Rivalries in sports can often be the lifeblood of a team. Seasons and opportunities squandered can be erased by the lasting memories of having topped a hated rival. In a similar fashion, entire seasons of hard work, dedication, and perfection can feel meaningless in those brief moments following a loss to your cross-town neighbor. Imagine the rollercoaster of emotions visited upon the Alabama Crimson Tide prior to Auburn’s infamous kick-six; the day and season were won and lost in the same five-minute span. Vicious. Incredible. Mesmerizing. And pure college football.
At their best, rivalries inspire the amazing. USC’s Bush Push against Notre Dame. The band is on the field. Alabama blowing a 24-point lead. Barry Sanders and Mike Gaddis carrying Oklahoma State and Oklahoma in Bedlam, respectively. Even if people don’t follow the any of the teams listed above, those moments only need to be mentioned by name due to their indelible nature. These brief glimpses into the past and present of the sport reveal a hidden truth about rivalries; these long-lasting relationships are the bedrock of any global sporting phenomena.
24-23 is the cornerstone of one of the Pac-12’s most recent and exciting rivalries, the Stanford Cardinal and the University of Southern California Trojans. Mention this score to any USC supporter ahead of a Stanford game and they’ll immediately begin reflecting on one of the craziest days in recent Trojan memory. To be sure, outside of the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC, no game is guaranteed elicit more moans and groans than USC’s 2007 loss to a Stanford team that came into the game as 41-point underdogs.
While history has been kind enough to add perspective to what we witnessed that day — Stanford would mature into Pac-12 title contenders on a yearly basis under head coach Jim Harbaugh and that is a trend that continues under current HC David Shaw — that win by the Cardinal would reignite a rivalry between two of California’s oldest and most prestigious academic and sporting powerhouses. In the games since, all the Cardinal and Trojans have done is produce thriller after thriller on the field. Moments from some of these games include: last-second field goals, touchdowns, triple overtime games, and interim coaches being carried off the field, and that’s just in the last five years.
As Stanford and USC prepare to meet for the 93rd time this Saturday, both teams do so with the knowledge that this game has had major conference implications and likely will again in 2015. The history of the rivalry may be lost on a newer generation of Trojan athletes, but that doesn’t make the game any less important according to USC inside linebacker Anthony Sarao.
“Stanford is Stanford,” Sarao said. “When Coach Harbaugh was the coach, he brought that aura. It’s not a historic rivalry, but it’s been building in the last couple of years. Inside linebackers like me, we love to play Stanford because it means more production. I can stay in the box all day.”
Sarao may not realize that Stanford is USC’s oldest rival, with the series going all the way to 1905, but he more than understands what a team will see when they play the Cardinal. Stanford like to abuse their opponents, steadily feeding them a diet of the power running game and Jumbo packages. Stanford’s particular brand of defense was so stingy that it frequently earns comparisons to the staunch Kirby Smart defenses fielded by Alabama. Even the mighty Oregon Ducks have found their offense grounded by the Cardinal, playing spoiler several times to the Ducks’ BCS title hopes. All in all, playing Stanford is a particularly nasty affair and the yards will never come easy.
Not many skill position players understand this better than the running backs. Since Stanford games are typically won in the trenches, running backs on both sides are often tasked with setting the tone early. The problem with trying to set the tone early in a game like this is that it’s usually very slow-going and pretty painful. Both sides understand that one-yard runs in the first turn into 100-yard runs in the fourth because the blows accumulate like a heavyweight prize fight. For USC running back Justin Davis, getting a positive result out of this game is as much physical preparation as it is mental preparation.
“I guess they’re kind of our new rival, I would say,” Davis said. “You know they’re going to come with intensity. It’s going to be a physical game and we’re going to have to match their physicality. The last few games have been really, really competitive, with Andrew Luck and that overtime game. Stanford is not the team to talk trash. They’re just going to hit you in the mouth, so you’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Competition against Stanford is guaranteed. Regardless of the shaky start to the season by the Cardinal, these two teams make this game a season unto itself. Prior to beating Stanford in 2013, the last time anyone can recall Trojan fans rushing the field is after USC snapped an eight-game losing streak to UCLA in 1999. Before that, USC hadn’t rushed the field since they snapped Notre Dame’s 11-game winning streak in Lou Holtz’s final game as the coach of the Irish, costing them a shot at a major bowl. USC fans rarely rush the field, but beating the No. 5 Cardinal on that night brought an outpour of emotions that is only reserved for the most important of wins.
That night also helped cement this rivalry’s place in Trojan history. That Saturday night in November, Trojan fans were forced to acknowledge the importance of what Stanford accomplished in 2007, that the rivalry had come full circle. Now Saturday brings a different chapter in this game’s history, and it also closes the chapter on this rivalry for the two leaders of these historic programs.
Quarterbacks Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler will play their final game in this series. For Kessler, Saturday marks the first test of what is supposed to his Magnum Opus with the Trojans. Having already conducted “Conquest” from the ladder following this game, Kessler is looking to direct the Trojans to his first piece of major hardware in the Cardinal and Gold. A career’s worth of expectations will be on Kessler’s shoulders during this game, but there is no time to dwell on what could be this season. Kessler has his sights focused on his friend Hogan and the inevitable challenge he and the Cardinal will bring to the Coliseum.
“They’ve been great games the last couple years,” Kessler said. “Since I’ve been here, even when Matt [Barkley] was playing, they’ve been great games. The year Matt was playing, I was on the sideline, and they went to double overtime (note: it was 3OT). In 2013, my year, when we upset them, they were No. 4 in the nation. Then last year, a close game again. We’re expecting more of the same this year. Kevin’s one of my good friends, so we’re going to go at it. He’s a genius at the quarterback position.”
Whatever happens on Saturday, the sport of college football will likely come out on top. Stanford and USC always bring the big boys to play and there are few spectacles in sport as enthralling as heavyweight tilt between title contenders, it’s a bit of Americana served on top of your Most American Thickburger. The last five meetings between these two teams have been decided by eight points or less, so odds are fairly good that these two teams have another classic in them. Indeed, Saturday promises to pack a punch.
Perhaps most importantly, Saturday promises to add another chapter to the oldest rivalry in the Pac-12 renewed for a new generation in the sport’s most popular era.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @FightonTwist.