(Almost) This Date in
Cardinal Football: 9-23-95
Editor's Note: There has been so much animated (and a bit divisive) discussion on the BootBoard Plus about former head coach Tyrone Willingham and his legacy at Stanford that we thought we would pull out a reminder of happy times with "The Man who Would Be Sheriff" The game at Oregon in '95 was one of the best in modern times. Bootleg Co-Founders Jim & Lars actually carried out a significant section of wooden bench from Autzen Stadium to take home as a souvenir trophy. The Bootleg cut it up into several pieces and presented one to Coach Willingham (see above photo of the trophy plaque from the BootCave Archives). Six years later, it was still displayed on the shelf in his office. You can be certain he has never forgotten that milestone moment of his career, his very first conference win as a head coach!
Team colors better suited for highlighters or prison jumpsuits. Players wearing roller derby uniforms – when they should be wearing prison jumpsuits. Boorish fans who believe in a BCS birthright (normally reserved for teams without 32-year bowl droughts).
The infamous Oregon arrogance grew from a surprising and impressive run that showed no signs of stopping even on yesterday's date, 14 years ago. The unbeaten Stanford Cardinal's quest for Pac-10 legitimacy went through raucous Autzen Stadium, where the No. 12 Ducks – fresh off the 1995 Rose Bowl – were expected to continue a nine-game regular season unbeaten streak.
The 28-21 win became the most exciting game of Tyrone Willingham's first season on The Farm. Dramatic moments included Marlon Evans' retaliatory 96-yard kickoff return (a breathtaking score that broke a 14-14 tie) and a sprawling touchdown snag from Andre Kirwan that doubled the lead with 5:19 remaining. Stanford's new identity suddenly trumped Oregon's newfound self-importance.
"Before you start winning," defensive coordinator Bill Harris said, "you have to believe it."
Three times in 1994 the Cardinal had blown fourth-quarter leads in the 3-7-1 nightmare of Bill Walsh's final season. Three times, with leads of a touchdown or less throughout a 4-0-1 start to the 1995 season, the upstart Stanford squad stopped an opponent's potential game-winning drive.
The Ducks scored with 2:58 left to edge closer at 28-21, but moments after recovering an onsides kick with 2:15 to play, turned the ball over on downs at Stanford's 39-yard-line. Tony Graziani's final pass intended for Damon Griffin fell incomplete, as did Oregon's last hopes of avoiding the upset.
Oregon Football had arisen from the pond and taken flight just as the wheels were coming flying off the Bill Walsh's noble experiment. The glory and afterglow of 1992's Blockbuster Bowl season featured many weeks of Stanford being ranked in the Top 25, big crowds, NFL All-Pro assistant coaches and much-hyped recruiting classes. Legitimacy on The Farm reigned like never before.
But glory can be fleeting and away it went in a flash. Picture the wake of those sprawling, catered tailgates for the Walsh assistant coaches' wives at Chuck Taylor Grove. The offense thrived, but the defense struggled. Losses piled high. Walsh tired of losing, lost his energy, and resigned. Season ticket sales plummeted. Woeful predictions dominated such as the Cardinal being selected a consensus preseason 10th-place Pac-10 pick heading into the 1995 season.
But under the rigid, but strong leadership of Willingham came a sudden resurgence, a swift change that led to a happy finish, when the post-game party kept rocking on through the night. Stanford won on this date in 1995 despite being outgained in yardage 454-293. The oft-dissed defense intercepted Tony Graziani three times in nine attempts during the first half. The Cardinal took a 14-7 lead at the half after scoring on a 4th-and-goal from the 1.
Oregon led 7-0 upon taking the opening kickoff and moving 80 yards in ten plays. Their next trip across paydirt didn't occur until there were 36 seconds remaining in the third quarter, when running back Ricky Whittle's 1-yard score tied things at 14-14. Briefly.
Awaiting the ensuing kickoff was junior speedster Marlon Evans, who had drawn the deserved ire of Willingham just plays earlier. Kevin Miller's previous punt had put Oregon back at its own 20-yard-line. The Ducks had moved up 15 yards on the next play when Evans drew a dead-ball personal foul penalty. Personal foul penalties were not the Willingham way!
The sequence sprung the quack-happy hosts into action and they produced an equalizer. Graziani connected with – who else? – "Mr. 494", as in 494 career receiving yards against the Cardinal for annoyingly-effective receiver Cristin McLemore. The 57-yard bomb set up Whittle's score. Stanford's offense had only four second-half first downs by that point, and the game's momentum was clearly shifted to the home team.
Oregon never got a hand on Evans, a member of the Cardinal's 4x100 relay team. "I lost my cool and thought coach (Willingham) was going to yank me for sure," #83 later said. "But he stuck with me and showed confidence in me. I knew I had to redeem myself and come back for the team."
The defense responded by forcing a punt. Mark Butterfield directed the offense from his 11-yard-line and promptly led an 89-yard scoring drive. Mark "100%" Harris and Brian "You-the-Man"-ning made huge third-down catches to extend a march that elapsed 4:10 from the game clock.
From the Oregon 28, the Antioch native "Butter" went for the home run. #7 looked to his right, firing deep down the sideline, hoping Kirwan could beat single coverage in the end zone. An incredible diving catch resulted, padding the bulge and sending the Ducks back into decidedly more humble surroundings. It was Kirwan's only catch of the game and it forged his name forever in the history and heritage of the Stanford program. The Cardinal was 3-0-1 (3-0 on the road!) and headed down the path to the 1995 Liberty Bowl. Stanford Football was back in black!
"Last year we found ways to give games away," said Stanford senior cornerback and future Liberty Bowl MVP Kwame Ellis, "This year we've practiced to win games in the fourth quarter. Coach Willingham came in with the whole idea of winning immediately. It's rubbed off on the players."
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