USC dynasty might fall with loss to Stanford

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Some results in college football are shocking. Their dramatic, unexpected flash imprints on our brains like a photograph.

Other results resonate. Their unfolding draws a meaningful line dividing a before and after.

When Stanford beat USC 24-23 in 2007, it was shocking. The Cardinal were a 41-point underdog playing their backup quarterback in a venue, the LA Coliseum, where USC, college football's most feared program, had won 35 games in a row.

It flashed and everyone gawked. And then Stanford went on to finish 4-8 and USC went on to win the Rose Bowl and finish ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Boom! Then business as usual.

But if Stanford beats USC on Saturday in the Coliseum, that result will resonate.

If the No. 9 Trojans (7-2, 4-2) suffer a third Pac-10 loss, it's a near-certainty their extraordinary seven-year run atop the conference --- and college football -- will end. One of the great dynasties -- two national championships, seven consecutive top-4 finishes -- the sport has known would tumble.

Boom! And then the big picture would transform. The Pac-10 and all of college football would feel an impact.

Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has refused this week to wax poetic about the 2007 game. And he's also refused to use the "one game at a time," "every game is important" refrains that are so popular with coaches when they want to tamp down media hyperbole.

"This is put-up-or-shut-up time for Stanford football," Harbaugh said. "We win this game and we stay in the hunt for the conference championship. If we don't, then we are out."

USC's vulnerability? No, Harbaugh says, this is about the Cardinal.

Stanford remains a double-digit underdog. Of course, it was the same case last weekend against Oregon. But the Ducks couldn't stop the by-land-or-by-air tandem of Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck in a 51-42 Cardinal win. Gerhart rumbled for a school-record 223 yards with three touchdowns while Luck passed for 251 yards and a pair of TDs.

"They bombed them," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "Nobody has slowed them down."

While Stanford (6-3, 5-2) has been surging -- it's bowl eligible for the first time since 2001 -- USC has been struggling on both sides of the ball. The offense has scored one touchdown over its last six quarters, and the defense, which gave up 613 yards to Oregon, has been mediocre to bad since the fourth quarter of the win at Notre Dame on Oct. 17.

Freshman quarterback Matt Barkley, once the toast of college football, completed just 7 of 22 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and interception at Arizona State. The Trojans are converting 32.41 percent of their third-down plays, which ranks 106th in the nation.

Injuries are issues on both sides of the ball. Receiver Damian Williams is doubtful and tight end Anthony McCoy questionable for Saturday's game due to sprained ankles, and the pair are Barkley's favorite passing targets. Meanwhile, on defense, nearly every member of the starting front seven is nursing an injury, even if it doesn't end up preventing them from playing.

Carroll was asked this week which loss hurt more: Stanford in 2007 or the beatdown delivered by Oregon. He refused to be drawn into the discussion.

"They're all horrible," he said. "You know, they hit and cut deep and they don't go away. Fortunately, I have had not so many that I can't remember them all. They all are miserable. There's nothing about any of them that have been OK. They're not the same. They've been different. But I don't have a good answer. They're in a big heap of misery, I guess."

A loss Saturday, however, won't just mean another big heap of misery.

It will end an era.

At least for one season.