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Unfathomable

Jim Harbaugh was wrong.

During the off-season, the Stanford coach paid the USC Trojans the ultimate compliment. He called them “maybe the greatest team in the history of college football.”

Let’s face it, we thought he might be right. We looked at the USC roster and saw a quarterback who was a Heisman Trophy candidate. He was flanked by All-Americans and players with NFL talent, a bushel of them who came within a whisker of winning a national title last year.

Harbaugh should have said this was the most overrated team in history.

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Cardinal 24, Trojans 23?

Walk from the room. Come back. Rub your eyes, and read the score again.

Those were the big, bad swaggering Trojans. We had thought they wouldn’t lose a game this season.

Then, into the Coliseum on a warm afternoon marched the pencil-necked boys from Stanford -- a team full of high school valedictorians and kids studying for master’s degrees, a team coming off its worst season in 46 years.

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Cardinal 24, Trojans 23.

It’s true. For the Trojans, it is a cold, hard reality. Their high hopes for this season -- their hopes of being undefeated, their hopes for a national title -- are over and probably over.

Yes, there are more games to play. They still could win the conference title. But a national title? Adios. How do you bounce back in the polls after a game like this? USC just might find itself dropped from the nation’s top 10.

How do you get over that final minute?

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Tavita Pritchard, a redshirt sophomore who had taken just a few snaps before this game, lobs a perfectly placed ball into the sky. Down with it comes Mark Bradford, a fifth-year senior from Los Angeles who can graduate knowing that people will remember his name for a long, long time.

Full credit -- a huge, heaping plateful of it -- goes to Harbaugh, the high-adrenaline coach who came to Stanford this season with nothing more on his resume than playing quarterback in the NFL and a good but short run as the head man down at the University of San Diego. In case you missed it, San Diego plays small-college ball and does not give out scholarships.

At Stanford, Harbaugh took over a down-at-the-heels team that won just a single game last year. He said he was going to bring enthusiasm to his job unknown to mankind.

Then he promptly angered all of Troy by insinuating that its coach, Pete Carroll, was likely to bolt for the NFL at season’s end. So angry were the Trojans’ faithful that this was supposed to have been a grudge match: Poor Jim Harbaugh and his plucky little band of academic all stars. Or so everyone thought.

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Odds-makers in Las Vegas said the Trojans were so mad they would win by at least seven touchdowns.

What happened?

At the end of the first quarter, the announcer blared: Trojans 3, Cardinal 0.

The crowd groaned. Some booed and whistled. A stadium stuffed with fans wearing red jerseys with USC emblazoned on their chests fidgeted and held their breath. What was going on? When would order be restored?

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In the second quarter, the USC looked like Stanislaus State. Flags. Botched plays. Missed tackles. Fumbles. Passes that bricked off receivers’ hands and into the grass and the dirt. The Heisman Trophy quarterback? He should have stayed in bed.

And Stanford? Those kids from the farm played with fire and pluck. Defenders dove all over the field, wreaking havoc.

Except for a few happy Stanford fans and the wacky Stanford band, nobody believed anything like this could happen.

Has someone slipped something funny in the Trojans’ Gatorade?

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USC scored, then botched the extra point, then failed to run the ball in from the one-yard line.

The announcer: Trojans 9, Stanford 0.

USC walked back to its locker room under a hail of boos.

During the second half, John David Booty, the Heisman candidate, stepped back to pass. Interception. Not just any interception. Stanford swiped the ball and ran it back for a touchdown -- the first Cardinal score against the Trojans since 2005.

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Booty scrambled, looked lost. Maybe it was the middle finger of his passing hand, which had crashed into a helmet and suffered a crack. Maybe he had been rattled by the way his receivers dropped three easy passes in the first half. Booty stands just a bit over 6 feet tall. He looked even smaller.

Pritchard, his Cardinal counterpart, was expected to play like a zero. He had been pressed into action because Stanford’s starting quarterback suffered an off-field seizure. We all figured that Pritchard would peer across the line of scrimmage and see players like Lawrence Jackson snorting at him -- and his knees would buckle.

Right there, though, before the Coliseum crowd, Tavita Pritchard grew into one remarkable football player. He scrambled out of trouble. He spotted open receivers. Two passes found their target. There was nothing wobbly about this kid. The way he played, he looked like . . . well, John David Booty.

Fourth and 20?

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No sweat. The night air cooled, and so did Pritchard. He called his own play, stepped back, scanned. His pass hit Richard Sherman right on his number.

Now Stanford had the ball close to the end zone.

For the Trojans, this was scary close, heartbreak close. But hold on a minute. They are the best team in the nation, maybe the best in history. Right? They would rescue victory.

The clock ticked down. Fourth and goal. Game on the line.

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Pritchard dropped back to pass. He let the football fly. It hung in the air, then arced past a Trojans defender.

And it landed right in Mark Bradford’s hands.

Score tied.

The extra point. Then the Cardinal intercepted and the game was over.

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Stanford 24, Trojans, 23.

Well done, Cardinal. Your coach was wrong, but he probably can deal with that.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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