LOS ANGELES — The questions were answered, shockingly and emphatically, as David Shaw wrapped Kevin Hogan in a bear hug and faint boos trickled down in the ancient Coliseum for USC and its soon-to-be-fired coach. Who is Stanford? Where is this program headed? Is it sinking into mediocrity or ready to reclaim its place in the serious sandbox of college football?
Stanford 41, sixth-ranked USC 31.
That ought to shut everyone up.
“The sky was falling? That came from outside the program,” a visibly pleased Shaw said afterward in a cramped tent, having proved again why the NFL will rush to his coaching doorbell whenever he says the word. “We knew we were a good football team. We just had to play like it.”
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many future NFL players a team flaunts, how many playmakers it keeps sending downfield like asteroids in the sky. Sometimes, all of that become irrelevant when the opponent has the player with the biggest heart. Last December, Hogan lost his father to colon cancer. He played last season with the weight of impending tragedy, excruciating for any of us, much less a 22-year-old quarterbacking amid the scrutiny of a nationally ranked team. He returned for his fifth season, the same brace on his left leg, described by his coach as “the Rodney Dangerfield of college football,” though Shaw often got weird looks from millennials who’ve never heard of the get-no-respect comedian.
Saturday night, Hogan was Rodney Dangerous, directing the formerly maligned offense to scoring drive after magnificent scoring drive. That he was playing on an injured leg, dinged so badly early in the third quarter that backup Keller Chryst was warming up, only accentuated his mettle. No play was bigger than his cool flip to Christian McCaffrey with 4:40 left, turning a 3rd-and-8 hole into a 19-yard gain and a first down that led to the game-clinching 46-yard field goal by senior Conrad Ukropina, who was only given a scholarship last week.
This was Hogan’s grandest moment — bigger than leading Stanford to its first Rose Bowl win in 41 years, bigger than successive Pac-12 championships. It not only reminded the doubters that he’s still around, still the quarterback with the most career wins among active players, but it rewakened us to the idea that Kevin Hogan, playing in his father’s memory, still could have a wonderful career ahead of him on this level and maybe the next. It also avenged two losses to USC for which he was blamed in many quarters. What did this victory mean to him, after playing poorly in an opening loss at Northwestern and hearing people say Stanford’s season was over before it started?
“We have some guys who can play football. We’re gonna fight to the end,” said Hogan, whose passing numbers sparkled by the lights of downtown L.A. (18 of 23, 279 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions). “We had a hiccup there, but we learned a lot from it. We never doubted our talent or the type of team we have. A lot of people underestimated us as a team.”
Not Shaw. During breakfast at the team hotel, Shaw asked the players who had experienced two winning Pac-12 title games to stand up. No one said anything; the 20 or so players just stood there. “He told us that no one in the other locker room has,” linebacker Kevin Anderson said. “He said, `You’ve played in big games. Play like that.’ “
The Cardinal did, racking up 474 yards in a performance that boggled the minds of anyone who watched the Northwestern debacle. What had everyone said about Hogan and the Stanford offense? “Vanilla,” ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit fired earlier in the day. Conservative, I had said for weeks, joined by others. Weighed in the Los Angeles Times’ Chris Dufresne: “Stanford’s never-yielding philosophy is to bore paying customers while keeping every close into the fourth quarter in the hope of winning a 13-10 outcome.”
The Cardinal did keep the game close in the fourth quarter, all right — in the 30s — after answering every quick, explosive USC scoring drive in the first half with one of their own. All were masterfully directed by Hogan and called by the embattled coordinator, Mike (Don’t Call Me Holmgren) Bloomgren. There was multi-purpose dynamo McCaffrey, he of the NFL genes, taking direct snaps from center — see that, Herbstreit? — when he wasn’t racing through flailing red jerseys for 115 yards on 26 carrries. There was tight end Austin Hooper, catching one important early TD pass and then outleaping two defenders for a catch at the 1-yard line that set up another score. There was receiver Devon Cajuste, grabbing a 17-yard TD pass just before halftime after dropping one earlier in the end zone. There was Remound Wright, scoring three times from the 1.
The swelled USC contingent, comprising most of the 78,306 in attendance, went silent as it watched Stanford grind and pound. “It’s a great feeling to go out in the second half and play our style of football and wear them down,” Hogan said. “It really looked like Stanford football.”
