How Jim Harbaugh and Richard Sherman pulled off an epic 40-point upset over USC

ByKyle Bonagura ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Here was Stanford's last chance at history.

A 41-point underdog against mighty USC, the Cardinal was trailing only 23-17 but facing a fourth-and-20 from USC's 29-yard line. If Jim Harbaugh's squad could somehow convert, it would be in position to pull off the biggest point-spread upset ever in college football.

"What I do remember is, I don't think [quarterback] Tavita [Pritchard] got the playcall in. It was really loud, and for some reason Jim decided not to signal the play in," said Seattle SeahawkscornerbackRichard Sherman, a wide receiver on that 2007 Stanford team. "So, we kind of were flying by the seat of our pants. Tavita just called the play that he thought Jim would have wanted to call, which was a simple double go route.

"He was really looking for Evan [Moore] or Mark [Bradford] on the play if he could get them. On that play, I got the middle of the field open and a closed read. If it's open, then I take down the middle and run a post route. If it's closed, I run basic. But at that point in time, a basic route wouldn't have gotten us a first down, so I took a post versus a single-safety look because we didn't really have a choice."

Pritchard delivered a perfect ball and Sherman took a crushing hit that cracked a rib. It was a first down at the 9 by a matter of inches. Stanford had two timeouts left and on first down Pritchard carried to the 5. He connected with Moore on the next play, but he came down out of bounds. Third down: End zone fade to Moore. Incomplete.

Harbaugh called timeout to talk things over.

Upon arriving at Stanford, it was clear to Harbaugh that the team was in desperate need of a culture change. Things were too lackadaisical. Players were too easily satisfied. He needed to make it known that the previous way of doing things was unacceptable.

At one of the team's first winter workouts after he arrived, Harbaugh intentionally set an impossible-to-reach time for a conditioning drill.

"When we realized it wasn't realistic, there were guys throwing in the towel and just jogging," said Moore, a senior receiver on the 2007 team. "And [Harbaugh] just sat there quietly. When we were done, he calmly called us all over and just lost it."

There wasn't one person on the team, Harbaugh told the players, who was a true competitor. If it were him in their position, he would have needed to be dragged off the field before accepting failure.

"I remember doing pushups in the locker room after a workout and he came in and was like, 'What are those? Those aren't pushups.' He kind of challenged us," said Bradford, another senior receiver. "We said, 'You're talking bad about us, we want to see you do them.' And he jumps down and does like 50 pushups. I thought he was dead at like 35 and watched him not quit and finish those pushups. He was the kind of guy that would finish what he said he would.

"Every drill, everything we did was set up for competition."

It wasn't reserved for the players, either. Harbaugh's competitive nature set the tone for everything that went on within the program. Pickup basketball games between coaches were notoriously physical. Softball games were unusually competitive. None of the assistant coaches wanted to be seen as the weak link.

"The environment was so competitive every day that walking down the hall, you wanted to walk better than the coach next to you," said Oregon coach Willie Taggart, an assistant at Stanford from 2007-09. "Once everyone understood Coach Harbaugh, everyone followed his lead and bought into it."

USC, under Pete Carroll, entered the game ranked No. 2 in the AP poll -- No. 1 in the coaches' poll. The Trojans were riding winning streaks of 35 games at home and 24 in conference play.

While Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush & Co. were long gone from the USC offense, its defense was loaded. The Trojans were so stacked that future NFL star Clay Matthews, in his fourth year in the program, served primarily on special teams and in a backup role at linebacker behind early NFL draft picks Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Keith Rivers.

David Shaw was Stanford's offensive coordinator at the time and remembers preparing for the game with no idea how the Cardinal would move the ball.

"[The USC] offense had some skill and talent, but the defense, in my mind, was still legendary and so we really had a very conservative game plan," Shaw said. "For a team that was to a certain degree overmatched talent-wise, we knew we had ability and we knew that if we kept it tight we would have a chance at the end of the game."

Going into it, however, there was no reason to give the Cardinal a shot. After four games, Stanford was 1-3, suffering lopsided losses to UCLA, Oregon and Arizona State. Its only win had come against lowly San Jose State.

Then things got worse. The morning after a 41-3 loss to the Sun Devils, starting quarterback T.C. Ostrander suffered a seizure while out to breakfast with his family. Moore and his family were there, too, and watched as he collapsed.

