October 25, 2012
College football over the years has brought up some flamboyant personalities, some true greats, Heisman winners who would turn out to be busts in the NFL, monumental upsets for the ages, and a slew of reminders that on any given day between those chalked lines of a football field, anything can happen.
The Play is just one of those examples. In what may be the most incredible finish in college football history, right up there with Flutie to Phelan in the driving rain at the Orange Bowl, giving Boston College a 47-45 win over Bernie Kosar and the Miami Hurricanes in 1984 (a detailed post on this game forthcoming), the Cal Bears knocked off their bitter rival, the Stanford Cardinal, by a score of 25-20.
Cal and Stanford’s rivalry was called “The Big Game” and this was the 85th such contest between the two schools. Cal was playing for pride and to ruin their rival Stanford’s hopes for a bowl berth, as the Cardinal were 5-5 but needed the win to get to six in order to become bowl eligible. Representatives from the Hall of Fame Classic were in attendance, ostensibly to invite the Cardinal should they win the contest.
The Cardinal were led by NFL Hall of Famer John Elway at quarterback, in his final collegiate appearance. Elway had racked up 9,000 + yards and 75 TD passes at Stanford, but had zero bowl appearances. To get his team to one, he had to beat what was touted as “the worst 6-4 team ever”, Cal, at Cal Memorial Stadium.
After a scoreless opening stanza, Cal took a 3-0 lead midway through the second quarter on a 32 yard Joe Cooper field goal. Late in the second quarter, the other QB in the contest, Cal’s Gale Gilbert, who would go on to be a journeyman in the NFL, though he was on the roster of five straight Super Bowl teams (1990-93 with Buffalo, 1994 San Diego) hit Mariet Ford in the end zone for a score, and Cal walked to the locker room at half leading by a count of 10-0.
Elway led the Cardinal to two third quarter touchdowns, connecting with Benson White on both scores to give Stanford a 14-10 lead. Cal would score nine straight to go up 19-14, and Stanford added a Mark Harmon field goal to make the score 19-17, which was the score in the dying minutes.
Elway’s final drive started on the Stanford 20 yard line, and did so in a negative fashion. Vincent White slipped after catching a screen pass, losing seven yards back to the Cardinal 13. Elway’s second down pass was nearly intercepted, and his third down throw knocked away by Cal’s Richard Rodgers. Elway and the Cardinals were running out of time, and were down to their last gasp, facing a fourth and 17 in the final minute. The bowl dreams were fading.
Elway gave a glimpse of what he would later awe fans with in the NFL, hitting Emile Harry for 29 yards to the Stanford 42 and a first down as the clock ticked inside 45 seconds. The Cardinal had one time out to their disposal, but Elway did not panic. He calmly completed a pass to the Cal 39, with the receiver getting out of bounds to stop the clock with 31 seconds remaining.
Elway then pitched the ball out to Dodderer on a sweep for 22 yards to the Cal 17, putting the Cardinal in prime field goal range for their kicker Harmon. A pitch to Dodderer lost a yard, but was merely a formality to allow Stanford to place the ball in the center of the field for the kick. Kevin Moen would make the tackle, and the Cardinal called for time with just 8 seconds remaining.
Harmon calmly drilled the kick between the uprights, and with just four seconds remaning, Stanford led 20-19, and it seemed that Elway would exorcise his demon of not getting to a bowl game. Stanford was flagged for excessive celebration after the kick, meaning that they would have to kick from the 25 instead of the 40, but who cared? The Cardinal were poised to WIN the Big Game, and with it, a bowl appearance. What was 15 yards compared to that?
Apparently, it turned out to be everything. Cal’s announcer, Joe Starkey, praised Elway and the Cardinal for their performance and said “Only a miracle can save the Bears now!”
How prophetic that statement was:
- Harmon squibbed the kickand Cal’s Kevin Moen received the ball inside the Cal 45 near the left hash mark. After some ineffective scrambling, Moen lateraled the ball leftward to Richard Rodgers.
- Rodgers was very quickly surrounded, gaining only one yard before looking behind him for Dwight Garner, who caught the ball around the Cal 45.
