We pick up after Stanford's monumental 24-23 upset at USC, covered in Part One (click here).
The waning moments of November 14, 2009's third quarter saw a mass fan evacuation of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
"We beat them so badly that they gave up," said former safety Bo McNally of Stanford's 55-21 thrashing of USC.
To date, it's the worst defeat the once-mighty Trojans have ever suffered in their home cathedral. Stanford had assumed the role of the Romans, and Jim Harbaugh's decision to go for two leading by 27 points in the fourth quarter was the modern-day football equivalent of pouring salt onto the fields of Carthage.
"Was it arrogant?" McNally asks. "Yes. Did we love it? Yes."
For Stanford, that beatdown was an exorcism of a decade of gut-wrenching defeats and painful memories. Despite significant progress under Harbaugh's regime, finishing off opponents had remained a Cardinal struggle over two and half seasons into the new era. But the Farm Boys finally harvested the fruits of all their labor in Los Angeles, and they held no punches when their moment arrived.
Just one week earlier, Stanford had clung on to a precarious lead to shock Oregon and earn bowl eligibility for the first time since 2001, but this experience was different. For the first time, there was no hanging on for dear life at the very end. That blue-collar physicality and that maniacal Shannon Turley-driven attention to detail had finally demoralized an opponent. For the first time, the bully within Stanford football had swung its fists, and the outcome was finally decided long before the final gun.
"We physically dominated them," said McNally, his eyes still glowing. "In 2007, we got our share of breaks. But in 2009, we went head-to-head, we ran power 14 straight times [and scored two touchdowns]. They 100 percent knew it was coming. They couldn't stop it. That was the 'aha' moment for us. That was the true turning point in the development of our program."
What's Your Deal?
In a fitting parallel to the 2007 milestone upset at the same venue, McNally, the program's first "closer" of this golden age, again delivered the dagger. Sandwiched in the middle of Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor's 14 straight power carries, McNally intercepted Matt Barkley's errant pass to douse water on any final potential USC retaliatory spark. And as fate would have it, that pick came at nearly the same spot on the field as McNally's clinching interception two years earlier.
A few minutes later, many USC players ran straight to the locker room without shaking hands.
"What's your deal?" a visibly shaken Pete Carroll confronted Harbaugh during the coaches' postgame handshake at midfield.
In fairness to Carroll, he asked a good question. What was Harbaugh's deal, anyway? His seemingly brazen ways were creating a monster. Carroll certainly had not forgotten 2007's "we bow to no program" barb, or Harbaugh's pesky insistence to use his timeouts so that Stanford could score a touchdown as time expired in a 45-23 blowout loss against the Trojans in 2008, a score which happened to cover the spread. Harbaugh made sure his team twisted the knife after delivering the stab wound in 2009. It was just the latest eyebrow-raising action in the coach's three-year string of unconventional -- yet extremely effective -- behavior. One could not blame Carroll for wanting to know more about Harbaugh's astoundingly successful ways.
"There's a method to his madness," McNally said. "From the outside, the guy is psychotic. But that's by design. He knows what to say, and he knows what to do at just the right time. Very few people understand that. The things Harbaugh did, the things he said, they all had a reason behind them."
From 2007 to 2009, Harbaugh delivered his psychological punches with a simple goal in mind: He wanted Stanford players to believe that they could administer the bullying instead of being on the receiving end of it. His "character and cruelty" mantra was born in the midst of this desired role reversal, one that he calculated would be best announced on national television in USC's hallowed cathedral.
"They had this fake facade going when it came to the Coliseum," McNally said. "This whole, 'You're supposed to be intimidated to play at the Coliseum. You're not supposed to want to play here.' But with that game, we said, 'We aren't going anywhere. This is not a fluke.'"
A Long Time Coming
That demolition wasn't easily attained. In fact, the journey between glorious visits to the Coliseum was long, treacherous, and frequently frustrating for a Stanford program in the midst of an epic mental transformation.
It's easy to remember that particular pristine Southern California afternoon, because that is when the bully within Stanford football first swung its fists.
But the grittier, equally important details of the transformation are more difficult to memorialize. Drowned out in the noise of today's unprecedented success is that fact that in the two-plus years prior to the Coliseum beatdown, the Cardinal had struggled to pin the adversary into position to administer the late-game punishment that can now be taken for granted. Time and time again throughout 2007 and 2008, opponents devastated Stanford when they slipped out of the Farm Boys' grasp before the final gun.
It may not have been readily apparent at the time, but these gut-wrenching moments of defeat played an integral role in the formation of the fourth-quarter Stanford juggernaut that many are familiar with today.
Following the 24-23 USC upset in 2007, Harbaugh's squad dropped five of six games, including a heartbreaking loss that came after the team had built a two-touchdown fourth quarter lead over TCU. Because of this slide, McNally confirms that a 20-13 Big Game upset over heavily-favored Cal to end the 2007 campaign was a savior for the program's psyche. But although it acted as a desperately-needed confidence booster entering the offseason, that win did not shed the program's inability to consistently finish games. That problem continued to rear its ugly head throughout the entirety of the next season.
After a competitive start to 2008, Stanford needed to beat either UCLA or Oregon to secure bowl eligibility for the first time since 2001. The Cardinal blew both games in the final 10 seconds. USC then erased another Stanford lead while scoring 35 straight points to eviscerate the physically exhausted Farm Boys down the stretch.
McNally's brief summary reverberates through this frustrating period, one which saw the Farm Boys finish literally seconds short of bowl eligibility in 2008.
"Stanford used to be notorious for
building up leads and losing them," he said.
The program, though it had demonstrated marked improvement in the two years since Harbaugh's arrival, just couldn't get over the hump down the stretch. The 2008 team stumbled to the finish line, losing four of its final five to end at 5-7 on the year. In retrospect, it's clear that it would take a devastating 37-16 season-ending Big Game loss at Cal to spark the next phase of improvement. The Bears humiliated the Cardinal to Memorial Stadium's delight, showboating their way to a 37-3 fourth quarter lead. But they also unknowingly poured gasoline onto Stanford's sputtering fire in the process.
"That loss was a blessing in disguise," McNally said. "Complacency had set in. Instead of being super hungry for that last win, we thought we'd just find a way. But it was another wake-up call. We realized, 'We haven't arrived. We're not even close. We need to take this sickening feeling and put it toward our offseason program.'"
The 2009 offseason took on a reinvigorated tone. The results spoke for themselves: Less than a year after looking like they didn't belong on the same field as a 7-4 Cal team, the Cardinal were running power down USC's throat those 14 consecutive times, administering the biggest Trojan beatdown in Coliseum history.
The Farm Boys had gotten over the hump. They had
established the elusive ability to focus and finish, one that they
would perfect over the subsequent three years, all the way up to
2012's magnificent closing effort on the path to Pasadena.
"By the time I left, we had had enough time to really fully adopt what Harbaugh was preaching," McNally said. "The whole team was on board in 2009. There was a drastic change top-to-bottom."
With its program's mentality successfully transformed, Stanford was in position to enter the ranks of college football's elite.
"We felt that we had earned the right to expect to win," McNally said. "The team now goes into every game thinking, 'We are better than you.' It used to not be that way."
Stay tuned for Part III, the final installment of The Bootleg's series with former Stanford safety Bo McNally. We'll establish how the Cardinal's ability to Focus and Finish has been sustained in the program's BCS era by examining some of the leadership abilities of the new man in charge, David Shaw. In case you missed Part I, Click Here.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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