It was New Year’s Day, 1971, and Stanford was locked in a tight battle with undefeated Ohio State in the second half of the Rose Bowl.
For two years straight, last-second field goals by USC had denied the team then known as the Indians a shot at Pasadena. In the 1970 season, leading to the ’71 Rose Bowl, a group of great Stanford seniors dedicated themselves to reaching the promised land. This time, they upended the Trojans and beat enough other Pac-8 teams to win the league championship and gain the coveted bowl bid.
As described in A COACH AT HEART, Stanford was up against an Ohio State squad laden with stars who had won a national title as sophomores — QB Rex Kern, FB John Brockington, NG Jim Stillwagon and DB Jack Tatum among them. The Buckeyes were a prohibitive favorite.
That the heavy money went to the Big Ten champs was understandable. Ohio State had played only two close contests and Stanford dropped its last two games to Air Force and archrival Cal, and looked awful in doing so. How they’d get their mojo back, no one knew. But the coaches, led by John Ralston knew what to do. They went back to basics in a series of tough practices, and traveled to Southern California early to escape some nasty weather. Still, basing themselves in Long Beach, they were far from any pre-bowl fun. Eventually, players cajoled QB Jim Plunkett, that season’s Heisman Trophy winner, and defensive captain S Jack Schultz, into going to Ralston to get him to lighten up.
There’s a myth, if you read some articles in Google searches, that Stanford came into the game all loose, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Schultz tells it, Ralston looked at him and Plunkett and said, paraphrasing, “When you look back on this years from now, all you’ll remember is whether you won or lost.”
Still, Ralston did ease up a bit on the practices and let the Indians take part in some of the bowl week festivities. Whatever he did worked, because they stood toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes when game time rolled around.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Ohio State led 17-13 and had taken the ball on a lengthy, time-consuming and physically punishing drive to the Stanford 19. But they faced fourth down and one yard to go. Legendary coach Woody Hayes chose to go for it, Brockington was stuffed, and the Indians took possession of the ball.
Plunkett completed a series of passes to Demea Washington and Randy Vataha to get Stanford to the OSU 30. And that was when the play of the game was made. In the huddle, Plunkett called another pass play and asked TE Bob Moore to stay in and block. In an email to me a few months ago, he said he changed his mind as they approached the line of scrimmage and told the future Oakland Raider to go ahead and run his route. “Just something I felt,” Plunkett wrote. “Thank goodness.”
Thank goodness, indeed. Plunkett was forced to scramble and, when he did so, Moore aimed for the front pylon of the end zone. Plunkett threw the ball his way and Moore came down with it, despite being bracketed by a pair of defenders. Stanford would score on the next play to take a lead they would never relinquish. Because a QB finishing his third season as a starter had a feeling, one of the biggest plays in the history of the Rose Bowl was made — and a breakthrough season was complete.