Stanford to Honor 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl-Winning Team on Saturday
Oct. 30, 2008
STANFORD, Calif. - Any discussions to determine the greatest team or player of all-time in any sport is sure to spark a spirited debate. The enjoyment is not found in reaching a conclusion, but the debate itself.
Take Stanford football, for example. The 1926 team under Pop Warner finished 10-0-1 and was declared national champion by most of the pollsters of the day. Was the 1926 team better than C.E. Thornhill's teams that posted a 25-4-2 record from 1933-35, but lost two Rose Bowl games?
How would Clark Shaughnessy's 1940 team that finished with a perfect 10-0-0 record match up against John Ralston's teams that won back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1971 and '72?
If you are looking for a darkhorse team to enter the discussion, look no further than the 1978 team that finished 8-4 overall and defeated 11th-ranked Georgia, 25-22, in a thrilling, come-from-behind victory in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
By the look of things, Stanford's overall record and its 4-3, fourth-place finish in the Pac-10 Conference seem rather pedestrian.
However, Stanford's four losses came by a combined 16 points, as the Cardinal lost nailbiters to fourth-ranked Oklahoma (35-29), 16th-ranked UCLA (27-26), Washington (34-31) and sixth-ranked USC (13-7).
The losses to UCLA and Washington came on last-second field goals in back-to-back weekends. Ouch.
Look at it this way. The 1978 Stanford Cardinal was two touchdowns and a field goal away from entering the national championship picture.
Stanford entered the '78 season fresh off a 9-3 campaign capped off by a Sun Bowl victory over LSU. However, the Cardinal had to replace four of its top offensive players, including three All-Americans in quarterback Guy Benjamin, wide receiver James Lofton and offensive lineman Gordon King.
Benjamin had led the nation in passing, while Lofton and King were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Bill Kellar, a dependable wide receiver who was drafted in the seventh round by the Kansas City Chiefs, would also have to be replaced.
Despite key losses, the '78 Cardinal did not lack for talent on either side of the ball. A total of 12 players would eventually be drafted into the NFL, including first- rounders Darrin Nelson and Brian Holloway.
Prior to the season, second-year head coach Bill Walsh sized-up his team this way: 'We're a young team that could be one or two years away from going into the season expecting to go to the Rose Bowl. Our success this year will depend on whether we can get great performances from young, inexperienced players with great potential. The question is how soon this group can develop into poised football players.'
It didn't take long.
Led by quarterback Steve Dils, multi-purpose back Nelson and talented wide receiver Ken Margerum, Stanford averaged a Pac-10-best 435.5 yards in total offense. Dils set single-season school records for passing yards (2,943) and touchdown passes (22), while Nelson rushed for 1,061 yards and caught 50 passes out of the backfield. Margerum finished with 53 receptions for 942 yards, including nine touchdowns, earning recognition as one of the top young receivers in the nation.
Stanford also received steady play from tight ends Mitch Pleis, Marty Smith and Pat Bowe, who combined for 60 catches in Walsh's sophisticated, 'West Coast' passing scheme.
The Cardinal running and passing attack flourished behind a strong offensive line led by Holloway, Steve Hibler, Jim Stephens, Gene Engle and John Macauley.
Senior linebacker Gordy Ceresino, along with Steve Budinger, Robby Chapman, Chuck Evans and Tom Hall set the tone defensively.
'We knew we had weapons,' said Nelson, who currently serves as Stanford's senior associate athletic director. 'We were really good defensively, not a lot of pros, but just a real solid group.
'We had a lot of confidence in Dils at quarterback. He had big shoes to fill in replacing Guy, but we didn't think there would be much of a drop-off. We lost Lofton, but Margerum stepped right in and did a great job, along with a lot of other wide receivers. Holloway replaced Gordon King upfront. We had a lot of young kids that stepped right in.'
Stanford opened the 1978 campaign against an Oklahoma team that featured eventual Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims and Outland Trophy recipient Greg Roberts. The Cardinal countered with an untested lineup that featured eight sophomores and nine players who were making their first collegiate starts.
The fourth-ranked Sooners left Stanford Stadium with a hard-fought 35-29 victory, as Dils' pass intended for Margerum was intercepted by Sooner Darrol Ray in the end zone on the final play of the game.
The young Cardinal team left the field to a standing ovation from the crowd of over 66,000 gathered on a warm, early September afternoon.
Wins over San Jose State and Illinois earned Stanford a spot in the Associated Press' Top 20 poll. After squeaking past Tulane, 17-14, the 17th-ranked ranked Cardinal brought a 3-1 record into its early season showdown with 16th-ranked UCLA at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Ken Naber's 30-yard field goal with 3:36 left gave the Cardinal a 26-24 lead, but UCLA's Peter Boermeester answered with a 37-yard game-winner with 0:27 left, giving the Bruins a 27-26 victory.
The Cardinal returned to Stanford Stadium the following Saturday to face a 2-3 Washington team that narrowly missed upsetting Alabama the week before. Stanford thoroughly dominated the game, rolling up 548 yards in total offense. However, the Huskies returned two interceptions for touchdowns, scored another TD on a blocked punt and used a second punt block to set up an early touchdown in the third quarter.
At the end, Washington's Mike Lansford kicked a game-winning, 22-yard field goal with 0:14 left to defeat the Cardinal, 34-31.
'We gave that game away,' said Nelson. 'That was probably the most frustrating game of them all.'
The Cardinal regrouped to post wins over Washington State and Oregon State the next two weeks and was arguably the best 5-3 team in the nation heading into its Nov. 4 home game against sixth-ranked USC.
The sellout crowd of 84,084 that filled venerable Stanford Stadium naturally expected a shootout between two of college football's high-powered offenses. Instead, defense carried the day as the Trojans limited the Cardinal to just 37 yards rushing to earn a 13-7 victory.
A seven-point, 21-14 victory over Arizona State in a driving rainstorm in Tempe and a convincing 30-10 victory over Cal in the Big Game earned Stanford a trip to the Bluebonnet Bowl against the 11th-ranked and heavily-favored Georgia Bulldogs.
After falling behind 22-0 early in the third quarter, Stanford scored 25 unanswered points in a span of six and a half minutes to shock the Bulldogs, 25-22 on New Year's Eve in the Astrodome.
Dils took advantage of an over-zealous Georgia pass rush to toss three touchdown passes to lead the comeback and was named the game's most valuable offensive player. Ceresino's 20 tackles earned the linebacker defensive MVP honors.
'We always knew we could score,' said Nelson. 'We never thought we were out of the game. We went in at halftime and figured if we made a few adjustments, we'd be all right.'
Some say Stanford's showing in the Bluebonnet Bowl was so impressive it convinced San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo to hire Walsh as the team's new head coach just nine days later.
Stanford's victory, though not as headline grabbing as its upset Rose Bowl wins over Ohio State and Michigan a few years earlier, was perhaps just as satisfying, if not more significant in a historical sense.
Following the 1978 season, Stanford would post just three winning seasons over the next 13 years while the 49ers would go on to capture three Super Bowls under Walsh's guidance.
One can only wonder what history would have had in store if Stanford's comeback in the 1978 Bluebonnet Bowl fell short.