PALO ALTO, Calif. -- In the visitors locker room at the Coliseum, Stanford tight end Dalton Schultz gathered his sullen teammates in those disquieting moments after their 18-point defeat to USC in early September.
The minutes following the 42-24 loss didn't seem like a time for brash predictions, but Schultz couldn't help himself. He told them they would face the Trojans again, a scenario everyone knew could only happen if both teams met in the Pac-12 championship game.
"It's funny because that's not a common thing for people to say after you lose," receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside said. "But this was different. I believed it. A lot of us did."
Forgive the skeptics among them -- no one, of course, identifies themselves as such now -- for not only thinking it an odd time to look that far ahead amid the tendency to think one game at a time, but also for assuming they had championship mettle so soon after a humbling defeat to the conference's presumptive winner.
But Schultz's prophecy ultimately became their reality. The Cardinal will get their rematch Friday night against USC.
Indeed, for many of Schultz's teammates in the bowels of the Coliseum that September night, reimagining a route to the championship game at Levi's Stadium (only 16 miles from Stanford's campus in Santa Clara) started with Schultz's postgame pep talk.
"I don't know if everybody believed him -- I definitely did," senior linebacker Peter Kalambayi said. "And, hey, look -- it's happening."
Schultz, like many of Stanford's other upperclassmen, knew better than to be too discouraged by an early-season defeat. In each of the Cardinal's three previous runs to the title game (2012, 2013, 2015), they lost twice before a stretch run that put them in position for a chance at the Pac-12 championship.
"I know how long the road is and what it takes," said Schultz, a senior. "I wanted to make sure everyone had their minds focused so we could get another shot."
Of course, Stanford promptly followed up the loss at USC with a 20-17 flop against San Diego State the next week. It was the first time the Cardinal had started a season 1-2 since 2008 -- Jim Harbaugh's second season as head coach there.
From there, the Cardinal reeled off eight wins in the next nine games -- the exception being a 24-21 loss at Washington State on Nov. 4 -- and reestablished themselves as a contender. But despite their late-season rebound, a spot in the title game wasn't secured until last week when Washington beat Washington State, which was leading the Pac-12 North before the loss.
At the time, the Cardinal was in the middle of their own game against Notre Dame and had little clue of their fate until they pulled away in the fourth quarter of a 38-20 victory.
"I really had no idea," said Bryce Love, who ran for 125 yards in the win, 84 of them in the second half when the outcome of the Apple Cup was all but certain but not yet official.
Asked after the win over Notre Dame if he knew Washington State had lost, Stanford head coach David Shaw said he picked up on slightly more vigorous applause from the crowd following the public-address announcer's recitation of scores from other games.
"I didn't know the Huskies were in command," Shaw said. "For our players to ... get back to the Pac-12 championship game says a lot about who they are, a lot about what we do."
Then again, it's no real surprise that Stanford is back. At this point, it's become a fall tradition at The Farm.
Since 2011, both Shaw's first season as head coach and inaugural year of the championship game, Stanford has been the North Division representative four of seven times. The Cardinal are 3-0 in their previous appearances.
Friday, however, will be the first time they enter the title game as an underdog. And their September beatdown at the hands of the Trojans has a lot to do with it.
In that game, USC scored touchdowns on its first three drives, never trailed and outgained Stanford 623 to 342 -- with 75 of those yards coming on a Love touchdown run in the first quarter. After the Cardinal's first three drives, they scored only 10 points the rest of the game.
"It was a gut shot," Shaw said. "That was a very emotional game for both teams. In the second half, we just couldn't keep up."
Despite how lopsided the game seemed, players on both teams had the hunch there would be a sequel.
"After the game [USC quarterback] Sam Darnold came up and said, 'Hey we'll see you in the Pac-12 championship," defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said. "And I said, 'Yeah, we're going to get you there.'"
Far from being discouraged, the Cardinal instead marveled at how well the Trojans played against them. USC's performance, they said, simply overshadowed how well they played that night too.
"There wasn't a point during the season where I thought we were lesser of a team," Arcega-Whiteside said. "The feeling of that loss has to remain in our pocket for when we do see them again."