Where was the optimism?
Queue Stanford football, taking its identity from a first-year head coach with a no-nonsense attitude. The Cardinal was busy proving that a coach's box office appeal, together with his team's modus operandi, weren't important. Winning was important, which the visitors did by a 27-20 margin at Utah on this date in 1995.
The team's first 2-0 start in nine years came about despite just 117 yards passing from a fifth-year senior and first-year starter, quarterback Mark Butterfield. The Utes blocked a Stanford field goal, intercepted Butterfield twice on ill-advised throws and collected another three first downs via penalties.
But with Utah six yards away from a tying touchdown and 13 seconds remaining, nickelback Alistair White made the game's most significant play. He intercepted Mike Fouts, nephew of Dan, to make the Cardinal road trip a successful one. The same team that blew three fourth-period leads during its 3-7-1 season the year before finally held on.
Stanford was rising to its talent level. And before his name became a four-letter word around these parts, Tyrone Willingham was known for reaching such results.
A lot of the preseason pundits had the 1993 and 1994 Cardinal teams going to bowl games. The 1994 freshman class, which featured Anthony Bookman and Kailee Wong, remains a standard. Its members started 279 games combined, the equivalent of two full seasons per player.
"Things are so different these days," said senior linebacker Mike Hall afterwards. "It's an entirely different atmosphere now."
Each of Stanford's early 1995 victories occurred on the road. The two wins equaled the combined number of road wins of the previous two seasons, the regrettable end to Bill Walsh's Stanford coaching sequel. The Cardinal opened the Willingham era with a 47-33 shootout at Spartan Stadium on Labor Day Weekend, showing offensive flair but giving San Jose State a season's worth of highlight material.
The next game promised a much tougher opponent – Utah went 10-2 and beat Arizona in the 1994 Freedom Bowl – but featured different particulars as the Utes netted only 255 yards of total offense. After trailing 13-10 at halftime, the Cardinal scored 17 unanswered points to lead 27-13 with 14:13 to play. Not since the 1993 Blockbuster Bowl had Stanford allowed fewer points through three quarters.
The Cardinal was at its best in the third. Greg Comella capped an 80-yard touchdown drive with a three-yard plunge. Culminating an 84-yard march, Butterfield found Mark Harris in the end zone from three yards out. Eric Abrams booted a 50-yard field goal.
All three of the night's Stanford touchdown drives were length-of-the-field affairs. Indeed, sustained drives were a Cardinal hallmark in 1995. Butterfield threw a league-best 19 touchdowns and was intercepted only nine times. His team led the Pac-10 in total offense.
But the game was destined for a frenetic finish, at least once Stanford faced a fourth-and-1 at the Utah 33-yard-line. The Cardinal had marched from its own 20 after a Utah touchdown. Willingham, even after his team converted on a pair of fourth-and-short situations on the drive, elected for another field goal with 3:18 showing.
Bad move. The kick was blocked, and Utah seized the momentum. In less than three minutes, the hosts were at the 2-yard-line. Then that leather oval started making funny bounces.
The first came when Fouts rolled right with 26 seconds left and threw across his body. A wide-open Rick Tucker, yards from the nearest defender in the left corner of the end zone, had the ball clang off his chest and onto the grass below.
On the following play, Utah lined up in the swinging gate formation, with three receivers flanking Fouts on each side. The shotgun snap sailed high over his head, scooting all the way to the 15 before he grabbed it. The desperation heave arched toward the middle of the field, where White made the pick.
"I just saw the bad snap," explained White, recruited to The Farm as a wide receiver from Arizona. "Every time there's a bad snap, the coaches say to stick with your man."
The outcome figured prominently in Stanford's postseason hopes, which became a reality with a 7-3-1 finish and an at-large berth in the Liberty Bowl. Optimism found a home in Palo Alto.
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