June 19, 2024
The Stanford Cardinal and USC Trojans have met for more than 100 years, but Saturday night's Pac-12 opener could be their final meeting in quite a while.

For more than 100 years, the Stanford-USC football rivalry has had it all.

Legendary players. Fantastic finishes. Fiery coaches. Passionate fan bases.

So it’s somewhat appropriate that one of the longest-running – and most colorful – soap operas in college football is the first conference game of the Pac-12’s farewell season.

When the teams will play again after Saturday night at the L.A. Coliseum is anyone’s guess.

Next season Stanford jumps to the Atlantic Coast Conference and the No. 6 ranked Trojans join the Big Ten, and, at least publicly, there are no plans for the teams to meet again anytime soon.

This is a series that began in 1905. Since the end of World War II, the teams have met at least once every season except 2020, because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Running back Keaontay Ingram #28 of the USC Trojans is upededend against the Stanford Cardinal in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, September 11, 2021. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG) 

The Stanford-USC rivalry has run as hot as any other in the nation because of the personalities involved as well as the play on the field.

Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll ushered in the golden era of the rivalry with their “What’s your deal?!?”  feud and great teams in the late 2000s, but the rivalry continued to sizzle on the field even after the high-profile coaches left for the NFL and had captured plenty of attention long before they arrived on the scene. This will be the 58th time in 85 meetings since the AP poll debuted that at least one of the teams is ranked.

The teams don’t always see eye-to-eye. Stanford does not count a 1918 loss because it fielded a team of student army training corps players or USC’s 51-21 win 2005 that was vacated by NCAA penalty. But they did agree about a decade ago to move their game to the front of the season schedule so they could both also maintain their longstanding games series with Notre Dame.

Here is a look at some of the memorable moments in the Stanford-USC rivalry.


The Stanford-USC series began in 1905, and for decades it was all Trojans. So much so, that in 1932, after watching Stanford lose for the fifth straight time (and fall to 3-10-1 all-time against USC) a group of freshman redshirts famously vowed to never lose to the Trojans again. The “Vow Boys” were good to their word a year later, beating USC 13-7 to end the Trojans’ 27-game winning streak in one of the biggest upsets in the history of West Coast football. They didn’t stop there, shutting out the Trojans the next two meetings and capping their senior season with a Rose Bowl victory.


With a spot in the Rose Bowl on the line, Bob Mathias scored twice in the fourth quarter and Stanford went ahead for good in the final minutes of a 27-20 upset win over the favored Trojans and their star, Frank Gifford. Mathias, who three years earlier won an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon at the age of 17, sparked the comeback with a 96-yard kickoff return in the battle of 7-0 teams in front of 90,000 at Memorial Stadium.


A year after losing on a field goal attempt as time expired, Stanford got its revenge by upsetting the No. 4 ranked Trojans 24-14 before 86,000 at Stanford Stadium. The Stanford defense stopped USC on the goal line twice, and Jim Plunkett passed for 275 yards as Stanford beat the Trojans for the first time since 1957, snapping the longest streak in the series (12 games).

Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett attempts to run the ball in the November 21, 1970 Big Game against Cal. (Roy Williams/Bay Area News Group Archives) 


Three decades before Harbaugh and Carroll jousted, it was John McKay and Stanford’s Jack Christiansen spicing up the rivalry. USC was on the top of its game in 1972, winning the national title and beating Stanford 30-21 along the way. But that wasn’t enough for McKay, who, after losing to Stanford the two previous seasons, said “I’d like to beat Stanford by 2,000 points. They have no class. They’re the worst winners I’ve ever gone up against.” Christiansen, who had been promoted that season to succeed John Ralston, returned in kind, telling reporters,  “I have no comment on that. I don’t want to get into a urinating contest with a skunk.”


There have only been three ties in the 102 previous matchups, but few games were as dramatic as Turk Schonert rallying three-TD underdog Stanford in L.A. to cost No. 1 USC the national championship. The Trojans didn’t lose another game and finished second to unbeaten Alabama in both polls. Stanford rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit and both teams missed potential winning field-goal attempts in the final minute – Stanford’s Ken Naber was short from 53 yards with 43 seconds left, and Stanford blocked Eric Hipp’s 39‐yard attempt as time expired.


