Remnants of a wintry Pacific storm hung over foes battered by a season of turbulence. While threatening skies deterred many fans from subjecting themselves to foes with three wins combined, they couldn’t stop Darrin Nelson’s charge through the record books.
Saturday marks the anniversary of Nelson surpassing Tony Dorsett to become the NCAA’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards. Needing only 78 yards to break the legendary Pitt Panther’s mark of 6,615, Nelson collected 197 yards from scrimmage. He ran for two scores in a first half that finished with the Card holding a 28-0 advantage.
When it was over, his teammates did the right thing. They carried him off the field, the last time a Stanford player was given such an honor. Nelson said he was oblivious to the record that led to the gesture.
“As usual, I had no idea at the time what was going on,” he said by email this week. “I do remember hearing about breaking the record after the game was over, however. I was a big Tony Dorsett fan and I felt honored to be in the same conversation about anything football related and him.”
He caught six passes against Oregon for 60 yards, adding 122 yards rushing and 15 yards worth of punt returns. He outgained the Ducks by himself (Stanford held them to 164 total yards), despite exiting early in the fourth quarter.
Offensive coordinator Jim Fassel gave Nelson free reign to pursue his receiving talents in 1981. Nelson enjoyed “the most fun I think I have ever had playing offense,” earning the most catches (67) for a Stanford player since Gene Washington’s then-school record 71 grabs in 1968.
But the good times were in short supply for both the Card (who finished 4-7) and Ducks (2-9) that season. Stanford succeeded only at the gate. Other than the 36,000 and change on hand for the Oregon game, no home date drew fewer than 52,000 fans.
Consecutive winning records in conference play – a first since the mid-’50s in Eugene – had the Ducks thinking Rose Bowl heading into the year. Oregon then plummeted in what was supposed to be a breakthrough fifth season for coach Rich Brooks, who summed up the first two quarters against Stanford as “the worst 30 minutes of football we played this season.”
The record officially fell on a seven-yard punt return in the second quarter, bringing fans to their feet. In the dressing room at halftime, players and coaches feted Nelson with extended cheers and applause.
So what became of Nelson’s mark? It’s been broken five times since, first by Navy tailback Napoleon McCallum (7,172) in 1985. Tulsa receiver/return specialist Damaris Johnson (7,796 from 2008-2010) currently holds the record, while Nelson (6,685) sits 14 slots behind him.
“I honestly believe I played 11 years in the NFL because I was taught to be good at everything. That included running, pass catching and blocking,” Nelson said. “Bill (Walsh) insisted on it and I learned.”
Nov. 12, 2011: Oregon 53, Stanford 30
Had any of those absent factors appeared in this historic showdown, would it have made a difference? Would No. 4 Stanford, with its 17-game winning streak and national championship hopes at stake, have defeated the No. 7 Ducks because of one more capable defender? Or just one seasoned receiver who could stretch the field? Or cleats that agreed with the newly installed turf? We can only wonder.
Instead, the Ducks put on a clinic, capitalizing on Stanford’s injury woes and five turnovers. Oregon translated some crooked numbers into Stanford’s demise:
- Oregon went three and out on its first two drives. Jackson Rice punted once thereafter.
- LaMichael James’ first three carries resulted in minus-4 yards. He finished with 146 yards and three scores on 20 attempts, solidifying his place (528 yards, seven touchdowns in three games against Stanford) in Card-killing infamy.
- Stanford allowed minus-1 yard of offense at the end of one quarter. It trailed 8-0.
- The Ducks failed to convert a single third-down conversion after the first period.
- Oregon, so famous for exhausting defenses, ran just 63 plays from scrimmage.
But cheer up, Cardinal-maniacs. Four years later, your chance for redemption is at hand. Hopes for a Heisman, a national title and an undefeated Pac-12 record remain alive. But will the Ducks again warp the stats, buck the trends and win the day? We can do more that wonder. We will soon find out.
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