TWISH: 1990: Stanford 27, Cal 25

In "This Week in Stanford History," it appeared over and done, a gutsy comeback that came up a play short. The instincts of John Hardy having thwarted Stanford's try for a two-point conversion, Cal seemed all but certain of a hard-earned Big Game victory this week back in 1990. With 12 seconds between them and a gutty one-point win, Bear backers rushed the field.

The wisdom of Joe Starkey should have warned them.

"Haven't they learned?" Starkey told his KGO-AM listeners, as John Hopkins prepared to send an onsides kick 15 yards ahead from where he normally would. The Bears' radio voice knew firsthand that the Big Game wasn't decided until the scoreboard said so.

Once Hardy, a fifth-year senior cornerback and one of just two Bears on this roster who had ever won a Big Game, stepped in front of Jason Palumbis' pass aimed for Ed McCaffrey, Memorial Stadium's plastic turf was swallowed whole by hundreds of jubilant Cal fans. The horde also included many players who left their sideline, the masses mistaking "0:12" on the scoreboard for "0:00," all celebrating an apparent 25-24 victory. The Bears earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty for their players' over-exuberance.

Stanford appeared headed for a Big Game loss for the first time in four years, doomed to a 4-7 season that featured two others losses decided in the final seconds.

But you know what really happened.

When the final gun sounded, Stanford fans were the ones spilling out on the field, celebrating an improbable 27-25 victory once Hopkins' 39-yard field goal split the uprights. Just as Cal parlayed a timeout called a few seconds too soon, a misplaced marching band, and the moxie of five laterals into its miracle finish in 1982, Stanford countered with its own unbelievable moment to savor.

"This is The Play, Part II," Glyn Milburn said at the time. "This is The Sequel."

What happened? In honor of an event that occurred 20 years ago this weekend, This Week in Stanford History takes you back to a wild finish that occurred during a wild year for college football.

….I was 11 years old when Stanford (more potent than its 4-6 record would indicate) ventured into Berkeley to face a 6-3-1 Cal team, which had already accepted its Copper Bowl invite. The pregame scene was overwhelming but pleasant. Cal fans had not yet adopted the mob mentality – where students attack the opposing team's mascots and cheerleaders – that plagued Big Games at Berkeley throughout the decade. My family and I parked and hung out without incident at a campus fraternity house.

A few doors down, those living at another Greek residence sat on a backyard picnic table around a boom box. The portable stereo played not music, but a recording of the 1982 Big Game radio broadcast. The young men listened in hushed reverence to what came out of the speakers. Joe Starkey's voice might as well have been a preacher, the wooden benches church pews.

"The Play" was fresh in my mind, too, years since learning how to operate my parents' clunky VCR. It was my personal Zapruder Film, and I was a one-kid Warren Commission when it came to dissecting the Bears' answer to Mark Harmon's 35-yard field goal. I knew Dwight Garner's knee was down. Mariet Ford's last lateral was forward by two yards at least, while Cal should never had the chance in the first place.

If you watch, as Stanford's kicking team replaces its offense on the field in the waning moments, you see John Elway walking toward the sideline. His hands are clasped behind his head, locked in the kind of reaction the follows wrongdoing (and a helplessness to stop it). He left eight seconds on the clock, instead of letting it tick down. Cal got one last touch of the ball even after Harmon put the Cardinal ahead.

Video of The Play, in today's lingo, went viral. It showed up on every blooper reel and highlight montage from here to Newfoundland. It became ubiquitous as AIDS ribbons at a Hollywood red carpet premier. Cal fans delighted in the publicity, Stanford fanatics cringed as their team and marching band became punch lines. Both sides shared this common ground: They spent the rest of the 1980's losing a lot more than they won, making college football quite passé in the Bay Area.

….But the 1990 match between the two brought the kind of anticipation unseen to the Big Game in some time. Cal was bowl-bound for the first time in 11 years, while Denny Green brought new life into a young Stanford team. Adding to the marquee factor was the kickoff-time, a 3:30 p.m. start to accommodate regional cable TV. This was novel for the era. The 93rd Big Game would be decided under the lights.

The Bears' Robbie Keen opened the scoring, launching a 50-yard field goal into the twilight that would have been good from 65 yards. Stanford's deficit reached 17-3 by the second quarter. McCaffrey's injury troubles – he only caught two passes while being hobbled by a bad hip – could have been disastrous, but Milburn was without flaw. His 376 all-purpose yards for the game set a new Pac-10 record.

