Crazy Eighties: Three upsets defined a decade

Don't call it inconsistency. With a demolition of the country's No. 4 team, which occurred during a ten-year period where it reached the postseason only once, Stanford laid the groundwork for an entire decade.

Welcome to Stanford football, '80s style. While the Cardinal was so often outclassed by the elite in its own conference, the program hit the road and shocked three of college football's all-time elite programs. The first such surprise occurred 30 years ago this week.

Unranked Stanford forced seven turnovers – recovering five fumbles – on its way to a 31-14 victory at Barry Switzer's defending Orange Bowl champions from Oklahoma. Paul Wiggin, who won all of 36 percent of his games as the Cardinal's head coach, outfoxed the last coach to win national championships in successive decades.

"I still question if we could really do it," Cardinal receiver Andre Tyler said after the game, when he caught two John Elway aerials for touchdowns. "It's really hard to grasp… I think it'll hit me when I get on the plane with the other guys."

The Sooners, who fell behind 31-0 at one point under rainy skies in Norman, suffered their first home defeat in four years. They soon entered their annual shootout against Texas with a loss – for the first time since 1970. Only once in the remaining eight years of Switzer's tenure did Oklahoma lose by a double-digit margin inside its own stadium.

"First and foremost, Stanford pounded the Sooners like an everyday, whip-dog Kansas State," wrote The (Oklahoma City) Oklahoman newspaper the day after.

The trend of embarrassed royals was due to repeat itself, several times over. Elway engineered a last-minute comeback victory at Ohio State in 1982. No stranger to intersectional games, the Buckeyes have hosted 13 games against Pac-10 competition, winning 11, since Stanford's 23-20 win.

When Stanford visited Texas in 1986, the Longhorns were only two years removed from their most recent No. 1 ranking – and 14 years past their last defeat in a home opener. No matter. A Cardinal team whose seniors slogged through a 1-10 season in Wiggin's final campaign won a 31-20 decision that wasn't quite that close.

So it went throughout the decade. "Highs and lows" applied to Cardinal football, and not just the Dow Jones average (and the recreational choices of Wall Street traders). Schizophrenic Stanford had its camp witnessing a lot of highlights, but also a variety of heartaches and blunders.

In each of the three years in question, Stanford wove a common, uneven thread. It reached the national rankings. It lost an important game while favored by a touchdown or more. It lost at home to USC.

"The Play" came about during Elway's Heisman Trophy-chasing senior season. Just weeks after a home victory against No.1-ranked Washington, the 1982 shocker to Cal was the Cardinal's third straight to end the season. "I remember celebrating after the Washington game like we had just won the Rose Bowl," said former Cardinal running back Mike Dotterer.

The Cardinal reached the Gator Bowl in 1986 but was unable to sustain that momentum. Case in point occurred when Troy Aikman and UCLA visited Palo Alto the following year. The 49-0 defeat remains the most lopsided defeat ever for the home team at Stanford Stadium. Jack Elway was fired a year later, leaving Denny Green in charge of clean-up duties.

Even in 1980, Stanford could dominate Oklahoma – but lose at 2-8 Cal with a Peach Bowl berth on the line. The Cardinal won its first two games that season before losing 30-13 at Boston College. Doug Flutie was still in high school. A curious game plan saw a reliance on Darrin Nelson runs up the middle against six and eight-man fronts. He'd sit out the Oklahoma game with an injured hip.

"And that Army [loss at home 1979] was just brutal," said Ron Barr, the nationally-syndicated sports radio host who called Stanford games on radio and TV during the late '70s and early '80s. "So much of Stanford football through the years has been dictated by the coach in charge. Look who was the coach was. You can draw your conclusions from there."

Green served as offensive coordinator in 1980. His pass-first/ball-control offense, which featured six players who earned all-conference honors that year, stoked Switzer's fears. He fretted his side would be in big trouble if Stanford controlled the ball for 50 or more plays. Mother Nature responded to the home team's aid. Elway entered the visiting locker room Saturday morning find a soaked equipment bag of practice balls. Friday night's rains leaked through the roof.

But on a day when a fortunate Elway saw Oklahoma drop no fewer than six soggy passes that could have been interceptions, the Cardinals (as they were still called) controlled possession. Stanford held the ball for 40 minutes and took 90 snaps. The Cards outrushed the Wishbone wizards by a 220-153 margin. Dotterer set the pace with 79 yards on 14 attempts.

Elway completed 20 of 34 passes for 237 yards. After a scoreless first quarter, the first touchdown pass came on an 11-yard strike to Ken Margerum. "I remember practicing only about three running plays all week," noted the All-American pass-catcher, whose score set an all-time Pac-10 career record of 23 touchdown receptions.

It took all of 41 seconds to get the ball back. Steve Lemon recovered Chet Winters' fumble at the Sooner 44. Two completions went to Chris Dressel. Another 25-yard bullet went to Andre Tyler. On third-and-goal from the 1, Elway bootlegged to his right for the uncontested touchdown. A Ken Naber field goal had Stanford leading at 17-0 at halftime.

By the third quarter's halfway point, the Sooners were staring at a 31-point deficit. On the second half's opening drive, Dotterer ran for 30 yards. Two Elway runs netted 33 yards. From the 11, he lobbed toward the end zone for Tyler. Make it 24-0. The pair connected four minutes later for another touchdown, this from nine yards, after yet another Oklahoma fumble. From the sold-out crowd came a chorus of howls and boos.

"Looking at the game program, you saw the names of all the big donors to Oklahoma," Barr remembered. They were donating sides of beef to the football program. You definitely knew you weren't at Stanford anymore."

On three memorable Saturdays, in hostile environments, that didn't matter to the Cardinal.

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