Stanford v. USC, 1999.

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Stanford v. USC, 1999.
IconAs a graduate of Notre Dame, I was successfully subjected to the full gamut of football indoctrination that accompanies a degree from Indiana's finest private university.  These days, I firmly bleed blue and gold (and occasionally green).

But it wasn't always this way.

I grew up in the Bay Area, just a couple of miles from Northern California's finest private university, Stanford. As such, I was a staunch supporter of Cardinal athletics, attending just about every home football game I could with my father, himself a Stanford grad.

As hard as it is to now believe given the current state of the program, Stanford football in the 1990's was far from the laughing stock it is today.  They were coached by a trio of highly-esteemed coaches—Dennis Green, Bill Walsh, and Tyrone Willingham—and produced a prolific amount of NFL talent.  While never a year-in and year-out worldbeater, the Cardinal always tended to be at least competitive, and at best one of the Pac-10's top teams.

I'll always fondly remember those sweltering September afternoons spent with my dad as we sat on the metal benches of the venerable old Stanford Stadium.  But what I especially relished were the occasional roadtrips we would take—chances to support my team in a hostile environment, and hopefully leave standing tall after a glorious road victory.

I had the privilege to attend games at some of the nation's most historic stadia, including Berkeley's Memorial Stadium, the Rose Bowl and, yes, even Notre Dame Stadium.  (In fact, my vague recollection notwithstanding, the tale of Walsh's 1992 33-16 upset over Lou Holtz in South Bend might be worthy of telling one day...)

But one roadtrip with my father still sticks out in my mind in particular.  The date was October 23, 1999.  The setting was Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum.  And the opponent was the University of Southern California Trojans.

Now, if there is anything that the two halves of my divided college football soul can certainly agree on, it is a sincere and abiding hatred of everything USC. And this was true long before I even contemplated spending four years in the frozen tundra of Northern Indiana.

While both schools have their own regional arch-rivals to contend with, Stanford and USC fans don't like each other much.  Long before I could locate Compton on a map, I was taught by others that USC stood for University of $poiled Children, and was to generally be despised.  However, even at a young age, I was easily able to deduce for myself the offensiveness of Traveler and the Song Boys.

And that song—my God, the song.  The Stanford Band used to display a giant scorecard that kept a running count of  how many times the USC Band played "Tribute to Troy" in a game.  I think the record was 70-something.  I tried in vain to plug my ears as often as I could, but the cacophony infects your soul like the Plague.  

So it was with this healthy dose of loathing that I stepped into the vastness of the "Mausoleum" on that gorgeous Southern California autumn afternoon.  Incidentally, Stanford was in the midst of its first Rose Bowl season in 28 years.  This, of course, was completely unbeknownst to anyone at the time, especially in light of a season-opening 69-17 drubbing by Texas and an inexplicable loss to San Jose State two weeks before.  (Heh, good old Ty.)  But it was a plucky bunch of players, as we were just about to find out.

In this game, things did not start auspiciously for the Cardinal.  Before anyone could blink, three quick scores by the Trojans had USC up 21-0 at the end of the first quarter. QB Mike Van Raaphorst—starting in place of injured phenom Carson Palmer—picked apart the Stanford secondary, and Paul "Can't" Hackett looked like an offensive genius. The outlook from the small wedge of Stanford contingent in the stands was not good.

Sometime before halftime, the tide began to turn.  Willingham's offense was able to bubble-screen and halfback-dive its way down the field on a drive early in the second quarter, and QB Todd Husak hit deep on a ball to DeRonnie Pitts for a touchdown in the final minute of the half.  As the teams headed off to the locker room with the score 24-14, the Stanford section stood and applauded its newly awakened team.  We might have a game after all, we hoped.

We were right.  Stanford came out gangbusters in the second half, going 80 yards in just over a minute following the opening kick to make it a three point game.  A minute later, Chris Johnson housed an interception in front of our section to give Stanford its first lead, 28-24.  Pandemonium ensued in our section, and the USC faithful (about 45,000-strong in those days) were hushed.   

USC answered with a 64-yard, one-play touchdown strike of its own in the third.  The game then got tight and tense, as Husak's scramble into the endzone on the first play of the fourth quarter proved to be the game's final points.  But it was definitely not without it's drama.

After trading possessions, Stanford had the ball up 35-31 with just over 2:00 remaining.  On its own 45, the Cardinal was stuffed on 3rd down, bringing up 4th-and-1.  Well, Ty being Ty, of course, Stanford would just have to settle for punting and pinning USC deep in their own—

What?  What? No—it just can't be.  Willingham told his offense to stay on the field.  They were going for it.

Now, let's back up a minute.  Tyrone Willingham is legendary for refusing to go for it on his opponent's 45 yard-line.  And here he was, going for it...with a four point lead...with two minutes left...on the road...on his own 45.  Surely, Willingham must have been suffering from some sort of out-of-body experience.

Well, Husak's QB sneak was stuffed.  USC's ball on the 45.  Crap.  This one was over. Thanks, Ty.   

(Incidentally, I truly believe this call scarred Willingham for seasons to come—both at Stanford and Notre Dame—and the empirical data will back me up on that one.)

The Trojans used the time to drive down to the red zone and set up for a last-chance shot a the end zone.  On the final play, Ty's bacon was saved when safety Tim Sims stepped in front of Van Raaphorst's pass at the 7 yard-line.   

Seemingly sharing the excitement and disbelief of the Stanford supporters on hand, Sims proceeded to wildly run up the field in a futile effort to gain yardage as time expired.  "GO DOWN! GO DOWN!" we implored from the stands.  Sims eventually complied, sliding to the turf with the clock at triple-zero.

Our section went nuts, high-fiving and slapping the backs of fellow strangers in cardinal and white.  The Stanford Band did a mini-rush to the field to play "All Right Now" in front of their joyous audience.

Meanwhile, Trojan fans quietly filed out to face their impending traffic nightmare.  And the USC Band placed their sunglasses in their pockets, and made an orderly retreat from the premises.

All was right with the world.

Now, I've been to other memorable sporting events in my life, and probably even some greater comebacks.  In fact, USC-ND 2005 immediately comes to mind on both counts (grrr...). But I'll always have a special memory of this one for a couple of reasons.

For one, the thrilling victory seemed to spur Stanford on the rest of the season, as they ended up with their first outright Pac-10 title in nearly three decades—quite a payoff for a long-suffering fanbase.  

But, probably more importantly, this game reminds me of a time when one of my football teams actually had the ability to beat the hated Men of Troy on the football field (grass height notwithstanding).  And while it won't be this year, or probably even next, I am confident hopeful beseeching that that time will come again one day soon.

Please, please let it be soon.

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