History Lessons: Biggest upset ever, redefined
The longtime feud between history and the youth who scoff at it took a unique turn 20 years ago this month.
How would Arizona State players approach the first game on Frank Kush Field? With extreme ignorance. The fiery coach honored before ASU faced No. 1 Nebraska had long since earned admiration from the 1996 Sun Devils’ biggest star. You just wouldn’t know it, judging by a pregame speech Jake Plummer gave.
“Who is this old guy? Who is this coach none of us have ever played for?” Plummer said, quoting an address about a coach with 176 career wins in Tempe. “I knew Frank, and I had mad respect for him. But my whole point was to emphasize that it was our turn, our time to do something special.”
Years after he became an all-time Stanford foil, Plummer gushes over the foe he beat three times and victimized for five career touchdown passes. “I’m now big fan of the Cardinal. They have the most pure running back in the country at all levels,” he said. “I wanted to go to Stanford, but they signed Scott Frost.”
And just as Kush earned the statue unveiled outside Sun Devil Stadium that night, the achievement Plummer led over Frost’s Cornhuskers deserves special mention 20 years later.
Arizona State’s 19-0 win stopped Nebraska’s regular season win streak at 37 games. Not since 1973 had Tom Osborne been shut out in the regular season. The aftermath featured a postgame parade through Tempe, with goalposts Plummer’s two older brothers helped bring down. The scenes reminded head coach Bruce Snyder why moving from Berkeley to Tempe four years earlier did far more than double his salary.
Beyond all that, while beating 12 returning starters from what some called , the Sun Devils redefined two terms.
A “great upset” conjures images of last-second finishes, or overmatched opponents toppling arrogant favorites, or . Arizona State put a new spin on an old reliable. Never before or since has an underdog delivered such punishment. While recording three safeties against the 24-point favorites, the Sun Devils held the two-time defending national champs to 130 rushing yards (nearly 300 below the Huskers’ per-game average the year before).
“Parity” refers to landscape where ordinary erases legendary. ASU’s 11-0 finish and most recent Rose Bowl berth occurred during an unmatched stretch of Pac-10 equality. In the ten seasons between Washington’s first without Don James (1993) and USC’s last before Pete Carroll began a run of national title games (2002), seven schools took turns winning the conference. But from this era emerged only one dominant group who took legit national championship hopes into bowl season.
The 1996 Sun Devils became just the sixth team since World War II to roll through a regular season in what we now call the Pac-12 undefeated and untied. Oregon’s 2010 edition is the only non-USC side to do that since (“We would out-physical Oregon but have our hands full with Stanford,” was how Plummer compared his side to today’s best). Theirs was a unique chemistry, forged where expendables outnumbered blue-chip prep standouts.
Juan Roque stood out for reasons beyond his 6-foot-8, 315-pound frame. The massive left tackle was the roster’s only high school star coveted by big names (he committed to USC and entertained Nebraska). Plummer’s only other offer came from Washington State. Star defensive lineman Derrick Rodgers played trumpet in high school, not football. The leading receiver, undersized Keith Poole may have struggled to start on Kush’s best teams.
“It may have been the most fun I’ve had covering a team,” former Los Angeles Times national college football writer Chris Dufesne said. “I must have seen them six times. I got real interested in the team after the Nebraska game.”
An opening-night win over Washington, that year’s Pac-10 runner-up, came on last-second field goal. They won 48-35 in overtime over USC. The Sun Devils spotted UCLA a 21-7 lead before Plummer accounted for five touchdowns (three passing, one rushing and receiving). But other than three close shaves, nobody came close.
Rarely has a visit from a Top 5 opponent inspired less energy from the Stanford faithful. The Cardinal’s 1996 season hit rock bottom (2-5 after the 41-9 loss). No. 4 Arizona State spent little time removing hope from the 32,000 fans on hand. As ASU stormed to a 21-3 lead, Poole caught seven passes for 106 yards…in the first quarter.
“The Nebraska game was our announcement, our signature game that showed we had arrived,” Plummer said. “But if you asked me then, I wanted to play Notre Dame, Florida State, Florida, all those guys. I knew we were good enough to beat them.”
A year earlier, Arizona State left Nebraska with revenge intents far beyond a 77-28 loss. As the Sun Devils’ trip home began with a march from the visitors’ locker room, some of the Big Red faithful took a sympathetic route. Midwestern-accented calls of “good game, good effort” and “better luck next year” sounded more insincere with each passing month.
The anger continued as the rematch approach. Hours before kickoff, buses taking the Arizona State players to Sun Devil Stadium dodged hordes of Nebraska fans. Select members of the home team, Plummer among them, erupted behind tinted glass over a setting that “felt like Lincoln.”
But for Cornhuskers before loyal fans by the thousands, the comfort level went no higher. Arizona State defensive coordinator Phil Snow devised a scheme meant to isolate an inexperienced quarterback. Frost (10 completions on 28 attempts for 35 yards) was buried under a heap of blitzes, disguised coverages and seven-man fronts.
Arizona State handed the future UCF head coach some serious déjà vu. A Stanford safety on the same field two years earlier, Frost couldn’t stop Plummer from converting four fourth-downs in a drive that produced a last-second field goal.
“Maybe he was the next Tommie Frazier, we didn't know,” . “But we decided that we wanted to take everybody else away and see if Scott Frost could beat us.''
Arizona State scored the only points it needed on its first drive. From the 25, Plummer scrambled, back-pedaled, then side-armed a strike to a wide open Poole over the middle in the end zone. The resulting eruption of noise from the sellout crowd never let up throughout the 91-degree night.
Dufresne’s first visit to Tempe that season was to profile Plummer after the Nebraska win. While waiting outside sports information director Mark Brand’s office, he met another of the team’s starters.
“There was this kid sitting in the chair, reading a magazine. He looked like a surfer,” he said. “One of the ASU people came in and said something like, ‘Jake’s on his way. Oh, I see you’ve met Pat Tillman.’ I didn’t know who he was then, other than a skinny safety playing linebacker. We would all get to know Pat better in the future.”
The untimely deaths of Tillman and his head coach (cancer claimed Snyder in 2009) give perspective to the ’96 Sun Devils’ other losses.
A storybook season ended with . That left the following night’s Sugar Bowl to decide the national title. The outcome had the entire Phoenix area in mourning and prompted euphoria 2,000 miles away. At the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, Florida Gator fans sprang from their rooms and formed a conga line through the lobby.
The Gators turned their good fortune into a runaway win over Florida State and years of rueful memories for Sun Devils far and wide. Arizona State came that close to claiming an undisputed national championship.
Arizona State held a 20-year reunion earlier this month, reuniting 45 old teammates. The statement game of their legendary season will live on forever, or until the next great Sun Devil team acts too busy to appreciate it.
A rare breed: Pac-12 teams with unbeaten/untied regular seasons
Team Year Regular season record
Cal 1920 8-0
Stanford 1926 10-0
Washington State 1930 9-0
USC 1932 9-0
Stanford 1940 9-0
Cal 1948 10-0
UCLA 1954 9-0
USC 1962 10-0
USC 1972 11-0
Washington 1991 11-0
Arizona State 1996 11-0
USC 2004 11-0*
USC 2005 12-0#
Oregon 2010 12-0
*Two wins vacated by NCAA
# Twelve wins vacated by NCAA
Cal: 1920, 1948
Southern Cal: 1932, 1962, 1972, 2004, 2005
Stanford: 1926, 1940