Stanford announces its arrival with dominant win over USC

LOS ANGELES -- The question put to Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh was fairly simple. Did Stanford's 55-21 victory over USC on Saturday feel different than the shocking 24-23 win in 2007, when the Cardinal entered as 41-point underdogs?

Harbaugh, who just moments before was bouncing off the walls in a jubilant locker room, scratched the side of his head and maintained a neutral expression.

"It feels different," he said.

It should.

2007 was a wonderful bit of a theater, but it was a fluke and everyone knew it.

What Harbaugh and his bruising bunch had delivered in the Coliseum this time? This was no fluke. This was an announcement.

The Cardinal have arrived. No other way to put it after they beat top-10 programs on consecutive weekends.

And if the chips fall the right way in the Pac-10 race, Stanford could end up in its first Rose Bowl since the 1999 season.

For Stanford's veteran players, who suffered through a 1-11 season in 2006, the reversal of fortune is dramatic.

"I'm trying to wrap my mind around it, but I'm having a difficult time," said senior cornerback Richard Sherman, whose pick-six in the fourth quarter gave the Cardinal a 42-21 lead and sent many Trojans fans stomping out to the tangle of LA highways.

"I'm trying to enjoy this because we've been through some dark times."

The Cardinal dominated the Trojans in USC's house -- where they'd won 47 of 48 games -- from gun-to-gun. Stanford never trailed. Every time USC made a move and closed the gap, Stanford answered.

Stanford outgained the Trojans 469 to 334, and was so enjoying its domination it even took a moment to rub USC's face in it.

After going up 48-21 on a 6-yard touchdown run by Toby Gerhart, who rushed for three scores and 178 yards, Harbaugh opted to go for a 2-point conversion. It was about the only time all afternoon the Stanford plan didn't work.

"I didn't know what they were thinking with that, but in that situation they get to do whatever they want," USC coach Pete Carroll said.

Explained Harbaugh: "I felt like it was an opportunity the way the offensive line was playing."

Read: An opportunity to tweak the no-longer-so-mighty Trojans.

Forgive Harbaugh and his team for perhaps being a little graceless in victory. It was hard for them not to be intoxicated by the nature and totality of the triumph. Harbaugh said he thought his team could win, but he admitted he didn't entertain the notion of a blowout.

Who did?

"I think we surprised them a little bit," Gerhart said. "They're USC and they have been the premier Pac-10 team and the elite team in college football. We've been an underdog program, a program on the rise. To come out and make a statement today says great things about this program."

Stanford improved to 7-3 overall and 6-2 in the Pac-10. It concludes its conference schedule at home next weekend in the Big Game against California. The season finale vs. Notre Dame, also at home, will have no bearing on the Pac-10 race.

Stanford has beaten Oregon and lost to Arizona and Oregon State. It, therefore, favors any tiebreaker with the Ducks.

It would hard to insist any conference team is playing better than the Cardinal right now, though.

Gerhart only increased the legitimacy of his Heisman Trophy candidacy, while quarterback Andrew Luck turned in another poised, efficient day. Luck completed 12 of 22 passes for 144 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 61 yards.

The offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. It didn't allow a sack and led the way for 325 yards rushing.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal defense, which has suffered in comparison to the impressive offense most of the season, held its own against the Trojans, recording two sacks and eight tackles for a loss while forcing four turnovers.

"We got some stops and some sacks," Harbaugh said. "We also did a really good job on the perimeter against the screen game. And our defensive line did an excellent job of pushing the pocket back and constricting [passing] lanes to see [through]."

In the week leading up to the game, Harbaugh didn't play the "one-game-at-a-time" card. He called it "put-up-or-shut-up time for Stanford football."

He returned to that phrase after the game.

His team "put up."

"Our guys came out focused and loose and did what we had to do to win," he said.

There's that understatement again.

Stanford didn't just do enough to win. It dominated.

It also did enough to announce itself as a Pac-10 contender. This season and likely going forward.