Before Jim Harbaugh had even coached a game at Stanford, he had declared Southern California the greatest team in college football history.
Even after the Cardinal, a 41-point underdog, pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in NCAA history with a 24-23 win over the No. 2 Trojans at the Coliseum on Saturday night, Harbaugh wasn't backing off his lofty assessment of USC.
"[My comments] were absolutely heartfelt," Harbaugh said Sunday. "It's a team that has won and won and experienced winning and winning and winning. I think everybody would agree that's a football dynasty."
The Trojans are a football dynasty no more, thanks to the smart kids from Stanford, which just last week posted the third-highest graduation success rate among Division I-A football teams.
Finally, after going 1-11 in 2006 and winning only 16 games the previous five seasons combined, the kids from the Farm also proved they can play football, too.
"So many times in all of these guys' lives, they are told that they can't do something," Harbaugh said. "They are told, 'No, you're not big enough, you're not fast enough, you're not strong enough, you've got too many players hurt this week, you can't possibly think or expect that you can beat USC.' And they hear that hundreds and thousands of times, and this football team yesterday said, 'Yes.' As a team, they said, 'Yes, we can win.' It was about the team, the team, the team, the team."
Stanford's improbable victory was about more than a team. It was about a cast of unlikely heroes who upset a roster filled with future NFL stars.
"It feels like a movie," said Cardinal receiver Mark Bradford, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds to play. "We go to hotels on Friday nights, and we watch a movie. This feels like Disney really happened to us."
Not even Hollywood could have come up with a script this good, though. Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard made his first career start against the Trojans. He had been forced into the lineup after starter T.C. Ostrander suffered unexplained seizures last weekend. Pritchard's father and uncle played football at Washington State (the uncle, Jack Thompson, was known as the "Throwin' Samoan" while playing quarterback there), but the Cougars didn't want him. Pritchard had attempted only three passes in a college game before playing the Trojans.
"He had a bounce in his step all week long," Harbaugh said. "He was anxious to play and he locked in. He was excited about it. He looked it right in the eye. He had faith and hope and went out and competed."
Pritchard, a sophomore from Tacoma, Wash., did more than compete. He was the Cardinal's calming voice in the huddle and leader on the game-winning drive.
"I'd been waiting my whole life for that opportunity," Pritchard said. "I'd been groomed to be a quarterback from a mental standpoint as much as a physical one. I've always taken pride in being able to handle pressure."
Bradford, a senior from Los Angeles, played against USC with a heavy heart. He had dedicated the game to his late father, Mark Bradford, who died of a massive heart attack Sept. 23. Bradford returned home Tuesday to bury his father. Four days later, he was back home again playing the team he had grown up watching. Bradford said his father rooted for the Trojans and had wanted him to attend USC.
"I was thinking about how magical it was," Bradford said. "I had all these thoughts going through my head. I was thinking about my dad [when I jumped to catch the touchdown]. I dedicated the game to him and if you dedicate a game to someone, you have to win it."
Ironically, a USC timeout put Bradford in position to win the game. The Cardinal trailed 23-17 when USC quarterback John David Booty threw the third of his four interceptions with 2:50 to go. Stanford took over at the USC 45 and picked up three first downs, the last one coming on Pritchard's 20-yard pass to sophomore Richard Sherman to the 9.
The Trojans spent a timeout with 1:38 left, then Pritchard ran for 4 yards to the 5 on a designed keeper. On second down, the Cardinal sent three receivers to the right and one to the left. Pritchard tried to throw to Evan Moore, a 6-foot-7 Stanford basketball player and one of the tallest receivers in the country. But the pass was incomplete, and then Pritchard again missed Moore on third down.
Stanford called a timeout to set up its fourth-down play with 54 seconds to go. Harbaugh decided to run the same play the Cardinal had run on second down, which is simply called "Special." The Cardinal took the field, but then the Trojans called timeout. At that point, Harbaugh elected to move Bradford from the trio of receivers on the right side to try to isolate him on the left.
