Witnessing the End of a Dynasty

In my last column, I wrote about giving the San Diego sports scene a chance, especially the Triton teams that fight valiantly with some of the best teams in the country and entertain the student body with gritty play.

Well, this past weekend, I ditched my own advice and accepted an invitation to see, as my friend from the University of Southern California said, “real college sports.” He told me to come catch the Trojans annihilate a pitiful Pac-10 opponent, the Stanford Cardinal. So I ventured north to soak in the action of a top-ranked Division I football program and enjoy the campus social scene that takes place every Saturday USC’s beloved Trojans play — and always win, in front of the Southern California faithful and some token bandwagon-jumpers.

When I arrived, I was immediately impressed and caught up in the pre-game debauchery, which took place on a lively stretch of campus that seemed like a tailgater’s paradise: kegs in the street, “victory dogs” being sold prematurely and Reggie Bush jersey-clad fans tossing footballs back and forth. Hand-in-hand with the alcool consumption was the inevitable shit-talking: belligerent Trojan students debated whether John David Booty would throw four touchdown passes or more and whether the Cardinal could even manage to score more than a field goal.

Well, as anybody who follows college football, or catches the 2 a.m. SportsCenter, already knows, Booty threw four interceptions — not touchdowns. And Stanford scored much more than a field goal, including a game-winning touchdown pass with 49 seconds remaining in front of over 85,000 stunned fans who came to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum expecting nothing less than a blowout win. You can’t blame the fans for expecting big things; some Las Vegas oddsmakers had the Trojans as a 40-point favorite.

So what happened? As a nonaffiliated casual fan, I had a great perspective sitting in the USC student section listening to the fans rationalize the collapse in an attempt to keep the faith.

“We’re a second-half team; we’ll bounce back.” Or “we always play better against good opponents, so we’re just not trying hard because it’s Stanford.”

Well, maybe head coach Pete Carroll and his smorgasbord of talented and versatile tailbacks and receivers should have taken the Cardinal a little more seriously, as the once-proud dynasty of USC football has to now deal with the shame of losing to the worst team in the Pac-10 — a team whose offense was forced to start with its backup quarterback after the usual starter suffered a seizure earlier this week, and who lost to D-I AA UC Davis just two years ago.

The worst part of USC’s downfall is that the Trojans basically handed Stanford chance after chance to pull off the upset, arguably the biggest in college football history. The one-point differential in the 24-23 final score was due to a blocked extra-point attempt in the first quarter. Despite the mistake, no one thought it would come back to haunt the Trojans, whose offense is so powerful that the team usually scores at least 30 points easily. Well, it did come back to haunt them, after USC allowed Stanford to hang in with dropped passes, lackluster play-calling and Booty handing the Cardinal interceptions on silver platters.

Then came the final touchdown, which took place in the corner of the end zone right in front of where I was sitting with my shocked friends. These friends of mine, seniors who had witnessed some great teams during their college tenure, were speechless, as Stanford capitalized on another Booty interception and promptly converted a fourth-and-20 to set up first-and-goal at USC’s nine-yard line. Stanford then moved back a yard in three plays to set up fourth-and-and goal from the 10 with under a minute remaining.

Thanks to perfect execution from backup quarterback Tavita Pritchard and wide receiver Mark Bradford, Stanford tied the game as Bradford leaped high over cornerback Mozique McCurtis to haul in the score. And unlike USC’s earlier attempt, Stanford converted the point after touchdown to complete the comeback.

Amazingly, the Trojans still had a chance to rebound and salvage a slim win if they could move downfield in the 40-odd seconds left and kick a game-winning field goal. Unfortunately for the Trojans, the pressure again fell on Booty and the USC offense, which blew another chance, as top receiver Patrick Turner dropped an easy pass and Booty made the upset official, throwing his fourth interception of the game.

The once-raucous crowd fell suddenly silent, depressed and pissed off all at the same time, forced to debate who to blame. To understand the shock, one must realize that my friends and the rest of the young student body had previously been lucky enough to have never seen their beloved team lose at home. USC had won 35-straight home games until this historic upset.

My Trojan friends were devastated and stunned after the game; I was stunned as well, but also felt honored to have witnessed something much more rare than seeing what I thought was one of the best teams in college football destroy a conference opponent. I saw something that USC fans hadn’t seen in six years, and it will stick with me as one of the most memorable sporting events I’ve ever been present for.