- Garner ran straight ahead for five yards, but was swallowed up by five Stanford players. While Garner was being tackled, however, he managed to pitch the ball back to Rodgers. It was at this moment, believing that Garner had been tackled and the game was over, that several Stanford players on the sideline and the entire Stanford band (which had been waiting behind the south end zone) ran onto the field in celebration. TV replays were inconclusive whether Garner was down before he pitched the ball; due to the swarm of tacklers, one cannot see the exact moment his knee touches.
- Rodgers dodged another Stanford player and took the ball to his right, toward the middle of the field, where at least four other Cal players were ready for the next pitch. Around the Stanford 45, Rodgers pitched the ball to Mariet Ford, who caught it in stride. Meanwhile, the Stanford band, all 144 members, had run out past the south end zone—the one the Cal players were trying to get to—and had advanced as far as twenty yards downfield. The scrum of players was moving towards them.
- Ford avoided a Stanford player and sprinted up the field while moving to the right of the right hash mark. Around the Stanford 25, three Stanford players smothered Ford, but he threw a blind lateral over his right shoulder.
- Moen caught it and charged toward the end zone. One Stanford player missed him, and another could not catch him from behind. Moen ran through the scattering Stanford Band members for the score, which he famously completed by running into the unaware trombone player Gary Tyrrell, steamrolling him in the process.
- The Cal players celebrated wildly—but the officials had not signaled the touchdown. Stanford coach Paul Wiggin and his players argued to the officials that Dwight Garner’s knee had been down, rendering what had happened during the rest of the play moot. But the officials huddled and agreed that none of them had ruled Garner down or blown his whistle, and after a few moments, the touchdown was signaled by referee Charles Moffett and a penalty was called on Stanford for illegal participation (for too many Stanford players and the band being on the field), which the officials declined for Cal automatically.
Referee Charles Moffett had this to say after the contest:
“I called all the officials together and there were some pale faces. The penalty flags were against Stanford for coming onto the field. I say, ‘did anybody blow a whistle?’ They say ‘no’. I say, ‘were all the laterals legal’? ‘Yes’. Then the line judge, Gordon Riese, says to me, ‘Charlie, the guy scored on that.’ And I said, ‘What?’ I had no idea the guy had scored. Actually when I heard that I was kind of relieved. I thought we really would have had a problem if they hadn’t scored, because, by the rules, we could have awarded a touchdown (to Cal) for (Stanford) players coming onto the field. I didn’t want to have to make that call.” “I wasn’t nervous at all when I stepped out to make the call; maybe I was too dumb. Gee, it seems like it was yesterday. Anyway, when I stepped out of the crowd, there was dead silence in the place. Then when I raised my arms, I thought I had started World War III. It was like an atomic bomb had gone off.”
Stanford calls The Play the “Screw of ’82″ and when they are in possession of the Stanford Axe, alter the score of the game to read Stanford 20-19 instead of the recognized Cal 25-20 victory.
Elway was extremely bitter following the conclusion of the game. He stated: “I don’t think that a touchdown can be scored when you’ve got a whole band on the field. Now if he runs through three trombone guys, a tuba player, and two drum players, and dodges… and then runs right over a trombone player at the goal line and they call it a touchdown then, yeah, I think that that probably shouldn’t have been called.”
“This was an insult to college football… it was just a farce. They [the officials] didn’t have control of the whole game. They ruined my last game as a college football player. I don’t believe they can take something away like that. I don’t believe they can take something like that away from this program. Something has to be done about the referees.. There’s no doubt in my mind. It’s all right to make a mistake, but somebody should be man enough to stand up and admit it. It was a very bittersweet ending. I did not want it to end this way. It’s something I’ll have to live with the rest of my life.”
Stanford defeated Cal on Saturday in the latest edition of the “Big Game” rivalry by a score of 21-3, marking their third straight victory in the series. Perhaps that, along with the Broncos holding first place in the diluted AFC West, will help to assuage Elway’s bitterness. Then again, two Super Bowl rings, enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a NFL MVP failed to quell the disdain: what will three wins do for his alma mater?
For what it’s worth, the Broncos are back in action this weekend against the New Orleans Saints, so at least Elway can get back to thinking about the NFL.