The personnel changed caused some confusion, and Stanford was penalized 5 yards for breaking the huddle with 12 players, which moved it back to the USC 10. The penalty might have been a blessing, though.
When Pritchard climbed under center and surveyed the USC defense, he saw the Trojans overloaded their defense to the right side to smother Moore. That meant Bradford had single coverage to the left. Pritchard lofted a pass to the back left corner of the end zone, and Bradford outleaped USC's Mozique McCurtis for the game-winning touchdown.
"I was like, 'You can't single-cover Mark,'" Pritchard said. "He's an amazing athlete. Honestly, I think the penalty helped us out. It gave us a little more room to work and gave me more room to see him."
USC got the football back at its 40 with 39 seconds to play. Four plays later, Stanford's Bo McNally intercepted Booty again. Pritchard then took took a knee and the celebration began.
"It's just so crazy," Bradford said. "It's going to be something I can tell my kids and grandkids about. It's like a dream."
A dream the Cardinal still haven't awakened from.
"I didn't want to go to sleep last night because I felt like I was going to wake up to the hotel bed-check call," Pritchard said.
On (and Off) the Mark
On the Mark
Army's 20-17 victory in overtime against Tulane didn't have the far-reaching ramifications of Stanford's stunner, but the Black Knights worked just as hard for an improbable win Saturday at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y.
Trailing 17-10 with 29 seconds left, Army took possession at its 20-yard line. Quarterback Kevin Dunn, a third-stringer and former walk-on, completed passes of 27 and 17 yards to move his team to the Tulane 36 with four seconds to go. On the last play of regulation, Dunn lofted a pass into the end zone and it was tipped by two defenders before Army receiver Mike Wright lunged and caught it for a touchdown to force overtime.
Army's Owen Tolson kicked a 25-yard field goal to put the Black Knights ahead 20-17, and Tulane missed a 34-yard field goal at the end of its overtime possession. Army is 3-3 under first-year coach Stan Brock, matching its victory total from last season.
(Off) the Mark
Few late-game plans have backfired as miserably as the one Western Michigan tried against Akron on Saturday at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich. The Broncos had a 38-31 lead in the final seconds and faced fourth-and-12 at their 5. Instead of punting the football to the Zips, Broncos coach Bill Cubit instructed quarterback Jamarko Simmons to take the snap and run through the back of the end zone. The self-inflicted safety made the score 38-33 with 15 seconds to play.
Western Michigan's Jim Laney handled the ensuing free kick, and Akron's Alphonso Owen fielded the kick at the Zips' 11. He ran toward the left sideline, then flipped the football to Andre Jones near the Akron 25. Jones ran the length of the field for the game-winning touchdown on the final play of a remarkable 39-38 victory.
"Obviously, it was just unbelievable," a stunned Cubit told reporters after the game. "I don't know what else to say. I can't even describe the feeling in how we feel right now. I thought we had him tackled. I'll be honest, I didn't see much of the final play."
On the Mark
Ground-churning tailbacks. Michigan's Mike Hart (215 yards, three touchdowns in 33-22 win over Eastern Michigan). Maryland's Lance Ball (86 yards, three touchdowns in 28-26 victory over Georgia Tech). LSU's Jacob Hester (106 yards, one touchdown in 28-24 win over Florida). Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall (160 yards, two touchdowns and TD reception in 31-26 upset of Wisconsin). Penn State's Rodney Kinlaw (168 yards, two touchdowns in 27-7 win over Iowa). Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray (128 yards, one touchdown in 28-21 defeat of Texas). South Florida's Benjamin Williams (186 yards, four touchdowns in 35-23 win over Florida Atlantic). Oregon State's Yvenson Bernard (140 yards, two touchdowns in 31-16 victory over Arizona). Fresno State's Ryan Mathews (171 yards, three touchdowns in 49-41 win at Nevada). Tulane's Matt Forte (202 yards, two touchdowns in loss to Army). Air Force's Chad Hall (169 yards, three touchdowns in 31-14 win over UNLV). UTEP's Marcus Thomas (134 yards, three touchdowns in 48-47 win over Tulsa).