Ostrander would ultimately be fine, but there was no way he would play the following week when Stanford traveled to Los Angeles for the USC game. Redshirt sophomore Tavita Pritchard would have to make his first career start.

There was also a question of whether Bradford, the team's best receiver, would play. Prior to the game against Arizona State, Bradford's father died of a heart attack and he spent the week with his family in Southern California.

Bradford could have skipped the game, but he grew up near the Coliseum and attended USC games with his father. He felt that playing would be a way to honor his dad and escape from his grief.

With all that, oddsmakers installed USC as a 41-point favorite.

"As far as spreads go, that's embarrassing. To think a conference game would be a 40-plus-point spread. It's mind-blowing, the disrespect going into that game," Moore said. "We hadn't played great ball leading up to that, but 41 points? That's insane. A conference game, 41 points?"

With his starting quarterback out and top receiver questionable, Harbaugh took things back to basics.

"Jim did a good job making sure everyone was relaxed during the week -- pretty much played it like we had nothing to lose, so let's go out there and basically put our best foot forward and see what happens," Sherman said. "We had a real simple game plan. Nothing over the top. It was probably the simplest game plan we had ever put in. Just the basic fundamentals of what we put in Week 1 of training camp, and we went with it."

On the sideline during the timeout, Stanford discussed its options.

Harbaugh liked the second-down playcall and decided to go back to it, with a minor twist. The formation had three receivers to the right -- Sherman, Moore and Bradford -- and one on the left, Ryan Whalen. This time, Bradford would be the single receiver -- but not before the Cardinal was backed up five yards for having 12 men on the field coming out of the timeout.

"I really thought they would throw the ball to Evan," Bradford said. "But the ball was designed to go to whoever was single-covered, and when we lined up, I knew it was me."

Bradford remembers the play vividly, as if it occurred in slow motion. During the route, he recalls a sense of quiet taking over. He looked back, saw the ball and began checking things off in his head.

"OK, clear my man, go up, grab the ball, make sure I got it. Make sure my leg is down," he said. "Make sure I secure it and he doesn't rip it out of my hand, and then make sure my foot is in. Then make sure I didn't bobble it. Then I remember looking at the ref thinking I checked off everything. It was meant to be."

"Once I saw him go up, there was no question in the world that he scored," Sherman said. "I was just juiced for him, knowing everything that he had been through that week and knowing everything that he would be going through in the future. You don't get your dad back no matter what happens in that game. I was just glad he could have that moment."

Added Shaw: "It was very emotional, of course, knowing that he used to go to USC games when he was younger with his dad and that was a special memory that he had and he wanted to take advantage of being back in that stadium. It's almost like if you wrote that movie script someone would say, 'I don't know if anyone will believe this. It's almost too good to be true.' But that's what happened."

Stanford finished the season at 4-8, but its record didn't really matter. The historic upset provided a pivotal moment for the program's rise. It stood alone as the sport's biggest point-spread upset until last Saturday, when Howard beat UNLV as a 45-point underdog.

"It's part of the foundation, the way they've built [the program]," said Bradford, who now resides in Los Angeles. "I look at it like we were going against inertia. We were going in the wrong way for so long that you needed something like that to show this was a place you can come and play the top teams and win. Once people see it can be done, you can build on it. People can really believe."

Ten years later, Stanford returns to the Coliseum on Saturday as a finished product.

"We're not in that same state anymore. We are as competitive as anybody," Shaw, now the Cardinal's head coach, said. "We will compete like anybody, but the environment is a little bit different because we've established ourselves as one of the better football programs in America."

In fact, it has been that way since Clay Helton was hired as an assistant at USC prior to the 2010 season. The Cardinal is 77-18 since then and has consistently provided USC some of its more difficult games each year.

"[Shaw] does a tremendous job coaching those kids and they believe in him and believe in what they're doing," said Helton, now USC's head coach. "It's been one of those games you always circle because you know you're in for a war and it's going to be a physical battle."

Since the upset in 2007, Stanford has won eight of its past 11 games against USC, including the past three, and is looking to match its longest-ever winning streak against the Trojans (2009-12).

USC is favored by seven points.

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