Saturday night's 20-17 USC defeat of No. 4 Stanford was just like the Trojans' glory days of a not-so-distant past, only...different.
National prime-time broadcasts of high-stakes Trojans games, with the build-up of an ESPN College GameDay broadcast, are nothing new for the program, but USC as the landscape-shaking underdog is a new twist. And the electricity an injury and sanctions-depleted roster generated before 90-some thousand in the Coliseum and a few million more at home is the shock USC needs to regain its prominence in the college football landscape.
This wasn't the first time USC impacted the BCS Championship scene with a November upset. Two years ago, the Trojans thwarted another title pursuit when it outlasted Oregon, 38-35. However, that win differed in several key ways.
The profound impact of the most severe NCAA sanctions levied against any program since Auburn in the early 1990s wasn't as entrenched as it is now. USC also ambushed Oregon with an initial flurry that night in Autzen Stadium, before the proverbial bell saved it in the fourth quarter.
Against the fourth-ranked Cardinal, USC stood toe-to-toe with the physically imposing conference leaders—even if the Trojans had fewer toes to line up opposite their opponents. As Bruce Feldman of CBSSports.com tweeted, USC played just two defensive substitutes against Stanford's grinding style:
PRess box announces #USC has only played 2 defensive subs all night, and one of them only played 1 snap.— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) November 17, 2013
Make no mistake, this USC roster is still stacked with NFL draft-bound talent. The wide receiver tandem of Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor came up big, particularly on the game-winning drive, and fans of the professional game can expect the same on Sundays in a few years.
Stanford had its opportunities to pull ahead evaporated by other future pros, like hybrid linebacker/safety Dion Bailey. Bailey was outstanding, forcing a fumble from Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney and intercepting quarterback Kevin Hogan in the red zone.
Safety Su'a Cravens, one of the young Trojans and yet another player with a career path that will likely have him busy on Sundays, made an interception to set up the final drive.
But the USC teams that captured national attention last decade did so with future NFL'ers backing up future NFL'ers, as opposed to no one backing up the future NFL starters.
Past USC teams also excelled in the national spotlight with machine-like efficiency. Ousted head coach Lane Kiffin's 7-6 team in 2012 emphasized "business" in its motto. The 2013 Trojans surpassed last year's win total and upset No. 4, emphasizing emotions.
Linebacker Hayes Pullard summarized the team's disposition best, per FoxSports.com's Lindsey Thiry:
We want to run through a brick wall for Coach Orgeron. -Hayes Pullard #USC— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) November 17, 2013
The mob scene on the Coliseum field after Stanford's last-ditch effort failed crystallized the passionate approach defining this remarkable stretch.
One characteristic these Trojans and those of the glory years share is that like those teams in the 2000s, the 2013 bunch is playing for a championship in the season's final weeks.
Since opening Pac-12 play 0-2, USC has won five straight in the conference and remains in the hunt for the South division title. Its Sept. 28 loss at Arizona State complicates the matter, as the Trojans need two Sun Devil losses.
However, the right breaks makes USC's Nov. 30 crosstown matchup with rival UCLA a Pac-12 Championship play-in game. What a difference a month can make—USC went from playing for bowl eligibility after losing at Notre Dame, to playing for a Rose Bowl.