- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Nov. 14, 2009, two coaches met for the postgame handshake.
Pete Carroll asked, "What's your deal? Are you all right?" Jim Harbaugh replied, "Yeah, I'm good. What's your deal?"
In and of itself, the exchange seems pretty innocent, no? More odd than anything. Of course, context is everything. And the context was a few minutes before Harbaugh electing to go for two with his Stanford team leading 48-21 with 6:47 left in the fourth quarter. That and the very different jaw sets of the interlocutors.
"We went for it because we thought we could get it," Harbaugh explained after the game to reporters, who were then forced to evaluate whether there was just the slightest flicker of a smile when Harbaugh spoke.
Recall this quote a few weeks back from Stanford center Chase Beeler: "One of our mottoes is, 'We're going to win with character but we're also going to win with cruelty.'"
That was the cruelty part. The final was 55-21. It was the worst loss of the mostly glorious Carroll era that ended shortly after Carroll started realizing things might get worse.
Don't think for a moment every USC player doesn't recall what transpired on that day. They got their butts whipped. And Harbaugh and Stanford rubbed their noses in it.
"It shows the lack of respect that they had for us," said Trojans cornerback Shareece Wright, who was academically ineligible so he could only watch helplessly from the sidelines. "That's all that is. A lack of respect for our team."
Yes, it was. So you'd expect the Trojans to be plenty motivated for their trip to Stanford on Saturday. But the plot twist for college football fans still smelling the fumes of the once feared Trojans juggernaut is this: It probably doesn't matter.
USC, which is coming off a second consecutive loss to Washington, is no longer the Pac-10 bully. Last year's result in the Coliseum wasn't a sneak attack, it was a physical mismatch and Stanford was the bully. In fact, the 16th-ranked Cardinal are coming off a loss at Oregon. It might be the mad ones looking to make a statement.
"I think they were stung," Harbaugh said of the 52-31 loss in Eugene. "It wasn't a good feeling, having lost the game, but they came back very focused. Probably had our best Monday practice since I've been around here."
Neither Harbaugh nor new USC coach Lane Kiffin were eager to rehash the events of last year's game.
"I think that has all been pretty well documented -- that horse been beaten pretty well I think," Harbaugh said. "I don't think it couldn't be any more irrelevant with what both teams are trying to accomplish in this game."
Said Kiffin, "We're not even going to talk about it. We have so many things we need to correct. We let a game get away from us that we should have won [Washington]. We've got a lot of stuff to work on. We're really not worried about what happened last year."
That said, it's there: "You have to remember things like that," Wright said.
Here's where Kiffin and Wright agree. Things are different at USC. Not too long ago, when the Trojans walked out of the locker room tunnel inside any stadium in the nation, they inspired awe, particularly outside the Pac-10 (even while losing four conference games last year the Trojans went into the Horseshoe and beat Ohio State, the eventual Big Ten champions). From 2002-08, the Trojans were the unquestioned kings of college football. They won an unprecedented seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, never finished ranked outside the top four, won consecutive national titles and lost a classic game with Texas for a three-Pete (though, of course, the NCAA vacated 14 wins from Dec. 4, 2004, through the entire 2005 season).
"It's a big difference from when we first came in to now," Wright said. "Everybody still expects us to throw teams out like we used to. We're not the same team we were five years ago. We have to accept that."
Said Kiffin, "This is not your old 'SC."
The decline started under Carroll. The current roster features plenty of recruiting misses. Then, of course, came NCAA sanctions: a two-year postseason ban and a loss of 30 scholarships divided over the next three years (long-shot appeal pending).
Further, sanctions have inspired significant roster attrition. Already under the 85 scholarship limit in 2009, the Trojans had four players leave early for the NFL draft, two 2010 recruits were released from their letters of intent and five transferred away because the NCAA ruled upperclassmen could bolt without penalty due to the bowl ban. Kiffin said the Trojans currently have "69 or 70" scholarship players. The NCAA limit is 85, at least for teams not yoked with sanctions.
"It will be good practice for us because the sanctions say we have to be at 75 for a three-year period," Kiffin quipped.
Kiffin further estimated this week that it will take "probably a good five years, maybe six" until the roster is fully restocked.
In other words, USC is going to Stanford as the outmanned underdog who is still steaming about last year's game but probably won't be able to do much about it.
You know: How the Trojans opponents used to feel while often taking beatings from Carroll.
While Wright acknowledged that the program isn't three-deep with potential All-Americans at every position as it was in the good old days, he said the locker room remains motivated and unified. He said that despite the postseason ban, players are still hungry because, "You play to win every Saturday. No one who plays the game wants to lose. That should be enough motivation."
As for what he envisions happening this weekend, he wouldn't go into detail.
Said Wright, "I'm not going to go in the paper talking crap about that team and give them any type of motivation."
Maybe Stanford will take USC lightly?