Stanford-Notre Dame 1970, What Could Have Been

Stanford and Notre Dame didn’t play in 1970, like they will on Saturday. That’s a shame, because they were linked by the court of public opinion, with quarterbacks Jim Plunkett and Joe Theismann battling for the Heisman Trophy.

Both entered the season as prime contenders for the award issued to college football’s best player. QB Archie Manning of Ole’ Miss was a top hopeful, as well.

One of the reasons that Stanford’s season-opening win at Arkansas was so big was that it not only raised the Indians’ national profile, but it gave Plunkett a chance to leave an imprint on the national consciousness. The game was shown around the country. He may not have been the Heisman front-runner at the time, but he probably was after the game.

Theismann didn’t have that opportunity. The Irish played an uncharacteristically weak schedule that year, with some ordinarily proud programs having down seasons. Not sure if any of their games early in the year were nationally televised but, even if they were, regular folk wouldn’t have watched much. The Irish played only one team that would finish with a winning record before the middle of November. The signal-caller who famously, or infamously, changed the pronunciation of his last name from THEES-man to THIZE-man as a freshman, at the behest of school publicists for rhyming purposes, threw for more than 2,400 yards and 16 touchdowns in a rushing era — and it meant squat.

Plunkett, who later overcame decent competition in USC, UCLA and Washington, had captured the public imagination.

“We didn’t follow him that much, since we believed that Plunkett was clearly better,” Stanford’s center at the time, John Sande III, told me. “We did laugh at the fact that he changed the pronunciation of his name to rhyme with Heisman.”

Safety Jack Schultz, the defensive team captain, said Stanford’s players were too busy with whatever game was upcoming to keep an eye on what Theismann was doing two-thirds of a country away.

“We knew who he was, but he didn’t occupy any more thought on our part than did the other high profile players of the time,” Schultz said.  “We certainly didn’t follow him statistically; didn’t care.  Again, the focus was on us and what we needed to accomplish as a team.”

So how would Stanford and Notre Dame have matched up in 1970? Comparative scores would do no good. Purdue beat Stanford but was throttled by Notre Dame. USC fell to the Indians but turned the Irish over eight times to beat them by 10 points.

Furthermore, Notre Dame doesn’t appear to have been the prototypical plodding Midwest team typical of that era, the kind Stanford ran circles around. Instead, most of the Irish that year were undersized guys who played with the heart of Rudy. Theismann himself was picked behind seven other quarterbacks in what was a big year for passers. He ended up playing in Canada for a few years before he was signed by Washington.

But there’s no shame in that. Plunkett’s travails are well documented after he was drafted by a Patriots ball club with a weak offensive line. He went to the 49ers several years later and then the Raiders, where he served as a backup before winning a pair of Super Bowls.

Plunkett and Theismann played each other twice in the 1983 season. Washington won 37-35 in a regular season match when Plunkett tossed four interceptions and Hall of Fame RB Marcus Allen couldn’t play. Plunkett got the better of Theismann in the rematch — Super Bowl XVIII — when Allen was healthy and ran for 191 yards.

So who knows how a 1970 Stanford-Notre Dame game would have played out. Evidence seems to be it could have gone either way. Maybe just the home team would have had an advantage. Both squads showed a flair for winning the big game (the Irish upset Texas 24-11 in the Cotton Bowl a few hours before Stanford downed Ohio State 27-17 in the Rose Bowl). It will forever remain in the realm of the hypothetical.

The 2014 match, with no Heisman on the line, looks like a good one this Saturday.

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