ended with the Cardinal holding a 24-20 lead in a much more intense game. USC was driving down the field when the final 15 minutes began ticking away. Matt Barkley and Curtis McNeal did all of the heavy lifting on that drive. The Trojans retook the lead they had just lost when Barkley connected with freshman phenom Maquise Lee on a 27 yard slant route to put SC up 27-24. Both defenses held fast on the ensuing possessions and Eric Whitaker tacked on a field goal to tie the game for the first time since the score was 0-0.

Here’s where the game went off the rails. USC only managed to eat 79 seconds off the clock in their possession before they had to punt. Stanford had just over three minutes to march down the field and take the lead, exactly what that Cardinal offense was built to do. However, three plays into the drive, Andrew Luck was picked off by Nickell Robey-Coleman who sprinted untouched into the Stanford endzone. USC now had a 34-27 lead and there were only two and a half minutes remaining for the Cardinal to equalize.

Luck took over. Stanford’s best ever quarterback passed and ran his way through the Trojan defense, who contributed 15 yards on an unnecessary roughness penalty when T.J. McDonald leveled Chris Owusu early in the drive. Stepfan Taylor drove into the endzone with a two yard run to tie the game with only 38 seconds remaining. In that short amount of time, USC managed to race very near field goal range but Marqise Lee was forced out of bounds as the clock stopped to send the game into overtime. The call on the field was somewhat controversial, as Lee probably beat the clock, but the refs upheld their decision and denied USC a final play.

Stanford began the first overtime by turning to the ground game. The Trojan defense was finally tiring and what had once been rushes for two or three yards turned into five or eight. Taylor, Luck, and Jeremy Stewart covered the 25 yards quickly. USC needed only three plays before Barkley found Robert Woods in the endzone to tie things up at 41 apiece. The second overtime was a mirror of the first. In just three plays Southern California took the lead. A facemask penalty put the Trojans 12 yards out. Barkley passed to Randall Telfer who somehow managed to navigate through four Stanford defenders to find the endzone. The Cardinal rebuttal was a five play drive culminating in Andrew Luck’s 11 yard pass to Levine Toilolo in the endzone. The game was once again tied, now at 48.

Stanford v USC
Jeremy Stewart dives into the endzone.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Triple overtime is when the rules change and each team has to attempt two point conversions instead of kicking the ball through the uprights. Stanford once again had the ball first, and the Cardinal executed a perfect short drive to make it into the endzone. Stepfan Taylor started the drive with an eight yard run, then Luck connected with Ryan Hewitt to put the ball on the 10 yard line. Hewitt was hit late and out of bounds pushing the lines to the USC 5. Taylor ran untouched through the Trojan front seven to put Stanford ahead. The two-point conversion was successful, Luck found Coby Fleener wide open in the back of the endzone. It was Stanford’s first two-point conversion attempt all year. The Cardinal were now assured a fourth overtime even if USC did everything right.

The Trojans nearly did. On the first play, Barkley shot a pass to Marqise Lee, who barely stepped out of bounds in what would have been a touchdown run. It was now first and goal on the Stanford 4 yard line. Curtis McNeal, who was averaging 7.3 yards per carry, was set up to receive the handoff from Barkley. In an instant, much faster than I could describe to you in real time, the game was over and Stanford had won! They play commenced and upon receiving the handoff, McNeal immediately rushed for the thick of the pile. Ben Gardner, who was falling down out of the pileup between the lines, stuck an arm out to knock the ball loose and it quickly bounded into the endzone where it was recovered by Stanford’s AJ Tarpley, ending the ballgame. The final line reads #4 Stanford 56-#20 USC 48 (3OT), but it felt so much more important.

Stanford v USC
Celebrating the big win.
Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Andrew Luck threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns on 29 completions in 40 attempts. Matt Barkley had 284 yards and three touchdowns on 28 yards in 45 attempts. Both quarterbacks threw an interception. Stepfan Taylor and Curtis McNeal were the workhorses for their respective teams. Taylor gained 99 yards and scored two touchdowns, McNeal had 145 yards and two touchdowns. Griff Whalen, Ty Montgomery, Levine Toilolo, and Ryan Hewitt all made big contributions as receivers for the Cardinal. Marqise Lee and Robert Woods had the lion’s share of receptions on the Trojan side.

Stanford’s star shone bright. The Cardinal had just hurdled their second biggest obstacle standing between them and a likely undefeated season. They only needed to put away Oregon to seal the deal. It didn’t happen. The Ducks ran away with a 53-30 victory at Stanford Stadium, pushing the Cardinal out of the BCS Championship Game. Stanford lost the division and had to settle for a Fiesta Bowl matchup with Oklahoma State, a game they blew in their second overtime experience that year.

USC wouldn’t lose another game. The Trojans beat Oregon in Eugene 38-35 the week after the Ducks torched Stanford, ending the PAC-12’s shot at the Championship Game. The Trojans ended their season with a monumental 50-0 drubbing of UCLA at home. Southern Cal wasn’t allowed to play in the postseason and took out their frustrations on the Bruins. 10-2 USC finished the year 6th in the AP Poll, one spot ahead of 11-2 Stanford. Typical.

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I want to thank you for joining me in The Vault. This was a longer piece than I had intended to write, but the USC rivalry covers a lot of ground and needs to be done justice. Join me next week as I complete my condensed history of the Stanford-USC series and take a look back at one of the best games ever in this series.