Clardy's Corner: Fifteen years

I've been having way too many "God, I'm getting old" moments lately. Just had my latest one a few moments ago. I can remember where I was exactly 15 years ago today. Fifteen years ago. I'm getting old.

I was in the press box at cal's Memorial Stadium that afternoon, calling the 99th Big Game for KZSU. But that Big Game happened to be a big win for Stanford. That game was the culmination of an incredible reversal of fortune for the Cardinal, and it capped one of the most remarkable Novembers in Stanford Football history.

Stanford spent that month upsetting three teams, blowing out the Bears, and running the table in dramatic fashion. When the month began, it appeared that the Cardinal were destined to be spending the holidays sweeping up and cleaning out the garage, as Bill Walsh used to put it. But by the end of the afternoon of November 23, 1996, Stanford had shown enough that they'd soon earn an invite to the Sun Bowl in El Paso.

That special November was set up by a largely nondescript September and October. Sure, there were some nice moments in that season's early going. A thrilling overtime win against Oregon made possible by Kailee Wong's sack of Tony Graziani, the resulting fumble, and Andre Kirwan's 49-yard catch on fourth and 12. Juan-Carlos Lacey becoming king for a day in a 25-2 win over San Jose State.

But the offense spent most of those two months trying to get untracked. A trip to Wisconsin's Camp Randall Stadium resulted in zero points and one loss. Washington knocked Chad Hutchinson loopy and turned a 6-3 halftime deficit into a 27-6 win.

Then, the real ugliness: a 26-12 loss at Oregon State, seemingly the Beavers' first Pac-10 win since the formation of the Oregon Trail. A week later, Arizona State knocked Chad Hutchinson out of the game early, forcing a young Todd Husak to be thrown the wolves. ASU scored early and often. Sometime in the second half, the bored Sun Devils ran a triple reverse. It worked for a first down.

The 41-9 final told the Pac-10 everything it needed to know about where both teams stood. Arizona State was headed to an eventual Rose Bowl, and a near-miss of a national title. The Cardinal were 2-5 and headed nowhere. That's what it looked like at the end of October 1996.

And so it was that Stanford traveled to Pasadena to face UCLA at the Rose Bowl on November 2. Just before halftime, Hutchinson sent a deep floater down the sideline to Troy Walters, who jumped over his defender, inhaled the ball, and scored a 50-yard touchdown. It turned out to be the first of many great catches Walters would make for the Cardinal. Stanford led, 14-7.

Undaunted, the Bruins scored 13 straight points, setting the stage for a high-stakes finish: 5:28 remaining in the game, the season hanging in the balance, and Stanford with the ball at its own 20-yard line. Completions to Walters and Kirwan helped move the ball into UCLA territory, but soon Stanford faced third and five. Hutchinson swung a pass to Mike Mitchell, but Bruin defensive end Travis Kirschke appeared to have Mitchell dead to rights in the backfield. Somehow, Mitchell slithered away from Kirschke and scampered for the huge first down.

After completing two more passes, Hutchinson faced first and goal from the UCLA 10. Coolly, Hutchinson dropped back while WR Brian Manning ran a perfect out pattern. Hutchinson hit him in stride, and it was good for six with 58 seconds left. Hutchinson had completed all seven of his passes on the ten-play drive. The Card had taken the lead for good, and Tim Smith's interception on the final play sealed Stanford's 21-20 win. (Amazingly, it would be another 14 years before the Card would walk out the Rose Bowl on the winning side…)

The next week, the hated U$C Trojans came to Stanford Stadium on a cold night underneath the portable lights. Damon Dunn's 93-yard kickoff return gave Cardinalmaniacs something to cheer for early, but the rest of the half was all U$C. Trojans led 20-7 at halftime.

Stanford turned to its ground game in the second half, and it worked. Mitchell and FB Greg Comella scored touchdowns to put the Cardinal ahead before the end of the third quarter. With Stanford clinging to its one-point lead with 2:07 left, U$C QB Brad Otton tried a short pass over the middle. He never saw Stanford's Pete Swanson, who had dropped into coverage from his nose tackle spot. Swanson's pick led to a field goal and a four-point Card lead.

The Trojans had one more chance. From the Stanford 35, and with two seconds left in the game, Otton sent a Hail Mary to the end zone, where three Trojan receivers and a host of Cardinal defenders waited. A scrum ensued, and somehow, someone caught the ball. Stanford Stadium went dead silent (more silent than usual)… then erupted when Tim Smith emerged from the pile and the officials signaled an interception to end the game. 24-20, Stanford. Two down, two to go.

It was dark. It was pouring down rain. And the Cougars were in town. Not the ideal setting for Stanford's final home game of the 1996 season. And with Ryan Leaf leading Washington State to a 14-0 lead late in the first half, it wasn't an ideal situation for Stanford, either. Jon Ritchie's first touchdown in a Cardinal uniform cut the Cougs' lead in half and helped matters somewhat. What followed is still one of my favorite plays in all my watching of Stanford Football.

Stanford's defense forced a Cougar punt, which Troy Walters fielded at his own 25. Walters immediately sped to his left, back across the field, giving ground the whole way. Giving ground. Giving ground. Then……CRUNCH!! Tim Smith erased a Coug blocker, giving Walters the green light to turn up field. He darted. He danced. He shook it like a Polaroid picture. And in the end, he scored. A 75-yard touchdown that remains one of the great punt returns in school history.

