September 2, 1995: The Inaugural Silicon Valley Classic (Attendance: 28,467)
Year One for Tyrone Willingham. "Year 2" for a renegade upstart Stanford football publication known as The Bootleg, the self-described "Unauthorized Authority on Cardinal Football".
"Imbalance", the very opposite of what a running back seeks while practicing his yards-seeking, defender-avoiding craft, defined Mike Mitchell's career in a Stanford uniform. Time spent on sideline recovering from an array of unfortunate injuries ultimately outweighed the more enjoyable moments for the highly-recruited running back phenom from Brophy Prep in Phoenix.
A mysterious ankle problem that plagued Mitchell's 1994 season comes immediately to mind. Ditto the double knee damage that occurred on a single tragic play, a dirty facemasking cheap shot during the historic 100th Big Game in 1997, won by Stanford we might add. One of the several frustrating setbacks in what would nevertheless be a fine college career was a dislocated elbow suffered in 1995's season opener at San Jose State. Yet another major buzz-kill. "It's the same thing," 'Mitch' said after the Cardinal's 47-33 victory at Spartan Stadium. "Accidents happen, a lot of them to me…My body was going one way and my elbow another. It wasn't a good thing for my elbow." After a big gainer, Mitchell suffered the blow while braking his fall at the Spartan two-yard line. Ouch. A few times over.
The Bay Area's football axis tilted heavily toward the pro side on Labor Weekend of 1995: The Raiders, led by one-time Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike White, played the franchise's first game back in Oakland. The 49ers began defense of their last Super Bowl title. And not unlike Mitchell's freak injury, the first Stanford-San Jose State meeting in San Jose since 1900 was at times, just plain ugly. Each side turned the ball over four times. Kevin Miller's first career punt was blocked and recovered for the Spartans' first touchdown. Eric Abrams flubbed an extra point. Some odd coaching moves by Stanford legend and then Spartan head coach John Ralston demonstrated why San Jose State Football, mired in its own imbalance of seven straight losing seasons, was stuck in a low gear.
As it turned out, the Cardinal got more than just its first season-opening victory since 1986. The program sought to regain composure and discipline when it hired Tyrone Willingham away from the Minnesota Vikings to replace a "retiring" Bill Walsh the previous December. Poise and guile would make the difference against San Jose State, a year after their inexplicable absence throughout so many key moments in 1994.
The Cardinal would produce 228 rushing yards, led by 133 from sophomore speedster Anthony Bookman (-"up-the-middle"), who also lost a fumble. The visitors from the "650" led 21-10 and 30-17 before scrappy San Jose State clawed to within 37-33 in the third quarter, thanks to a short touchdown run from current Serra High head coach Patrick Walsh. Local products like receiver Brian Lundy (St. Francis of Mountain View) and linebacker Jacob Malae (from Catholic powerhouse Bellarmine Prep in San Jose) had the sunny side rocking like it was 1986 at Spartan Stadium.
"We were kicking their butts in the first quarter," remarked sophomore Pete Swanson, the pass-rushing defensive end out of San Benito High in Hollister. "You could see the excitement drop, with the blocked punt and the fumble. I guess the biggest thing we have to take from this is to stay excited, no matter what." [Good philosophy!]
Just as last week's edition of "This Date in Cardinal Football" profiled the 1992 Pigskin Classic, a trend-setter for a '92 campaign in which for once it was Stanford's stout defense that paved the way to a winning season, the 1995 season-opener did the same for a once-again offensively-minded club. QB Mark Butterfield completed an efficient 13 of 23 throws for 188 yards and two long scores. The country-fed, drawl-sporting product of Antioch High went for 2,581 passing yards and 19 touchdowns (against only nine INTs) in the Liberty Bowl-bound season of 1995, a year in which he was inexplicably bypassed for first-team all-conference honors by a game, but inconsistent ASU junior by the name of Jake Plummer. "The Snake" passed for fewer yards, fewer TDs, and had a lower passing efficiency rating than "Butter." Whatever. So anyway, the inaugural "Silicon Valley Classic" against SJSU marked a satisfying start for the fifth-year senior signal-caller, who had been accused of participating in the notorious defamation of a gay liberation-themed statue a year earlier and had languished behind starter Steve Stenstrom and special Walsh project Scott Frost in his previous two seasons on the Farm. A transfer was heavy on his mind...until Walsh resigned, Frost packed his bags for Nebraska (where, in a far more appropriate offense, he would help lead the Huskers to a 1997 national championship), and the Kansas City Chiefs drafted "SuperSwede" Stenstrom in the fourth round of the 1995 NFL draft.. While Butterfield had only gotten into one game in 1994 (the tenth game against Oregon) he had thrown 51 passes going into 1995. That was exactly 51 more than his two primary competitors at the position in 1995: Tim Carey (who would transfer to Hawaii) and highly-regarded dual-sport recruit Chad Hutchinson, neither of which had been on the field at that point.
"I waited four years, and I did a decent job," he said. "I'd give myself a B, B-minus."
Two big plays marked a wild first quarter in the South Bay showdown. First, "The Reverend" Damon Dunn, an All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention selection in 1995, ran a kickoff back 91 yards for a score, the first of three kickoff returns for touchdowns for Stanford between 1995 and 1996. Then the strong-armed Butterfield went deep down the middle to connect with Brian "You The Man"-ning on a 54-yard touchdown. The Stanford offense was decidedly back in black, despite the presence of "offensive" offensive coordinator Dana Bible! In seven of 11 contests in 1995, the Cardinal would put up 28 points or more. Dunn and First Team Pac-10 All-Academic return-mate Marlon "Marlo" Evans combined to give Stanford the conference's most dangerous return tandem.
The sportswriters had Stanford ranked as high as No. 16 in the country after a surprising 4-0-1 start in 1995. Not since 1951 had the program achieved an unbeaten record after five games. Walsh's unfortunate swan song of 1994 (a sad and painful 3-7-1 finish) had featured three one-point losses and a demoralizing 41-41 tie against Northwestern that felt like a bad loss. Under the no-nonsense Willingham, the team would be more disciplined and tough. The Cardinal managed to hold on against San Jose State on this date in 1995, just as they would thwart late rally threats in big wins against Utah (Thanks you, Alistair White!), Arizona State and Cal. The Cardinal was Memphis-bound and The Bootleg was bound for some Beale Street BBQ and Blues!)
It all happened 13 years ago on "This Date in Cardinal Football"!
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