Pigskin Flashback: October 13, 1979
Stanford 21, U$C 21
Evoking images of days long past, a raucous crowd of 76,067 gathered at a modern-day Coliseum in Southern California to witness a classic clash of gridiron gladiators. A lightly-regarded Stanford Cardinal team had traveled to LAs Memorial Mausoleum to take on the top-ranked U$C Trojans, who were being trumpeted by SoCal-friendly sportswriters as "The Team of the Century". $C was strutting around town, having just come off a dominating 12-1 season in 1978 that included a hard-fought 13-7 victory over bowl-bound Stanford and ended with a Co-National Championship shared with the Alabama Crimson Tide. The "Sinister Sons of South Central" had won 13 straight games and were listed as 22-point favorites. The spectators expected a battle with blood, most of it ours. SC was expected to smoke us guys. UPI All-West Coast defensive tackle Chuck Evans was not so easily impressed. Stanfords PALO Club Bay Area Lineman of the Year, who would later play in East-West, Blue-Gray and Japan Bowl all-star games, gave a characteristic assessment of the 22-point spread, suggesting that the bookies "take their odds and shove em!" (We like it!)
4th-year Trojan coach "Sir John of Polyester" Robinson was already 3-0 vs. the Cardinal and his famed "50" defenses had given up a grand total of 7 points in the previous two meetings. The Cardinals last trip to the Coliseum two years earlier was still a painful memory to those who had witnessed the unprecedented 49-0 pummeling in 1977. To this day, it remains the most lopsided loss in the 96-year-old series between the two schools.
In that notorious 77 romp, Trojan tailback nonpareil Charles "White Lines" White, whose body fat in college reportedly reached as low as 1.9% and whom SC coach John Robinson had called "the most competitive athlete Ive ever seen in my life", ran for 126 yards on just 16 carries before yielding to two other Trojan backs who would each run up 100-yard-plus days of their own! All part of a ridiculous 453-yard rushing performance by $C. No, unfortunately that is not a typo! For comparison purposes, that is more than double the Cardinals "impressive" rushing output this past Saturday against the Solar Satans of ASU). Freshman phenom Darrin Nelson was held to just 27 yards on 10 carries that day as the Cardinal was eliminated from the Rose Bowl race.
Mr. White, however, was far from finished with us. In 1978, a year in which he would finish 4th in the Heisman voting, the seemingly invincible #12 ground his way for another 201 yards on 38 carries and 3 TDs against the Cardinal, with his trademark long white towel hanging off his belt. However, this time it would be no cakewalk. A resilient Stanford had come out strong, with NCAA passing champion Steve Dils hitting Ken Margerum for a 13-yard TD on the opening drive. Unfortunately, that would be all she wrote offensively. A Darrin Nelson option pass was intercepted in the end zone, ending Stanfords only other serious scoring opportunity. As was so agonizingly typical of our 1970s scuffles with the terrifically talented Trojans, Stanford was unable to manage a single first down in the third quarter. A desperate, last ditch effort by Dils on the Cardinals final possession, a completion to TE Marty Smith on 4th & 11, came up a yard short.
For 1979, the Trojans would return seven starters on offense and eight on defense from an impressive Pac-10 championship squad. Southern Cal would again lead the conference, as they had in 1977 and 1978, in both rushing offense and rushing defense. That, my friends, is dominance. Simply put, White was a serious bad-ass. In his final season in 79, Charlie averaged 186.4 yards a game, 6.2 yards a carry, led the nation in rushing, and, for the second straight season, led it in all-purpose running as well! He became U$Cs third Heisman-winner, finishing his amazing four-year career as the NCAAs second-leading career rusher with 5,598 regular season yards (behind only Tony Dorsett). He was even chosen over Orenthal, Mike Garrett and Marcus Allen as the "tailback" selection on the Trojans "All-Century Team". A two-year unanimous All-American, White set or equaled 22 NCAA, Pac-10, U$C and Rose Bowl records. Whats more, he would later moonlight as a celebrity combatant on American Gladiators (hey, before you get all high and mighty fellow Farmers, please note that one-time Card defensive tackle and Olympic-caliber rubber band gun marksman Dean "Son of Snate" Wilson once made an appearance on, of all things, The Gong Show! Surely, that must answer the question of "how low can you go?"