The game was a dead heat on the scoreboard, but Washington State was beaten on that play. Stanford's defense chased Ryan Leaf all over the stadium in the second half, hounding him into the sacks and picks that became the trademark of his pro career. The Cardinal closed out the Cougs, 33-17, and suddenly found themselves in the bowl race.

Which brings us to 15 years ago today, and that dark, chilly afternoon in Berkeley. I can still see cal running back Deltha O'Neal fumbling the ball away on the third play from scrimmage. I can still see Kailee Wong picking off a screen pass from Pat Barnes and running it back for a back-breaking 53-yard score. I can still see the scoreboard at halftime: Stanford 27, cal 7. I can still see Old Blues streaming for the exits early in the second half.

I can also remember Gerhard Casper (Stanford's president at the time) wandering onto our ledge in the cal press box and telling us about how he had done the Macarena at Gaieties the night before. If that doesn't sum up 1996, I don't know what does.

Stanford's 42-21 win over the Bears capped one of the most incredible months in Cardinal Football history. Even though we've been to a Rose Bowl and an Orange Bowl since then, I still look back fondly on those days. I'll always have a soft spot for that team.

Was that incredible November really 15 years ago? Fifteen? In some ways, it seems like yesterday. But in other ways, it seems like eons ago. Either way, it makes me old.

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RANDOM PAC-11 THOUGHTS

I have to give it to cal QB Zach Maynard: I didn't see that performance from him coming. At all. In the first half, he was more poised and more accurate than Andrew Luck. There may be hope for him yet…

I must be the only Cardinalmaniac who isn't freaking out about the Stanford Stadium field. Heck, I must be the only Cardinalmaniac who thinks all this talk about the turf is absolutely ridiculous…

Back in September, I saw Notre Dame in person when they beat Pitt, 15-12. For their sake, I hope their offense has improved by leaps and bounds since that day. For our sake, I hope Notre Dame forgets about WR Michael Floyd again, like they did that day…

Really, Arizona State? Really? What happened to you?

Well, that probably explains why Rich Rodriguez turned down my interview request on Monday afternoon…

That's a great hire by the Wildcats, by the way. If RichRod can bring that offense, and if he can bring in the right coordinator and the players to bring back the "Desert Swarm", Arizona could become a force soon. Very, very soon…

There are two words that are never good to hear in the same sentence: "lacerated" and "liver". Tough break for Connor Halliday

Not going to lie… it was kinda fun to watch Utah and Washington State play in a driving snowstorm. Of course, that's because I was safe and warm on my couch! By the way, you looking forward to those November road trips Stanford may have to start making to Colorado and Utah?

Not a Pac-11 thought, but… LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas are one-two-three in the BCS standings. So can we call the SEC West the AL East of college football?

Not a Pac-11 thought, but… Not a good week for kickers. Especially those who call Eugene and Stillwater home…

Not a Pac-11 thought, but… the final score from Tampa on Saturday: Miami 6, South Florida 3. You read that right. If I was Miami after that game, I'd be too embarrassed to accept a bowl bid too…

Not a Pac-11 thought, but… at 1:11 pm Central on Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings called a play-fake to Stanford alum Toby Gerhart and threw a pass that was caught by Stanford alum Greg Camarillo. Who made the tackle for the Oakland Raiders? Stanford Routt. Of course…

Not a Pac-11 thought, but… please have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!

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CLARDY'S CORNER INBOX

Got a thought on this Corner? Drop me a line either at my Scout.com inbox (username: troyc)... or e-mail me at troyc@thebootleg.com...

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PAC-11 PICKS

Brutal. Just brutal. I don't want to talk about it.

Colorado @ Utah. While Utah's offense isn't quite as capable as UCLA's, that doesn't mean I like Colorado's chances any better this week. I like Utah by 18.

Oregon State @ Oregon. Trust me, I'd love to pick the upset here for a lot of reasons. But even though the Ducks just lost at Autzen Stadium for the first time in three years, there's nothing Oregon State can do to make me pick them. Unless they can round up Jonathan Smith, Ken Simonton, Chad Johnson, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh again. I like Oregon by 21.

Washington State @ Washington. The Cougars will get their yards, but I'm not sure they'll get points. I like Washington by 13.

UCLA @ U$C. I suspect this might be a physical game that features fewer points than many people think. In a physical game, you go with the more physical team. I like U$C by nine.

cal @ Arizona State. It's too bad this game is in Tempe, otherwise I would pick the Bears easily. As it is, I like Arizona State by four.

Last week: 1-4 (straight-up), 1-4 (ATS).
This year: 23-17 (straight-up), 25-15 (ATS).
Last year: 23-13 (straight-up), 16-20 (ATS).

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Troy Clardy is in his 19th year of following the Cardinal as a columnist, broadcaster, and announcer. In its 10th season of Cardinal commentary, Clardy's Corner appears Wednesdays during the college football regular season on TheBootleg.com. You can also check him out online at TroyClardy.com, or e-mail him at troyc@thebootleg.com.


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