(Off) the Mark
When Clemson coach Tommy Bowden was asked about his team's poor special teams play last week, he asked a reporter for evidence the Tigers weren't, well, special in the kicking game. Bowden told reporters that in his first seven seasons, Clemson didn't have a punt or field goal blocked and didn't allow a kickoff return for a touchdown. Bowden was wrong, according to The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. In fact, the Tigers had 12 punts blocked, five field goals blocked and three of their kickoffs returned for touchdowns during that span, the paper reported.
Here's more evidence the Tigers stink on special teams: Virginia Tech's Victor "Macho" Harris returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and Hokies receiver Eddie Royal returned a punt 82 yards for another score in a 41-23 win at Clemson on Saturday. Royal had a second punt return for a touchdown nullified by an illegal block.
"I'm doing a poor job of coaching," Bowden told reporters after the loss.
On the Mark
Point-scoring defenders. South Carolina's Eric Norwood returned two fumbles for touchdowns in the Gamecocks' 38-23 win over Kentucky on Thursday night. Florida State cornerback Michael Ray Garvin returned an interception 43 yards for a touchdown in a 27-10 win over NC State. Boston College's Nick Larkin and Jamie Silva each returned an interception for a touchdown in the Eagles' 55-24 win over Bowling Green. Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib scored touchdowns on an interception return and a reception in a 30-24 upset of Kansas State. Arizona State cornerback Justin Tryon returned an interception 69 yards for a score in a 23-20 win at Washington State. Notre Dame's Maurice Crum had two interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown in the Irish's win over UCLA.
(Off) the Mark
There are five winless teams left in Division I-A: Utah State (0-6), Florida International (0-6), Marshall (0-5), Colorado State (0-5) and North Texas (0-5). Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Rice, Temple and, ahem, Notre Dame each earned its first victory on Saturday.
On the Mark
Memphis' emotional win. Butch Davis' big win. Les Miles' guts. Tommy Tuberville's and Rich Rodriguez's 100th wins. More stunning upsets. Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan's Heisman Trophy chances (24-for-32, 312 yards and four touchdowns versus Bowling Green). Maryland linebacker Dave Philistin (21 tackles versus Georgia Tech, including a huge stop on a potential game-tying, two-point try). Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher (520 yards, five touchdowns in a 48-41 win in overtime over Michigan State). Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour (360 passing yards and five touchdowns, 146 rushing yards and one score in a 58-38 win over Ball State). FSU quarterback Xavier Lee (257 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions versus NC State). Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford (244 yards, three touchdowns versus Texas). Thomas Weber's big kick for Arizona State. Fresno State's special teams. Ohio State's defense. Auburn's defense. Texas Tech freshman receiver Michael Crabtree (1,07
4 receiving yards, 17 touchdown receptions in six games, breaking the NCAA freshman record for TD catches in a season). Texas A&M's comeback. Akron receiver Jabari Arthur (15 catches, 223 yards and three touchdowns versus Western Michigan). Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel's arm and legs. Kick returns at East Carolina (Central Florida's Curtis Johnson returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown; East Carolina's Chris Johnson returned the second-half kickoff 96 yards for a score). Phillip Fulmer's redemption (and his professional postgame rant).
(Off) the Mark
Louisville's defense. Purdue's running game. Michigan State's defense. Georgia's effort. Miami quarterback Kyle Wright's four interceptions. Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel's three interceptions. Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama's four interceptions. TCU's slide. UCLA's collapse. Syracuse's implosion. Iowa's eight straight Big 10 losses. Southern Miss. The end of the USC dynasty.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.