In a disappointing season, the red flags flew before the white one.
The warning signs existed prior to Stanford surrendering five straight losses in 1997. High preseason expectations gave way to a 4-1 start and a No. 16 ranking in the AP poll. But after being shut out in the second half by Mike Riley’s first edition, the Cardinal could exhale only when Greg Comella dragged two defenders with him into the end zone with 27 seconds left.
In a year where Stanford should have raised its game to new heights after its Sun Bowl breakthrough, this one raised only eyebrows. The narrow victory raised genuine concerns for a squad that cratered to a 5-6 finish after returning 14 starters and 35 lettermen.
“After today, it’s either a ‘W’ or an ‘L.’" Tyrone Willingham said after the Card’s only road win. “We got a ‘W.’ We are still on track to do the things we want to do.”
Oregon State “pretty much had sacked and stacked at will” until the final minutes, the Eugene Register-Guard said. To wit: Chad Hutchinson was sacked seven times, a year after the Beavers dropped him to their turf 11 times en route to a 26-12 upset. How do you excuse being physically manhandled by a program that went 7-55-1 in conference play between 1990 and 1997?
Special teams were special, as in Ralph Wiggum fashion, for the No. 21 Cardinal. Patrick Shinnefield subbed for Kevin Miller at placekicker; Oregon State blocked his second extra point. With Stanford leading 7-3 in the first quarter’s final seconds, John Sande’s snap sailed over Miller’s head. Failing to realize he had ample time to gather himself and kick it away, Miller instead retreated 30 yards out of the end zone for a safety.
Later, leading 13-11, Stanford drove 68 yards for a touchdown, culminating in a 14-yard pass from Hutchinson to Damon Dunn (a team-high catches for 48 yards). Shinnefield buried this point-after try, and the Cardinal stood 14 seconds away from entering halftime up by two possessions. If only it were that easy.
Miller, the only Stanford kicker with two last-second, game-winning field goals on his resume, kicked off deep. Deshawn Williams gladly took the dare and sprinted 96 yards for a touchdown. The Pac-10’s longest kickoff return that season cut the lead to 20-18 and lit a fire under Stanford’s downtrodden foe.
The Beavers (3-8, off an 0-8 1997 season) had yet to evolve from powder puff to powder keg. Wins in Corvallis would soon became elusive, as the Cardinal would drop four of its next five games there.
This day, however, both Mike Mitchell (18 carries, 102 yards) and Anthony Bookman (14-120) eclipsed 100 yards, the first time two Stanford backs had achieved that feat at once in six years.
The Cardinal defense did its best to hold serve, allowing only two Jose Cortez field goals in second half. Safety Than Merrill intercepted two passes in place of Tim Smith, lost for the season after tearing his ACL a week earlier at North Carolina.
But after going hurry-up to end the first half, Stanford’s conventional offense stalled throughout the final two quarters. The visitors’ last chance began on its own 22, now trailing 24-20 with 4:45 left to play.
Four straight completions to Troy Walters and a fourth-and-one sneak by Hutchinson had Stanford finally threatening. From the Beaver 38, seldom-used Jimmie Johnson turned his third career catch into a 25-yard gain to the Oregon State 13.
On fourth and two from the five, disaster nearly struck. Bookman sprinted off the field as the huddle broke, with Mitchell hustling in from the sidelines as the play clock wound down. Mitchell broke through the line for three yards and a fresh set of downs.
Several glaring statistics tell the story of Stanford’s offensive woes that year. Would you believe a talented and veteran-laden backfield finished ninth in the Pac-10 in rushing yards per game (118.7) and per carry (3.2)? Four times, Hutchinson averaged fewer than six yards per attempt.
Oregon State appeared to have this game in hand against Hutchinson (19-of-26, 171 yards). But Comella’s score accomplished the unlikely, which for an instant, wasn't such a bad thing.
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