Stanford-USC history: No shortage of great moments in the century-long rivalry

Saturday night’s Pac-12 opener might be the final time Stanford and USC meet for quite a while

Stanford-USC football rivalry has had it all for over a century.

Legendary athletes. Fantastic finishing touches. Coaches who are ferocious. Fan bases that are fervent.

So it’s fitting that one of college football’s longest-running – and most colorful – soap operas is the first conference game of the Pac-12’s final season.

It’s unclear when the teams will play again after Saturday’s game at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Stanford will join the Atlantic Coast Conference next season, while the No. 6 ranked Trojans will join the Big Ten, and there are no plans for the teams to meet again anytime soon, at least publicly.

This is a series that first aired in 1905. Since the end of WWII, the teams have met at least once per season, with the exception of 2020, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Because of the personalities involved as well as the play on the field, the Stanford-USC rivalry has been as heated as any other in the country.

With their “What’s your deal?!?” feud and great teams in the late 2000s, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll ushered in the rivalry’s golden era, but the rivalry continued to sizzle on the field even after the high-profile coaches left for the NFL and had captured plenty of attention long before they arrived on the scene. At least one of the teams will be ranked for the 58th time in 85 meetings since the AP poll debuted.

The groups do not always agree. Stanford does not count a 1918 loss because it fielded a team of student army training corps players, nor does USC count a 2005 win that was vacated due to an NCAA penalty. They did, however, agree about a decade ago to move their game to the beginning of the season schedule so that they could both continue their long-standing game series with Notre Dame.

Here are some of the most memorable moments in the Stanford-USC rivalry.


The Stanford-USC series began in 1905, and it was all Trojans for decades. So much so that, after losing for the fifth time in a row (and falling to 3-10-1 all-time against USC), a group of freshman redshirts famously vowed never to lose to the Trojans again. The “Vow Boys” kept their word a year later, defeating USC 13-7 to snap the Trojans’ 27-game winning streak in one of the biggest upsets in West Coast football history. They didn’t stop there, shutting out the Trojans in the next two meetings before winning the Rose Bowl.


With a Rose Bowl berth on the line, Bob Mathias scored twice in the fourth quarter to propel Stanford to a 27-20 upset victory over the favored Trojans and their star, Frank Gifford. Mathias, who had won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon three years earlier at the age of 17, ignited the comeback with a 96-yard kickoff return in front of 90,000 at Memorial Stadium in a battle of 7-0 teams.


Stanford defeated the No. 4 ranked Trojans 24-14 in front of 86,000 fans at Stanford Stadium a year after losing on a field goal attempt as time expired. Stanford defeated USC on the goal line twice, and Jim Plunkett passed for 275 yards as the Cardinal defeated the Trojans for the first time since 1957, snapping the series’ longest winning streak (12 games).


Three decades before Harbaugh and Carroll clashed, the rivalry was spiced up by John McKay and Stanford’s Jack Christiansen. In 1972, USC was at the top of its game, winning the national championship and defeating Stanford 30-21 along the way. However, after losing to Stanford the previous two seasons, McKay stated, “I’d like to beat Stanford by 2,000 points.” They have no manners. They’re the worst winners I’ve ever faced.” Christiansen, who had been promoted to succeed John Ralston that season, responded in kind, telling reporters, “I have no comment on that.” I don’t want to compete with a skunk in urinating.”


Only three ties have occurred in the 102 previous meetings, but few games have been as dramatic as Turk Schonert rallying three-TD underdog Stanford in L.A. to deny No. 1 USC the national championship. The Trojans did not lose another game and finished second in both polls to unbeaten Alabama. Stanford rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit, but both teams missed potential game-winning field goals in the final minute: Stanford’s Ken Naber was short from 53 yards with 43 seconds remaining, and Stanford blocked Eric Hipp’s 39-yard attempt as time expired.


The rivalry had been lopsided for more than a decade, with Stanford losing 11 straight before breaking through with a 24-21 comeback win on Steve Stenstrom’s touchdown pass with 1:11 remaining. Overall, it was Stanford’s first win in the series since 1975 (14-0-1), but it marked a significant turning point in the series: the teams split the next ten meetings. In 1992, Bill Walsh took over for Dennis Green on The Farm and defeated USC 23-9, calling the Trojans “Yesterday U” in Lowell Cohn’s book “Rough Magic.”


In the early 2000s, USC was on top of the college football world, winning back-to-back national titles in 2003-04, and Stanford appeared to be heading nowhere until the Cardinal pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history. Soon after being hired, Harbaugh raised eyebrows by trash-talking USC and Carroll and declaring, “We bow to no man.” Stanford University does not bow to any program.” The underdogs marched into the Coliseum and defeated second-ranked USC 24-23. They did it with backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who won it on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds left with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bradford. Stanford only won three more games that season, but it was a precursor to what was to come.


A year after USC avenged The Upset with a 45-23 thrashing of Stanford, Harbaugh and Stanford turned up the heat, rolling to a 55-21 victory over the 11th-ranked Trojans at the Coliseum. Stanford, a 10-point underdog this time, scored the final 27 points to hand USC its worst home loss in four decades, and Harbaugh was hoping for more, calling for a two-point conversion attempt (which failed) with Stanford leading by 27 points and 6:47 left in the Trojans’ homecoming game. This prompted Carroll to angrily ask Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” during the postgame handshake. “What’s your deal?” Harbaugh asked.


Only one game in the series has gone into overtime, and it took three for No. 4 Stanford to finally beat No. 20 USC in a 56-48 thriller in front of 93,607 fans in Los Angeles. Stanford Andrew Luck threw three touchdown passes and ran for another, but Stanford needed Stephan Taylor’s two-yard TD run with 38 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. The teams combined for 36 points in overtime and the game wasn’t decided until A.J. Tarpley recovered a fumble in the end zone, extending the nation’s longest winning streak to 16 games a year ago.


The Trojans pulled off one of their biggest upsets in the series, crushing Stanford’s national title hopes, with ESPN’s College GameDay on hand in Los Angeles and sparked by interim head coach Ed Orgeron. USC won 20-17 with a 47-yard field goal as time expired. Stanford, ranked fifth, tied the score on the first drive of the third quarter but failed to score on any of its next six drives.


The addition of the Pac-12 championship game allowed the teams to play twice in a season, and the Cardinal swept the series in 2015. (USC reciprocated two years later). Unranked Stanford, which opened the season with a loss to Northwestern, defeated No. 6 USC 41-31 in the regular season matchup, led by Kevin Hogan. Three months later, ranked seventh, Stanford won the Rose Bowl for the third time in four seasons, 41-22, with Christian McCaffrey breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yardage record.


Stanford’s most recent win in the series was another upset, and the unranked Cardinal’s 42-28 victory shaped how USC looks heading into Saturday’s game. Although not specifically fired for the loss, USC head coach Clay Helton was fired two days after his team trailed the Cardinal by 29 points early in the fourth quarter. The bigger issue was that Helton had a 3-3 record against the Cardinal and a 1-4 record against Notre Dame (two of USC’s biggest rivals), and his departure paved the way for Lincoln Riley to take over the program last season.

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