The rivalry had been lopsided for more than a decade – Stanford had lost 11 straight – before the Cardinal finally broke through with a 24-21 comeback win on Steve Stenstrom’s touchdown pass with 1:11 left. In all, it was Stanford’s first win in the series since 1975 (14-0-1), but marked a major turn in the series: the teams split the next 10 matchups. Bill Walsh took over for Dennis Green on The Farm in 1992 and beat USC 23-9 and threw his own dirt on the Trojans by calling USC “Yesterday U” in Lowell Cohn’s book “Rough Magic.”


USC was on top of the college football world in the early 2000s, winning back-to-back national titles in 2003-04, and Stanford was seemingly going nowhere when the Cardinal pulled off one of the biggest upsets in college football history. After Harbaugh, shortly after he was hired, raised eyebrows that spring by trash-talking USC and Carroll and proclaiming “We bow to no man. We bow to no program at Stanford University.” Then the 41-point underdogs marched into the Coliseum and stunned second-ranked USC 24-23. They did it with backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who won it with a 10-yard TD pass to Mark Bradford on fourth-and-goal with 49 seconds remaining. Stanford only won three other games that season, but it was a sign of things to come.


A year after USC got its revenge for The Upset with a 45-23 rout at Stanford, Harbaugh and Stanford turned up the heat, rolling to a 55-21 victory over the 11th-ranked Trojans at the Coliseum. Stanford, this time a 10-point underdog, scored the final 27 points in handing USC its worst home loss in four decades, and Harbaugh was hoping for more, calling for a two-point conversion attempt (it failed) with Stanford up by 27 points and 6:47 remaining in the Trojans’ homecoming game. That led to another awkward exchange between the coaches during the postgame handshake that saw Carroll angrily ask Harbaugh, “What’s your deal?” Harbaugh responded, “What’s your deal?”


Only one game in the series has gone into overtime, and it took three for No. 4 Stanford to finally hold off No. 20 USC in a 56-48 thriller in L.A. before a crowd of 93,607. Stanford Andrew Luck passed for three TDs and rushed for another, but Stanford needed Stephan Taylor’s two-yard TD run with 38 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game into overtime. A year after the Cardinal beat the Trojans on a field goal as time expired, the teams combined for 36 points in overtime and the game wasn’t decided until  A.J. Tarpley recovered a fumble in the end zone, extending the nation’s longest winning streak to 16 games.

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With ESPN’s College GameDay on hand in L.A. and sparked by interim head coach Ed Orgeron, the Trojans pulled off one of their biggest upsets in the series and crushed Stanford’s national title hopes. Unranked USC won 20-17 on a 47-yard field goal as time expired. Stanford, ranked No. 5, tied the score on the first drive of the third quarter, but failed to turn any of its final six drives into points.


The arrival of the Pac-12 championship game created the opportunity for the teams to play twice in a season, and the Cardinal made it a clean sweep in 2015. (USC returned the favor two years later). Led by Kevin Hogan, unranked Stanford – which opened the season with a loss to Northwestern – beat No. 6 USC 41-31 in the regular season matchup. Three months later, ranked No. 7, Stanford secured a spot in the Rose Bowl for the third time in four seasons with a 41-22 win highlighted by Christian McCaffrey breaking Barry Sanders’ single-season all-purpose yards record.

PALO ALTO, CA – SEPTEMBER 17: Christian McCaffrey #5 of the Stanford Cardinal dives over the top for no gain at the one-yard line against the USC Trojans during the first half of their NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images


Stanford’s most recent victory in the series was another upset, and the unranked Cardinal’s 42-28 victory went a long way in shaping how USC looks heading into Saturday’s game. USC was ranked 14th coming into the game, and although not fired specifically for the loss, head coach Clay Helton was fired two days after his team trailed the Cardinal early in the fourth quarter by 29 points. The bigger issue was that Helton was 3-3 against the Cardinal and 1-4 against Notre Dame (two of USC’s biggest rivals), and his departure paved the way for Lincoln Riley to take over the program last season.