This Date in Cardinal Football: September 17, 1977
31 years ago today, a feeling of desperation began to form around 45-year-old first-year head coach Bill Walsh's Stanford squad Back when Peninsula moviegoers could catch Star Wars or Kentucky Fried Movie at the Old Mill Six in Mountain View for $1.50, the Cardinals (yes, "Cardinals" as we were still allowed to call them in '77) were in great need of a Hollywood ending.
In front of a fairly decent crowd of 30,482 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Walsh watched as host Tulane held on to a 17-6 lead early in the fourth quarter of its evening home opener. A fierce Green Wave pass rush had just forced Stanford's All-American quarterback Guy Benjamin, who would go on lead the nation in passing in 1977, to throw incomplete on 4th & Goal from the 5. The Dome's throng got even louder moments later, when bootlegging Wave QB Roch Hontas rambled 30 yards into the Cardinals' secondary. Senior free safety Ralph Phillips corralled Hontas and tore the Tulane sophomore quarterback's jersey. Officials sent Hontas to the Tulane sideline to grab a replacement. He would miss the next play because of the torn top.
Cue the scriptwriters. Behold, the springboard to a 9-3 season: A tear-away jersey.
Managing just two field goals from freshman kicker Ken Naber (the first two of his outstanding career - impressively from 47 & 46 yards), Stanford's high-octane offense had failed to get into the endzone as the fourth quarter began. Buoyed by a fateful turn of events, LSJU would score 15 unanswered points in the final period to steal a 21-17 win. Bill Walsh won his first game as a college head coach. Stanford had its confidence-restoring tonic to ease the pain of a season-opening 27-21 loss at No. 5 Colorado a week earlier.
"We're almost fortunate to win," Walsh said. "I say 'almost' because we did come back strong in the second half."
The one play Tulane was forced to run without Hontas ended up being a fateful one. When back-up Tommy Hightower and fullback Bill Kramer bobbled the handoff, Stanford's Ray Cardinalli, a four-year starter at linebacker during his days on the Farm, was right there to pounce on the loose pigskin. Benjamin would soon complete the short 33-yard drive with a 13-yard touchdown to freshman phenom Darrin Nelson, one the senior Heisman Trophy candidate's 's 19 touchdown passes on the year. The successful two-point conversion toss went to tight end Mitch Pleis, and the Cardinals were down only 17-14.
Mediocre squads like Army, Illinois and San Jose State could be found among the Stanford's nonconference losses in preceding years. The Cardinals had indeed been drowsy in recent Septembers, going 4-10-2 playing outside of the Pac-8 since starting the 1972 season unbeaten after three games. Tulane would finish 3-8 in a 1977 season in which a 24-14 triumph over LSU in the Sun Bowl capped Stanford's outstanding 9-3 campaign.
"Getting behind against teams we should beat is a Stanford tradition," Benjamin said at the time. "It's a tradition we're hoping we can break."
And break it they would. The defense forced a quick three-and-out, and the Cards were back in business once Benjamin and Nelson hooked up on a 23-yard screen pass. Two plays after James Lofton gained 10 yards on an end-around, the winning touchdown came when the future NFL Hall of Fame receiver came up with a 16-yard catch in the end zone with 4:18 left in the game. Stanford improved to a perfect 5-0 all-time against Tulane.
Benjamin completed 14 of 17 passes in the second half. His first pass of the game didn't come until the second quarter, and Tulane intercepted that offering. "Guy really hasn't had a great game yet," Walsh told the Stanford Daily postgame. "He played well, but not up to his own expectations or ours." The senior would eventually translate sky-high expectations into a consensus All-American season, the Wiseman Trophy, and a sixth-place finish in the Heisman voting. Benjamin would throw for 2,521 yards that year with a Pac-8-leading passing rating of 87.0, earning him Co-Conference Player of the Year. Among Div. I signal-callers in 1977, only Doug Williams of Grambling (3,286) would compile more passing yardage.
"Our players were talking shutout (before the game). But (Tulane) had more desire in the first half." said a relieved linebacker Gordy Ceresino after making 23 tackles. "At halftime, I said that talk was cheap and it was time for us to start speaking with our play instead of words."
This would be the first of four consecutive Stanford-Tulane contests. The red-and-white won three of the quartet, with the 1979 season-opener being the lone painful exception. A surprising 33-10 stomping by Larry Smith's Green Wave over what were at the time the 13th-rated Cardinals came in another Stanford head coach's debut: Rod "One & Done" Dowhower wasn't nearly as fortunate as the brainy boss under whom he had served the previous two years as offensive coordinator.
Smith tragically succumbed to leukemia earlier this year at the age of 68. He remains the only head coach to have defeated Stanford as the coach of three different teams, having stung Cardinal squads while in charge of Arizona and USC as well. In his second season in New Orleans back in 1977, Smith had inherited a Green Wave coaching mantle held long ago by the great Clark Shaughnessy, who went an incredible 17-1-1 for Tulane between 1924 and 1925, long before pioneering the T-formation on The Farm during the Indians' undefeated and untied season of 1940.
After losing 1977's home opener, Smith had green fabric on his mind.
"That was the key play," he said of Hightower's fumble. "When the jersey was torn off, and the officials sent him (Hontas) out, we called the safest play we have. I didn't want to call time out because I knew it was going to be tight at the end."
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