U$C. The University of Spoiled Children. We started scrimmaging these Trojan Trash-Talkers back in 1905, the year Stanford coach James "Father" Lanagan led the Cardinal to an unbeaten 8-0 mark, outscoring overwhelmed opponents 138-13, only to have football banned by the LSJU administrators as being "too rough" and replacing it with rugby the next year! We did not like SC. Not then, not now.
Why did we hate SC back then? For the same reasons they bother us today. We hated their arrogance, we hated their colors, we hated the horse. Perhaps most of all we hated their military band. Actually, when it comes down purely to football, we have always had more than ample reason. Troy ruled, we didnt. Of course it might also be mentioned that we traditionally required our "studentathletes" to be "students". They didnt. The fact that we still point this out to their alumni at every opportunity serves as the very foundation of their acerbic attitude toward LSJU. The time-honored tradition of ill-will between the two storied football programs heated up after the 1928 encounter in which the dirty Trojans shut out the two-time defending Rose Bowl representative Cardinal 10-0, however the one-sided nature of the rivalry from that point on became particularly annoying in the early 1930s when legendary Trojan coach Howard Jones and his "Thundering Herd" dominated college football, winning 75% of their games during Jones reign from 1925-1940, including National Championships in 1928, 1931, and 1932. To put the "rivalry" in perspective, the Stanford Cardinal, or "Indians" as the team gloriously would be known from 1930 to 1972, had put together its own impressive winning tradition, posting a magnificent mark of 33-8-4 from 1928-32 before coach Pop Warner decided to take a pass on Palo Alto and become head coach at Temple. During those five otherwise superlative Stanford seasons, USC unleashed guys like Gus Shaver, Ernie Smith, Orv Mohler, Tay Brown and Ernie Pinckert to trounce the Tribe five straight times, including four shameful shut-outs. Perhaps now Cardinalmaniacs can more fully appreciate why we give our beloved "Vow Boys" such well-deserved glory! After watching Stanfords upper-classmen get worked over, the brave band of "Pigskin Promise-KeepersÔ " vowed as freshmen never to lose to SC. In three valiant years on the varsity from 1933-35, they kept their collective word, stingily surrendering just 7 points in 3 games! [Note: Coach Tiny Thornhills 35 Vow Boys senior year squad gave up all of 13 points for the entire season!] The Indians were West Coast footballs "second fiddle".
At the time, insiders felt that at least part of Pop Warners decision to leave the Farm after the 32 season resulted from his belief that Stanford, with its far more demanding academic requirements, would be unable to compete consistently with a pure football factory like Southern Cal, that great institution of higher learning The Genius would later refer to as "that Great Think Tank on Figueroa". Ironically, it would be in part the fear of getting talented recruits past the admissions department that would influence Rod Dowhowers surprise decision to take a job as the offensive coordinator of the NFLs Denver Broncos following the 79 season
So to get back to our 1979 game story: On that clear and seemingly unpromising Saturday at the Coliseum, White would bust loose, as expected, for a personal best 221 yards on 32 carries, a demoralizing 162 coming in first half alone, taking "28 Pitch" (aka "Student Body Right") from all-conference QB Paul McDonald, and running behind future 1981 Heisman trophy-winner Marcus Allen and three mammoth all-American linemen and future NFL stars in Brad Budde, Roy Foster and Keith Van Horne. Oh, and hey, why not throw in a first-team all-conference tight end in Hoby Brenner? Their second-string TE made honorable mention all-conference that season, for Fasanis sake!
At the half, it was 21-0, just as it had been two years before. As Yogi would say, "it was deja vu all over again!" In 77 Troy had come out in the second half and promptly tacked on 3 more TDs in the third quarter as the contest rapidly regressed from bad to ugly in front of 65,000+. As the team came out of the locker room, it had to be in the back of the coaches minds that Stanford had scored but one measly touchdown in its previous 10 quarters against Troy! Who would think we had a shot in Sparta of coming back from a 21-0 halftime deficit against mighty Southern Cal, the so-called "Team of the Century"?
