What's Your Deal This Year, Stanford?
So how will the 2012 Cardinal do in this, year one of the post-Luck era (PLE)?
Beats me. The past is no help here, either. Last time one of those once-per-generation Stanford quarterbacks graduated, the season that followed turned out to be something less than a vintage year on the Farm. In 1983, post-John Elway, Stanford floundered to its first ten-loss season in 23 years. You might say it was open season for opponents.
Three decades ago, Elway heir Steve Cottrell revealed an arm more suited to horsehide than pigskin. In fairness to this two-sport athlete, however, Cottrell's supporting cast made Elway's '82 squad, Big Game infamy and all, look like a juggernaut. At least as much as you can call five wins and six losses in 1982 juggernaut-like. Still, remember that Stanford has produced three "once-a-generation" quarterbacks since 1970. Do the math and you see that our Directors Cup runneth over when it comes to QBs.
But despite the impressive, even if forced, late-season debut of blue-chipper John Paye, the ignominy of '83 was a far cry from the previous decade and the Great Quarterback Succession of that time. In fact, the Plunkett-less 1971 season turned out better than almost anyone associated with the program could dare to dream. Anyone, that is, except the players and coach John Ralston. The "new" quarterback that year was Don Bunce who would cap his Stanford football career being named 1972 Rose Bowl MVP. Not bad for a new guy.
In reality, Bunce wasn't actually new so much as he was fresh - fresh off a redshirt year. He was itching to get back under center after playing in "Heisman Jim" Plunkett's shadow in 1968 and '69. In the absence of Plunkett, Ralston had no misgivings about the immediate future. And Bunce had no competition to speak of, as spirited practices began under the August sun. He was “The Man”. Thirty years later, Ralston would tell writer Dwight Chapin everything you needed know about Bunce. "Don was a very, very confident athlete...Good knowledge, doesn't get rattled, just hangs in there all the time." Bunce would, of course, later apply his cool to a post-football career as an orthopedic surgeon and Stanford team doctor for more than a decade.
The similarity in the makeup of the 1971 team compared to 2012 is unmistakable. So is the difference between them. Bunce's squad featured a ferocious, no-doubt-about-it defense bristling with future NFL types like DB Benny Barnes and DT Greg Sampson and had been a nationally prominent team the prior year. This year's Cardinal have a formidable defense, too, and a national reputation. But no trump card, so to speak, at quarterback. Not yet anyway. Indeed, as this article goes to BootPress, the starter remains unnamed. But no matter if the name is Nottingham, Nunes, or whoever, he will not bring the gravitas that Bunce did to the season opener. No knock, just fact.
Bunce had already made a name for himself as Plunkett's backup. He was clearly established as the heir apparent. People knew him and knew what he could do, despite the limited playing time. Something of which he made the most. One appearance in 1968, as a sophomore, against Washington in Seattle, augured well for the future. After Plunkett went down with bruised ribs after the first play in the second quarter, it was Bunce time. Throwing for three touchdowns, including an 80-yard bomb to Gene Washington, and then running for another, Bunce led his squad to a 35-21 win, leaving no doubt that there would be life after Plunkett.
Locals quaffing beer at the Dutch Goose on the eve of the '71 season still recalled Bunce's days at nearby Woodside High. And there was great optimism the night before Missouri game played in Columbia and unattended by the contingent at the Goose. A Paly High School alum who knew Bunce in high school would say, "He's not Plunkett, but he doesn't have to be. Just needs to be good enough. He's pretty good already. And the defense is going to be great." If this sounds similar to the railbird buzz during a Saturday morning practice in 2012, that's because it is – and was. Still, QB remains The Great Unknowable at this moment in the weeks before the season opener.
One observer scanning the rare open-to-the-public practice on this morning couldn't help but recall another pre-season workout, one in which there was no sound system booming a playlist of LSJUMB favorites (and back when all the practices were open). Nor was there a railbird attendance back then that you needed more than two hands to count. But he couldn't help thinking about that long-ago season as he watched this year's Stanford QB hopefuls struggle against fearsome defenders who conjured images of, well… the Thunderchickens.
"Hey, was that Shayne Skov or Mike Simone? Vaughters or Barnes? Hmm."
No longer does the old tire hang from a rope tied to the cross bar of a weathered goalpost. It would be jarringly out of place on the manicured practice field that now spreads west of Maples Pavilion. Quaint as it may seem today, there actually was such a regimen in effect decades ago. Quarterbacks would try to fire passes of varying distance through tricky pendulum swings as in some old movie with Pat O'Brien and Ronald Reagan. Today, where the goal post once stood, a stories-high movable platform equipped with dual video cameras and remote-control gear rolls in sync with the football drills. Better to appraise the accuracy of the arms. Still, the observer could only hope those arms prove as talented as the one drilling ball after ball dead-through the old Goodyear one afternoon to the cheers of a girlfriend and the good-natured heckling of teammates hanging around after practice to watch. It was impressive. Exactly what we're hoping for in the PLE. Just because it's a new deal doesn't mean it can't be a big one, too, right?
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