He carried 24 times for 196 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown dash on Stanford's first possession after halftime. Palumbis had audibled out of a pass play just before handing off to the Oklahoma transfer. The two-point attempt failed, but Stanford now trailed only 17-15. The Cardinal defense held the Bears scoreless for the remainder of the third. Hopkins' fourth field goal had Stanford up 18-17 with just under 10 minutes remaining.

While the Bears tried holding their lead, head coach Bruce Snyder chased history. Never before 1990 had two Pac-10 runners from the same team each achieved 1,000 yards in one season. Russell White and Anthony Wallace neared this mark coming in, and each broke it during the 93rd Big Game.

Wallace finished with 99 yards on 24 carries to reach 1,002 for the year. White was dominating (18 carries for 177 yards and two touchdowns) to reach an even 1,000, but he never carried the ball once between the middle of the second and the middle of the fourth quarters. Much to Stanford's relief, he nursed an injured ankle and only returned kickoffs. Only when he was inserted back in the lineup did Cal regain a 25-18 edge. White took a toss sweep into paydirt from eight yards out, the ensuing two-point pass adding to the old blue bedlam.

….College football fanatics remember 1990 as a memorable year. There was greater television exposure than ever before. The NCAA had instituted heavier academic requirements and more scholarship limits. Extra oversight was in place to limit the proliferation of steroids. All that combined to produce a year where six different teams, Georgia Tech and Virginia among them, reached No. 1 in one of the two major polls. The Cardinal's upset of top-ranked Notre Dame fueled the argument that a new era was at hand.

"Maybe the poor teams are just sick of losing," Tommy Vardell said after his Cardinal was victorious in South Bend.

Stanford was sick of falling in the final seconds. Its bowl dreams went kaput thanks to losing 32-31 at UCLA (on a last-second field goal) and 21-17 at eventual co-national champ Colorado (on a last-second touchdown on 4th-and-goal from the 1). In Berkeley, The Card took possession on their own 13 at the 1:54 mark after a Cal punt. Stanford's Greek god of completion percentage – Palumbis led the nation with a 68.6 percent clip – found his shining moment.

It took 13 plays to score on the Bears, who, for reasons unknown, rushed only three against a decidedly un-mobile quarterback. Palumbis lofted a 19-yarder to the 6-foot-6 McCaffrey, who beat double-coverage. Green, whose team converted on 4th-and-1 from its own 25 in the third quarter, said he never considered kicking a tying extra point. Play was halted just before the two-point try. Someone from the stands threw an orange; it landed in the Stanford backfield.

When play resumed, Palumbis rolled right and looked at McCaffrey the whole way. It was Hardy, playing perfect zone defense, who actually caught the ball. He sprinted towards midfield in jubilation. Stadium announcer Bill Glass implored fans to clear the field. When that finally happened, Hopkins was ready to tee up from the 50 instead of the 35. He and special teams coach Tyrone Willingham had a plan.

….Hopkins converted an onsides kick the previous year against Oregon, when his game-winning field goal as time expired lifted the Cardinal to an 18-17 triumph after trailing 17-0 with nine minutes left. That one bounced high in the air. This time, he told Willingham he wanted this attempt to squib towards the Stanford bench. Willingham moved Kevin Scott from the left to right side of the kickoff team.

Four players touched the ball, White included. It wound up in the grasp of Scott, another senior starter like Hopkins. "My knees were in, but I think my feet were out (of bounds)," Scott explained after the game. "I picked up the ball and ran downfield before the ref could change his mind."

With new life at the Bears' 37, Hopkins was looking at a 54-yarder (his career long). Stanford had time for one more play to get him closer. Palumbis threw incomplete to stop the clock, just before being leveled by Cal lineman John Belli. A borderline call to say the least, but the officials flagged him for a late hit and moved the ball 15 yards closer to the goalpost. A primal mix of groans and cheers filled Memorial Stadium.

"It made the difference between knowing I can," Hopkins told reporters, "and ‘I'll give it a try.'"

…Across the region, news outlets prematurely reported that Cal was a 25-24 victor. Up in Sacramento, the cable company that tried to honor its football fans instead gave viewers Heidi Bowl déjà vu. Sacramento Cable put the game on its channel 53, normally reserved for the Home Shopping Network. It set its computers to return to normal programming at 7 p.m. – which showed on the clock just after Hardy broke up the two-point pass. Hadn't they all learned?


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