Turk Schonert, thats who. Inspired by Coach Rod Dowhowers half-time locker room reference to the Cardinals courageous comeback from 0-25 against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Blue Bonnet Bowl the previous year, Stanford came out fighting as Turk capped an outstanding 80-yard drive with a 19-yard TD toss to freshman tailback Mike Dotterer, who literally dove over Trojan defensive back and current Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher at the goal line. Six minutes into the second half, we were on the board. 21-7. Do you believe in miracles? Yes! Charles White fumbled on the next possession. Stanford ball! With 12:23 left in the game, Turk then found flanker Ken Margerum all by himself after a quick body fake in the right corner of the end zone to make it 21-14. Kenny managed to complete his trademark Pigskin PirouetteÔ celebration before tackle Brian Holloway lifted him into the air with a massive bear hug. On the afternoon, Margerum, the 61" 175-pound consensus All-American and Northern California Athlete of the Year, snared 6 catches for 104 yards, one of the rare 100-yard performances against a proud U$C defense boasting not one, but two first-team all-conference linebackers in Riki Gray (Ellison) and Dennis Johnson and not one, but two alleverything secondary studs in Dennis Smith and the incomparable Ronnie Lott.
The Trojans were immediately forced to kick again by an inspired Cardinal defense. Schonert started going to work. The $C defense started looking a little tired. Robinson started looking a lotta worried. On 3rd & 1 from the USC 33, Schonert found Margerum for 13 yards and a first down at the $C 20. Turk then threw incomplete to Andre Tyler in triple coverage at the 3. Another misfire. Out of the shotgun, Vincent White swept right for nine yards, a great call as the Trojans were expecting "pass" all the way, but the Cardinal was still a yard short. On 4th & 1, Dowhower elected to go for it.
Mike Dotterers dad had wanted his son to go to Harvard. Mike wanted to go to Harvard.
Stanford receivers coach Jim Fassel, current head coach of the New York Giants, had other plans. An effective hour-long recruiting pitch by Fassel over burgers and shakes at Naugles ("the McDonalds of Huntington Beach") convinced "Dot" that with the season-scuttling hamstring injury to Darrin Nelson, he would have a real shot at substantial early playing time. "Dad, I think I want to go to Stanford".
Dotterer had grown up idolizing Hall of Shamer O.J. Simpson and was all about the Trojans as a kid, even wearing #32 in honor of "The Juice". Note: O.J.s only criminal acts up to that time were of a "grammatical nature". Dashing his dreams, Southern Cal had not shown any interest whatsoever in recruiting the one-time Orange County Back of the Year. An administrative vice principal and playground monitor at Mikes Edison high school, a huge Trojan fan, had gone as far as to tell him "I dont think you can even play in the Pac-10". Suffice it to say, Dot had a sizable chip on his shoulder.
So facing a critical 4th & 1 and being down by a touchdown to his boyhood heroes, Dotterer took a reverse toss to his left and immediately fumbled the ball, several yards deep in the backfield. Thousands of Cardinal hearts went immediately into full Card-iac arrestÔ ! With a harrowing host of Trojans coming his way with murderous intent, #24 reached down, and fumbled it again, but then quickly grabbed it back up off the turf, changed direction in a flash and in a lurching scamper desperately outran the pursuit and dove just far enough for the critical first down. Former Card QB and 72 Rose Bowl hero Don Bunce, doing guest color for the Cardinal television broadcast that day, blurted out what we were all thinking:"Holy Smoke, I almost fell out of the press box!" Today, Dotterer remembers that play well: "I was running for my frickin life! When you see Dennis Smith and Ronnie Lott coming at you salivating, you do a 180 and go the other way! It was instinctual, I was thinking: I cant lose yardage! As I came over to the sideline after the play, Coach Dowhower and [running backs coach] Al Lavan were standing with their hands on their hips and their heads down and I could tell exactly what they were thinking: OH MY GOD, WHERE IS DARRIN? "
Authors Note: Due to the "certain disaster turned miracle" nature of the play, the nail-biting anxiety of the do-or-die game-tying final scoring drive, and the historical context of a single desperate yard costing the "Team of the Century" a national championship, this determined first down dive ranks among my personal all-time favorite plays in more than 35 years of watching Stanford football:
Armed with a fresh set of downs, Schonert overthrew fullback Jim Brown in heavy coverage, a ball that could have easily been intercepted. Not that day! On 2nd & 10, Turk rolled left with excellent protection, but couldnt see anyone open. He started forward, slowed and then bought himself half a second with a convincing arm-cocking fake before scrambling ten yards up the middle to tie the score 21-21 with 4:33 left to play. In a memory that will last a lifetime, Schonert held the ball in one hand defiantly above his head as he crossed the goal line in glorious triumph! "Turk the Jerk" no more!
