"This Date in Cardinal Football": 10-10-87

The Bootleg's Mark DeVaughn looks back at a rather spectacular debut by a redshirt freshman quarterback making his first career start, on the road against a heavily-favored Washington State squad. Brian Johnson, a future hero for the SF Giants, instantly became the gridiron go-to-guy for Stanford head coach Jack Elway...and it happened 22 years ago, on "This Date in Cardinal Football History!"

This Date in Cardinal Football History: 10-10-87

When Stanford's level of quarterback play reached a historic low, in came a savior from Sunken Diamond. Quarterback-catcher Brian Johnson's effort on this date 22 years ago has to rank among the best starting debuts for any Stanford signal-caller in school history.
While completing 12 of 23 passes in his first career start, the redshirt freshman threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-7 drubbing of host Washington State back in 1987. He was 10-of-18 for 228 yards in the first half alone against an up-and-coming Wazzu team that was nationally ranked with an Aloha Bowl victory a year later and featured future NFL talent like running back Steve Broussard, quarterback Timm Rosenbach, and lineman Mike Utley.
''I was just hoping I could do a decent job," said Johnson, a schoolmate of NBA great Gary Payton at Oakland's Skyline High. "I tried not to expect too much more than that. Fortunately things just seemed to fall into place."
The winless Cardinal seemed like suitable homecoming fodder for head coach Dennis Erickson's Cougs, that after a second 0-4 start in five years. Greg Ennis and Scott Stark had each struggled miserably in starting quarterback efforts. Johnson had made his first game appearance a week earlier at home against UCLA, when the Cardinal passing game was at its worst.
The California high school passing yards leader in 1985, Stark got the starting nod against Troy Airman's No. 11 Bruins. He began the day by having his second pass intercepted by a defensive lineman. He ended it by being sacked for a safety, the final tally in a catastrophic 49-0 humbling at the hands of the merciless Bruins. Ennis (a future venture capitalist who would later serve as head of the Stanford Athletic Department's DAPER investment fund) was intercepted three times in relief. A predatory UCLA defense collected six interceptions as Brad Muster (bum ankle) spent a dismal day on the sidelines in jeans and a ball cap.
''Don't ask me who my quarterback is, OK?" said distraught head coach Jack Elway, whose team was outgained 571-136. (Yes, outgained by 435 yards in a single game!)
The turnaround occurred by halftime of the following game, when the resilient Cardinal, led by Johnson, senior flanker Jeff James and emerging redshirt freshman Jon Volpe, led 41-7 at the break. The team's leading rusher in 1988 with 1,027 yards and a first-team All-Pac-10 selection as a redhirt junior, Volpe would struggle thereafter with a knee injury, but eventually would star in the CFL. On this afternoon, the tough-running Volpe caught a 65-yard touchdown and ran for 105 yards. Jeff "J.J." James snagged six passes for 115 yards.
Washington State came in averaging over 30 points per-game. Rosenbach led things from under center, but he was under pressure for much of the afternoon. His 23 completions were good for just 187 yards.
''This was exactly what the doctor ordered," James said. "We had to have this, because 0-5 isn't anybody's idea of a party. The best part of it is that just about everybody played a part in it."
Unfortunately, shoulder injuries would limit Johnson's football career. He lost his starting job to Jason Palumbis early in 1988 before being forced aside by Steve Smith a year later. The New York Yankees selected him in the 1989 draft, and he played eight big league seasons with six different teams. 
The likeable Johnson forever endeared himself to Giants fans in September 1997. A dramatic 12th-inning home run to beat the Dodgers during San Fran's NL West title run will do just that.
Stanford backers, however, remember Johnson for winning five of seven starts in 1987. His inspired effort in the season opener of 1988 nearly led to an upset of Rodney Peete and USC. He suffered a concussion late in the fourth quarter when the Cardinal was up 17-13, though the Trojans ended up stealing a 20-17 victory to end Stanford's hopes of a first home win against Troy since this date in 1970.
''The thing that impressed me most was his poise," James said. "There were times in the huddle when it was kind of chaotic, and B.J. would step in there and just calm everything down. He really ran the show."
Stanford didn't get a first down on its first series, only to score on its next seven possessions. The Cards took a 7-0 lead when Washington State sent an all-out blitz. Johnson went over the middle for a wide-open Volpe, who did the rest for a 65-yard touchdown.
''They sent everybody, both the inside linebackers and the outside linebackers," Johnson said. "I knew Jon would be open, I just tried not to give it away by looking at him too soon. It's a good sign when you look upfield and see nothing but goal posts."
Volpe scored the first of his two short rushing touchdowns to double the advantage. Wazzu closed within 14-7 on a one-yard sneak from Rosenbach. A 26-yard touchdown to tight end Jim Price made things 21-7 soon after. The score stood at the end of the first quarter.
John Hopkins made three field goals on the afternoon. He'd already made one boot when Stanford had a 31-7 lead with around four minutes left in the second quarter. Alan Grant fielded the punt at his 23, made a couple moves, and then went untouched up the middle for his second punt return for touchdown of the young season. The angry Pullman crowd responded with a torrent of disapproving boos.
''I'm relieved and elated," Elway said. "Brian made a whole lot of big plays. Just don't ask me why I didn't do it (start Johnson) sooner."

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