All-Time Greatest Point Spread Finishes - No. 2
by Josh Nagel - 12/23/2008
There are games in which you are convinced a coach knows the pointspread and is doing what it takes to cover it. There are other times when you wish he would do just that.
We've all had those games where our six-point underdog trailed by seven with 30 seconds and was desperately marching down the field in hopes of scoring the tying touchdown. On fourth-and-eight from the 25, we're hoping they would somehow do the sensible thing to really catch the defense off guard: Hide the kicker in the backfield behind the fullback and pull a surprise field goal. Of course they would lose the game, but we could really use those three points.
Although I'm still waiting to see this one happen, there's no doubt that some coaches make late-game decisions clearly with the spread in mind. Here is one of them.
Score: USC 45, Stanford 23
Date: Nov. 15, 2008
Spread: USC -23 ½
Why it was memorable: This game brought to mind an age-old sports betting question; was this a case of a pure revenge game in which you back the aggrieved favorite, or was it simply too many points to bother?
Bettors seemed divided on the topic. The number stayed steady most of the week and reached 24 at one point, though some late Stanford money drove it down anywhere from a half-point to a point depending on the sports book.
The stage for this showdown was set last season, when Jim Harbaugh irked some of the USC folks by implying that his hiring as Stanford's head coach represented a changing of the guard in the Pac-10. Harbaugh and the Cardinal then pulled one of the biggest point-spread upsets in modern history, defeating the Trojans, 24-23, in Southern California as a 41-point underdog. Harbaugh and Pete Carroll made no secret that there was little love lost between them.
The rematch presented some interesting angles. USC's national title hopes had already been dashed by an upset loss at Oregon State, while Stanford was continuing its climb toward respectability. However, the Cardinal had trouble closing out tight games. No doubt the Trojans hadn't forgotten about the score they had to settle, the questions was just how high would the score turn out?
In the early going, it looked to be a replay of the upset. Stanford followed Oregon State's blueprint for an upset by shortening the game with an effective rushing attack, and underrated Toby Gerhart was keeping the chains moving. The game was tied 17-17 at halftime and, while the Stanford money looked good, anyone with a bet on either side knew the Trojans were capable of a spread-covering burst at any time.
Sure enough, the burst came, as the Trojans took a 24-17 lead into the fourth quarter and made it 45-17 by scoring three touchdowns in a 10-minute span. When Stanford got the ball with 1:23 left, the only thing in doubt was the spread.
The Cardinal backups swiftly moved the ball down the field and called a timeout after getting to the USC 18-yard line with five seconds left. This is when bizarre things started to happen.
After a few discussions on the sideline Harbaugh sent out the field-goal unit. The field-goal unit? An extra three points here wouldn't even cover the spread. In response, Carroll burned a timeout to "ice" the Stanford kicker, whose boot would have trimmed the lead to 25 points.
Evidently, Harbaugh had a change of heart. He sent the offense back on the field and, on the game's final play, backup quarterback Alex Loukas scrambled around before launching a pass toward the end zone. Austin Gunder lunged to get his hands under the ball before it scraped the turf and … touchdown.
While Stanford might have failed to repeat its historic upset, the Cardinal put another milestone spread win in its budding rivalry with USC.