SC seemed to have plenty of time, but on a 2nd & 8, Paul McDonald, the leading passer in the country at the time, had his pass was picked off by Stanfords Rick Parker. The Cardinal took over again, but the USC defense held with 0:53 left in the game. Out came junior place-kicker Ken Naber. The native of Cincinnati, OH had already had a productive day, kicking 3 PATs and averaging an incredible 46.4 yards on his 4 punts (hard-core Cardinalmaniacs may recall that Naber, best remembered for his heroic field goals, was also named first-team all-conference as a punter!) Naber, who had beaten UCLA with a dramatic 56-yard field goal on the final play the week prior, tried to have lightening strike for the second consecutive week, but alas, his 53-yard attempt with 38 seconds left was foiled by a high snap. The kick barely made it to the end zone on a couple of bounces. What many forget is that Dowhower had let Schonert sneak right on a quarterback keeper on third down and he had been sacked for a seven-yard loss, making to potential game-winner significantly less likely. The #1-ranked Trojans were not conceding a tie though and drove quickly from their own 36 to the Stanford 22 to put themselves in position to win the game with a relatively routine FG on the final play.
True freshman linebacker and special teams standout Gary Wimmer of Boise, ID had had a rough day. Pumped with the normal excessive adrenaline of a first-year kid playing defending national co-champion USC in front of a huge Coliseum crowd, he had come roaring up the field to form a wedge on an early kick return in the first half. SC was ready for him: "Four of the biggest guys I had ever seen came right at me." BOOOM!
He was literally knocked unconscious! Tore his sternum, broke the facemasks connection to his helmet, and tore out the laces in his shoulder pads. Ouch! Later in the first half and in at linebacker, Gary had the audacity to tip Trojan All-American lineman Roy Foster over on a sweep play. Foster got up, went over to the pile at the sideline, reached in and grabbed Wimmer by the belt of his pants and slammed #58 on the turf like a rag doll. Flags flew everywhere, but Foster had made his point. Understandably, Wimmer doesnt really remember the rest of the first half.
Gordon Banks, known to teammates as "Tiny" or "Bullet", would later spend time with the USFLs Bay Invaders and the Dallas Cowboys. Today, he is the "Reverend Gordon Banks" and living in Texas. A 4.4 speedster in an era that didnt have a lot of guys running legit 4.4s, he line up outside of Wimmer as USC kicker Eric Hipp lined up for the attempt at a 39-yard game-winner. Wimmer, who was just about to log the most memorable of the 80 minutes of action he would see in 1979, had trained closely with Banks on kick-blocking, frequently foiling Stanfords own field goal attempts in practice. Twenty-two years later it is still fresh in his mind: "My job was to draw the end down, to draw as many guys as I could so Gordy could get in there. Man, he was fast! Actually, we both got through on that one and I can still remember that when he blocked it, there was a loud "THUMP" and there it was [the ball]. It just wouldnt come our way- it kept bouncing away and there was nobody there! [to stop him]. It was right there!" He would get plenty of amicable abuse from his teammates and friends for not getting a handle on the ball and taking it to the house!
Final Score: Stanford 21, #1 USC 21
It was our third tie in the series, but this was no sister-kisser! SC knew they had lost. We gave up 295 yards rushing, but had countered with 409 yards of offense against a proud SC defense. Turk "The Old Man" Schonert was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week and Sports Illustrateds National Offensive Player of the Week for his triumphant performance, silencing his many Elway-intoxicated critics for the time being.
Why didnt we go for two-point conversion? Dowhower (today the offensive coordinator of the NFLs Philadelpia Eagles) had discussed the exact scenario with his assistants prior to the game. The coaches figured there were still five conference games left and U$C still had a tough road game in Seattle. As it turns out, the Trojans took out their frustration on the rest of their scheduled opponents. Charles White would rush 44 times for 261 yards the following weekend against Notre Dame in (South Bend) and incredibly another 44 times for 198 more against Cal the week after that. We would suffer a stunning, season-souring blow in Corvallis to a 21-point underdog! But all that matters twenty-two years later? We royally screwed up SCs otherwise unblemished 1979 season and cost them a National Championship. Enough said.