Stirring role reversal part of USC-Stanford

In 2006, Stanford was irrelevant in college football. When it lost 42-0 to USC on Nov. 4, the only angle of interest was the Trojans bouncing back after a 32-game regular-season winning streak ended at Oregon State the week before.

The Cardinal would finish 1-11, and coach Walt Harris got the boot. Enter Jim Harbaugh.

Suffice it to say that the USC-Stanford rivalry, which the Trojans had dominated under Pete Carroll, last losing in 2001, would ramp up in intensity. Roles shortly would reverse. And, best of all, it also would get a heck of a lot more colorful.

In 2007, USC was ranked No. 2 in the nation when Stanford came to the Coliseum, where the Trojans had won 35 consecutive games. They were a 41-point favorite against the lowly Cardinal, which was forced to start backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard because starter T.C. Ostrander had suffered a seizure in a restaurant just days before.

But Pritchard threw a 10-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds remaining, giving Stanford a 24-23 victory, one of the monumental upsets in college football history.

The Trojans again rolled over Stanford in 2008, 45-23. They went on to win the Rose Bowl -- again -- and Stanford finished with a losing record for a seventh consecutive season. The planets had realigned, right?

Ah, but that wasn't the deal, was it? Harbaugh's Cardinal transformed in 2009, with Toby Gerhart and a power running attack and a young quarterback by the name of Andrew Luck. That team went to the Coliseum and scored 27 fourth-quarter points, transforming a seven-point game into a 55-21 blowout. And with 6:47 left and the Cardinal up 17, Harbaugh elected to go for two. Why?

"I just honestly thought there was an opportunity coming off the ball, the way our backs were running and the way we were playing," Harbaugh said after the game.

In other words: Because we could.

That reality is what Lane Kiffin inherited when he replaced Carroll. It wasn't the same as from 2001 to 2006, when he was a Trojans assistant and Stanford was a foe that offered little resistance.

"It obviously has changed a lot and balanced back out, which was very different from when we were here a year before," Kiffin said.

Before last year's game, the way Stanford had won -- running up the score -- was a big issue. Kiffin saw it on film, for one. And, yes, everyone asked about it, reminding him of the testy handshake between Carroll and Harbaugh that's best remembered for Carroll asking Harbaugh, "What's your deal?" But that celebrated exchange mostly falls on Carroll's being disgruntled. What's not often noted is how before meeting Carroll at midfield, Harbaugh pointedly made fun of the Trojans as they quickly scampered up the Coliseum tunnel. "Look at them all running in! Look at them all running in!" he said to himself -- and to a large TV camera just in front of him.

New Stanford coach David Shaw was the Cardinal's offensive coordinator for that game. He's previously cited that game as his favorite example of his program's physical style. And there is plenty of insider scuttlebutt that Shaw, although far more polished than the rough-around-the-edges Harbaugh, enjoys pounding opponents as much as Harbaugh did. Still, Shaw waves away an opportunity to recall the fourth-quarter thinking in 2009.

"That was a long time ago. That was what it was," he said. "We've all moved on since then. We had a heck of a game last year that was nip-and-tuck."

That's true. Last year's game was a back-and-forth thriller. USC took a one-point lead with 1:08 left on a 3-yard TD run from Allen Bradford, but Luck and the Cardinal drove for the winning 30-yard field goal on the game's last play for a 37-35 win. Luck and USC QB Matt Barkley each threw three TD passes with no interceptions, while Trojans receiver Robert Woods stole top billing with 12 receptions for 224 yards and two scores.

That well-played game sets the stage for Saturday, when the unbeaten, sixth-ranked Cardinal try to keep their national title hopes alive against the 6-1 Trojans, who are ranked 20th in the Associated Press poll. Other than Harbaugh, all the actors who played starring roles are back.

Of course, the role reversal is unmistakable. USC used to be the team hunting conference and national championships as well as Heisman trophies. Now the Trojans can only be spoilers -- they are ineligible for the postseason because of NCAA sanctions -- and Stanford is the team producing Heisman Trophy candidates. USC's motivation won't be the same as Stanford's.

"It is different from everyone we're playing, having their hopes and dreams taken away from them," Kiffin said of his players' motivations.

Stanford's fifth-year seniors were around for the 2007 game, and their fourth-year players went 5-7 in 2008. They also all know what it's like not to play in the postseason. They've also watched as USC has gone from the nation's most feared program to one they've eclipsed, winning three of the past four in the series.

Is there special emotion this week? Has this rivalry heated up?

"I don't know if it's become a heated rivalry more than any other," Shaw said.

Maybe. But Stanford has high hopes and national title dreams. Those used to dance in the Trojans' heads.

Here's a guess that Kiffin and USC would relish an opportunity to deal those a crushing blow and then to watch the Cardinal scamper up the Coliseum tunnel with their heads down.