A few minutes after Stanford beat USC 48-38 and we had a chance to recover from triple overtime, my roommate Joe commented that it had been the “most nerve-wracking game” he had even watched. I pointed out that it was only so because we won: had we lost, it would’ve been the most devastating game ever. Cue the camera panning over fans with their hands on their hand.
This year, Stanford football, only 5 years from going 1-11, came into the season as a top-1o ranked team with aspirations for and a shot at a national championship. So far, it’s gone very well. Coming into the game last night, Stanford had won their last 10 games by more than 25 points, were on a 15 game winning streak, and, through 7 games this year, were never behind at any point in a game. It may have been close a few times, but we never needed to come from behind.
Even so, I was scared in a few games when we were only winning by less than a touchdown at the half. Unlike teams of the past, we were expected to win, and that changed my attitude towards the games. Before, I could be happy just that we were playing well and winning. Now, in a season where we could go to the Rose Bowl or beyond, each game isn’t a step forward: it’s another chance to lose.
So watching us go to the half only leading by 4 point was worrying, but being down 10 points in the 3rd quarter was frightening. And when Andrew Luck, our star quarter back, threw an interception that USC ran back for a touchdown late in the 4th quarter to put us behind by a touchdown, I had a scary realization: our season could be “over” so quickly. Everything we hoped for could disappear, and I was looking at the score on the TV by which that might happen.
But the team showed the poise that matches their tunnel vision and “one game at a time” mentality that makes them far better and stronger than their fans, many like me who are aware of every scenario for how things play out. The offense put together 4 consecutive touchdown drives (3 in OT), and the defense forced a fumble that linebacker A.J. Tarpley jumped on top of. And that was the shocking end to a game that left all fans in disbelief, some better and some worse.
I sometimes wish we were back in the old days, when the only fans were true die-hards to a team that didn’t have any big expectations. But as easy as that life was, it didn’t drive the same intensity in me. It was easy because I wasn’t invested, even if I was watching. Stanford’s upset of then #2 USC in 2007 was great, but had we lost, I’m sure I wouldn’t have any particular memories of the game. NOw, I can experience all of the highs and lows of a game developing before me, tracking other teams and feeling every moment of the season.
I would never wish a game to come as close as this last one did, but it was probably good for us. The team showed their ability to endure a long and physical game against a tough opponent. But for the fans, we felt a fear that we hadn’t really in the past 10 games. Instead of thinking to the next few games after the team had a huge lead in the first quarter, we were intently watching every moment of the game. We saw every tackle, every reception, every juke through the game. For that game, we weren’t the fans of a possible future: we were the fans of the game of football itself that we claim to be.