Well, Jim Plunkett, it was worth sticking around for, wasn't it? Plunkett could have graduated from Stanford with his class last June and moved right in as quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, as indeed he will next fall. But with a year of athletic eligibility left, Plunkett chose to remain in school, and not the least of his reasons was a last crack at Southern Cal. In Plunkett's sophomore and junior seasons the Trojans had edged Stanford in thrilling games, 27-24 and 26-24, and both times they had gone on to the Rose Bowl. Last week in Palo Alto, Plunkett again led his Indians to 24 points, but this time USC scored only 14. It was Stanford's first victory over the Trojans since 1957 and, coupled with Oregon's wild 41-40 upset of UCLA, it means that Jim Plunkett will probably get to show his stuff in the Rose Bowl.
The game had been a sellout for weeks, which in Palo Alto means 90,000 people, and Stanford's surprising loss to Purdue the week before did nothing to lessen local interest. As a matter of fact, the upset by Purdue was an indication of how much Stanford was looking ahead to USC. "We weren't exactly overlooking Purdue," said Plunkett, "but we planned to play through them and peak for USC. Preparing for the Trojans, we only suited up once all week. We had done our physical training the previous week." It is also a fact that Coach John Ralston held five players out of the Purdue game to be certain their minor injuries would be healed for USC.
The Purdue game had its own effect on the Trojans. USC Scout Joe Margucci watched the game and said it wasn't worth reporting back to Coach John McKay. " Stanford's mental attitude was not right," he noted. "They didn't play their game." But Margucci made the mistake of bringing back his scouting report anyway. Purdue had used seven, even eight, defenders in the secondary to guard against Plunkett's passes, and USC decided to try it, too. It was not to work.
The day before the game a bomb threat added to the already charged atmosphere. A group of Weathermen, claiming to be a part of the same outfit that blew up a Marin County courtroom last week, warned that Stanford Stadium was next on the list. All night long police and officials searched the stadium. Nothing was found. At the game extra guards stopped every person carrying anything larger than a flask. Some 4,000 fans decided to stay away. Shortly before kick-off the new Stanford president, Richard Lyman, spoke on the public-address system. "Regarding the bomb threat," he said, "every precaution has been taken for your safety. No one is disposed to ignore this type of a threat, yet blackmail must not be allowed to paralyze a nation or an institution. If it once becomes established that such tactics can succeed, we shall have magnified the capacity of a malicious few to sabotage society." And on that cheery note the game began.
Stanford scored the third time it got the ball. When USC triple-covered Receiver Randy Vataha, known as The Rabbit, Plunkett found Tight End Bob Moore in the clear and hit him on a 50-yard pass play. Steve Horowitz kicked the extra point—something he had failed to do against USC last year, with disastrous consequences.
Stanford scored again in the second period and retired at halftime leading 14-0, which probably left a lot of skeptics wondering how in the world the Indians would blow it this year. As any veteran Stanford rooter knows, a lead over USC means nothing. In 1968 Stanford led 7-3 in the second quarter and again 24-17 in the third, but then O.J. scored his third touchdown of the game and Ron Ayala kicked a 34-yard field goal. Sorry, Stanford.
Last year the Indians had all sorts of leads, 6-0 in the first quarter (as Horowitz missed his extra point), 12-0 in the second ( Stanford failing in its try for a two-point conversion), 15-14 in the third, 21-20 in the fourth and 24-23 with time left for only one play. But that one play was a field goal by Ayala—34 yards, just like the year before—and again Stanford left the field as loser. So nobody around Palo Alto was making any reservations for Pasadena in January over a little old 14-0 halftime lead.
Sure enough, USC came roaring out in the third quarter and marched 74 yards to make the score 14-7. Plunkett rallied his team, completing four consecutive passes that included a 34-yarder to Vataha. Jackie Brown crashed over from the one to make it 21-7 but, with still more than four minutes left in the game, USC Quarterback Jimmy Jones threw a 17-yard pass to Bob Chandler to cut the lead to seven again.
So now every Stanford fan knew what would happen. Plunkett would have one intercepted, USC would score. An onside kick, USC recovers and, with one second left on the clock, Ayala kicks a field goal—34 yards, of course.
Not quite. Plunkett did pass, and the pass was nearly intercepted by Walt Failor. The ball flicked Failor's fingertips but dropped into the arms of Bob Moore. The completion took the ball into USC territory, from where Horowitz kicked a field goal to make it 24-14 and erase the bitter memory of last year's missed extra point. Now there was nothing in the tradition of USC-Stanford games that USC could call upon, no way to score 10 points with no time left. And so Stanford won what Jim Plunkett had called "the most important thing of the season to me."