Many of the previous dozen games had not, with the Cardinal losing five times. The last time the program went 1-2 to start a season was 2008, before the coming-out party under Jim Harbaugh. And while USC opened the game with dizzying big plays — Tre Madden rushing for 50 yards on the first TD drive, JuJu Smith-Schuster going 54 yards with a Cody Kessler pass for a score, Steven Mitchell Jr. scoring twice, an Adoree Jackson punt return that was nullified by a penalty — Stanford kept the Trojans off the field by controlling the ball 39 1/2 minutes. Good thing, too, because the Cardinal front line was decimated by injuries, something USC coach Steve Sarkisian will rue when he is USC’s ex-coach.
That’s part of what fascinated me about this rivalry, the different levels of stakes on both sides.
When Stanford loses a football game to USC, the dismay might linger an hour or so, after which students return to the library, administrators poach more economists from Harvard and MIT, scientists attempt to regenerate dead heart-muscle cells and the marching band practices its marijuana-leaf formation. But when USC loses a football game to Stanford, or to UCLA or Notre Dame or anyone else? It feels like DEATH. It does because this is a football factory, always has been, deriving its identity primarily on Saturdays and letting academia fill in the blanks the other days. Therein lies the appeal of the West Coast’s most fun and improbable college football feud. Stanford prefers to boast about Phil Knight, Herbert Hoover, Charles Schwab, Sergey Brin and Larry Page (before dropping out to form Google in a garage), Carly Fiorina, Sandra Day O’Connor and William Rehnquist, mentioning John Elway and Andrew Luck and those other sports people as an aside.
If USC can’t brag up football, its self-esteem goes limp, with no need for Trojans. And seeing how Stanford has been tweaking the USC kingdom for the better part of eight years, well, hasn’t it been a hoot watching Search Engine U. have its day? The annual event never should have been a rivalry, given USC’s tradition, gaudy brand name and recruiting muscle in Southern California and beyond. But Stanford turned it into a reality-TV drama in 2007, when a feisty S.O.B. brought a 41-point underdog into this same stadium and claimed one of the sport’s greatest upsets. Harbaugh turned out to be a contributing arsonist in the blaze that burned down the USC program, with Pete Carroll fleeing the ruins (and NCAA investigators) after Reggie Bush handed back his Heisman Trophy.
“What’s your deal?” Carroll asked Harbaugh during their famous postgame handshake in 2009, after Stanford went for a two-point conversion late in a 55-21 pummeling of USC. Next thing you knew, Carroll was off to the Seattle Seahawks and varying results in Super Bowls, and the empire he left behind was on probation and drained of scholarships.
Which meant Stanford has doubly humiliated the USC ideal, getting in its best licks in a once-lopsided series while maintaining its educational precedence on Leland Stanford’s farm. As Harbaugh was trotting out Luck, USC was trotting out Lane Kiffin and, ultimately, firing him on an airplane runway. And as the Cardinal was becoming one of the country’s best teams, with a run of three straight BCS game appearances continuing under David Shaw, the Trojans were moving on to Steve Sarkisian, who, on an unfortunate night last month, made Kiffin look like a well-adjusted saint.
Not to diminish the importance of these outcomes, but in this rivalry, who wins and loses is almost secondary to the antithetical levels of angst that these places apply to football. Stanford certainly had its issues last year, when the locker room became divisive when the defense excelled and the offense struggled. But never, ever will the stoic, almost-too-cool Shaw let his program take on soap-operatic tones. Sarkisian turned his program into a TMZ debacle when, claiming to have mixed alcohol with prescription drugs, he showed up in a drunken state at an important university kickoff function and dropped slurred f-bombs while cursing opponents. The surprise was that he didn’t curse Stanford, though it should be noted he was addressing three tough road opponents: Oregon, Notre Dame and Arizona State.
The episode has turned this season into an ongoing Sark Watch, who is being scrutinized on a short leash by the man who hired him, athletic director Pat Haden, who described the incident as “embarrassing.” Away from campus, Sarkisian is enduring a public divorce from his wife of 17 years, with whom he has three children. Nothing is funny about a family in turmoil, but it is another reason why Shaw, as the model of equilibrium in a crazy profession, should be viewed as a Stanford prize.
“We’re five out of seven in the last seven games versus USC,” Shaw said. “No discredit to them.”
As the Stanford players danced and hollered, Shaw was asked why his team flakes between awful and brilliant. “So the difference between football coaches and the rest of the sane world is, we understand that sometimes you don’t play well,” he said, sarcasm oozing. “Outside of the coaching world, people look for something to blame. Sometimes, you just don’t play well.”
And sometimes, you play like Stanford.