Stanford’s Real Rival is USC

I grew up a Stanford fan. I do not hate Cal.

This might seem like an oxymoron, but it’s true. Even after the strange Stanford band incident in the early 1980s, the Bears football program does not stir my emotions in the least.

There are two reasons.

1. When I was a kid, my family moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, taking me away from any visceral connection to the Stanford-Cal rivalry. If I’d stayed up there — and I wish I had — I might feel different because my understanding is that the feelings there are pretty intense.

2. Stanford’s real rival is USC.

There, I said it. Stanford’s annual contests against the Trojans are far more meaningful than the rivalry games against the Bears, mainly because the road to Pasadena goes through South Central LA. Certainly, Stanford will be thought of as a Rose Bowl contender after Saturday night’s rather unexpected 41-31 victory at the Coliseum.

Perhaps my relocation to the Southland brought me closer to this rivalry than the other one, but the fact remains that the games with USC have been not only more meaningful, but more triumphant and gut-wrenching than others. The Cardinal’s clashes with Oregon the last five or six years have actually been closer to that level than those with the Bears, not so much because the Bears have been putrid until now, but because the Ducks have been the other team standing in Stanford’s way of great success.

Stanford-USC games have inflamed emotions on both sidelines over the years. The two matches detailed in A COACH AT HEART were devastating and triumphant, in that order, for the Cardinal. Flip it for the Trojans.

But there have been some great games since then:

— 1975, a surprising 13-10 Stanford victory over No. 9 USC that was part of a five-game winning streak that highlighted a mediocre stretch of four or five seasons.

— 1977, Stanford went to LA with a 6-2 record in coach Bill Walsh’s first season to face a 5-3 and vulnerable USC squad and was wiped out in physically dominant fasion, 49-0.

— 1991, the next time Stanford beat USC, 24-21, following a mostly down decade for the Cardinal.

— 1995, a sign of high-scoring things to come as the Trojans outscored the Cardinal 31-30;

— 1996, the Cardinal returned the favor 24-20 during a five-game win streak that ended in a bowl win, and was probably necessary to qualify for the bowl in the first place.

— 1999, Stanford overcame a 21-0 deficit and won 35-31 in LA on their way to their first Rose Bowl since the 1971 season.

— 2002, the year when the programs went opposite directions, the Trojans returned to prominence under coach Pete Carroll and the Cardinal began six years of irrelevancy, put on display by a 49-17 USC rout.

— 2007, the game that many college football observers call the greatest upset of all time, when the massive underdog Cardinal comes back for a 24-23 stunner over No. 2 USC at the Coliseum in Jim Harbaugh’s first year in Palo Alto. USC was favored by 40 points and had won 35 straight home games.

— 2009, the first year of Stanford being really good again, and they used four fourth quarter touchdowns to pull away for a 55-21 rout in LA. A two-point conversion attempt deepened the coaching rivalry between Harbaugh and Carroll.

— 2011, the showdown between QBs Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley that resulted in a 56-48 Stanford win in three overtimes. They combined to complete 57 of 85 passes for 614 yards and six TDs.

— 2013, USC stumbled early in the season but picked up steam with a five-game winning streak highlighted by, what else, a late field goal for a 20-17 victory.

— 2015, Stanford this time seeking to recover from a key early-season setback, recovers to stun the No. 6 Trojans.

Try as you might, you can’t equal that with the Stanford-Cal series.

 

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