Stanford football, 1994: No Cardinal season has ever combined the hope of such high expectations with the agony of such disappointing results.
Ranked No. 25 coming into its season opener, Stanford crashed in a heap of heartbreaking losses (three by one point), defensive breakdowns (six foes scored 30 or more points) and missed last-second field goals (Eric Abrams, Northwestern, UCLA, enough said). Bill Walsh resigned in disgrace. Attendance soon plummeted. The program took years to regain lost credibility.
But for one fleeting, glorious and soggy afternoon, it all came together.
The Cardinal (2-5-1 coming in) didn’t just beat the No. 12 Huskies for the first time since John Elway, ending a streak of 10 straight losses. Stanford beat Washington into submission, holding the ball for 18:17 of the second half while collecting 262 rushing yards for the game. The outburst marked the most points a Husky team ever allowed to Stanford.
“We were due,” Walsh said afterwards. “After all those games, close games where we outgained our opposition and outplayed them virtually the whole game only to lose, we were due. It finally happened and we’re ecstatic.”
But true to its season-long theme, disappointment lurked. Steve Stenstrom broke the pinky finger on his throwing hand late in the second quarter while scoring on a six-yard option run, of all things. “Somebody landed on me,” he explained. “After all the bullets I’ve dodged in four years, it’s ironic this little thing knocks me out of the game.” It would be the last play of his Stanford career, cutting short a season in which he surpassed Elway as the school’s all-time leading passer.
Enter Oregon’s current offensive coordinator.
Scott Frost had only experienced a few cameos in nearly two full seasons as Stenstrom’s understudy. Against the Huskies, in his first extended action, he rose to a level Walsh surely imagined when he lured the athletic quarterback from Nebraska the previous year.
Frost rushed for 88 yards, protecting a 29-25 halftime lead and keeping the lid on any hopes of a Washington comeback. Stanford tallied 230 yards of offense and 13 rushing first downs in the second half alone. A 12-yard touchdown run from Anthony Bookman (119 yards on the ground) late in the fourth quarter provided a fitting clincher.
“Scott came out running like a madman,” explained Eliel Swinton, then a sophomore safety. “He is a madman. Even if someone is open, sometimes he'll run. That's his thing.”
Despite the steady rain, the contest unfolded as a wild showcase of offense. Paced by Damon Huard, Napoleon Kauffman and a defense filled with holdovers from the Don James era, the Huskies led 17-14 at the end of the first period – and 43 points were still to come. Would you believe Washington was only six weeks removed from ending Miami’s 58-game home winning streak?
“We pulled it all together. We played well and we got our share of the breaks,” Frost explained.
Nov. 8, 1924: Stanford 30, Utah 0
The first all-time meeting between the pair occurred under strange circumstances.
Just days before Stanford was to play at USC, a feud between the schools – “a series of unpleasant disagreements,” The Daily Palo Alto reported – resulted in the game’s cancellation. Stanford claimed the Trojans featured ineligible players. [Ed: And Reggie Bush was still 80 years away…] Fans waited patiently for game and train ticket refunds. (Southern Pacific’s advertised fare from Palo Alto to Los Angeles was $21.50, or $289.63 in today’s money.) Stanford made arrangements to face a new opponent in an even more unlikely setting.
Utah arrived from Salt Lake City to play that year’s eventual Pacific Coast Conference champions… in Berkeley. Stanford Stadium was already booked to host the “Little Big Game” between the Cal and Stanford freshmen teams. Thus, Stanford’s first all-time win in Strawberry Canyon occurred not versus the Golden Bears, but against the “Mormons,” as they were described in newspaper accounts of the era.
“Stanford is favored to win,” wrote The Deseret News, “but the fast Mormon team (is) expected to furnish stiff competition.”
The return of an all-time great from injury made the contest significant from the Stanford angle. Ernie Nevers played the first three quarters, his first action after breaking his ankle two months prior. The 205-pound fullback weighed more than all but one of the offensive linemen on that season’s All-American team. He broke his other ankle the next week against Montana, before famously playing the entire 1925 Rose Bowl loss to Notre Dame despite the injuries. Stanford fell after outgaining the Irish by a 316-186 margin. That hurts.
But it takes a great team to reach Pasadena, and Pop Warner (71 wins, still tops for a Stanford coach) had built a powerhouse by his second season. Stanford brought a 5-0 record into the game. A 20-20 tie in the Big Game marked the regular season’s only blemish. Stanford went 10-0-1 without Nevers the next year, winning the program’s only national title a decade before the Associated Press launched its poll.
Stanford toyed with the visitors, holding a 9-0 lead entering the fourth quarter. Utah never crossed the Cards’ 45-yard-line. “Throughout the contest,” The Daily Palo Alto wrote, “it seemed as if Stanford was just having a good workout.”
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