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Rose Bowl Recall: The Victorious Thunderchickens
Courtesy: Stanford Athletics  
Release: 12/31/2012

Dec. 31, 2012

PASADENA, Calif. - On Tuesday, Stanford will attempt to earn its first Rose Bowl victory in 41 years, when an unlikely squad led by a dominant defense completed back-to-back triumphs in Pasadena.

Those teams continue to occupy a most privileged place in the memories of Stanford football fans.

The 1970 team was the first from Stanford to reach Pasadena in nearly two decades. It had big names on offense such as Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett and future NFL players Randy Vataha at receiver and Bob Moore at tight end. It notched big wins over Top 10-ranked foes Arkansas and USC. And at season's end, it scored the biggest win of all, the January 1 win over the unbeaten and No. 2-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

What about the 1971 Stanford football team?

It did not have Plunkett. It had to replace its two leading receivers. It had to break in a new kicker. Little wonder it would score 82 fewer points than the 1970 squad.

So how did this team repeat as Pac 8 and Rose Bowl champions? Confidence. Resilience. And defense--lots and lots of defense.

All of these elements were present right from the start in 1971.

In the opener at Missouri, the Indians trotted out senior quarterback Don Bunce, who had spent his Stanford career on the sidelines backing up Plunkett. Bunce had no rookie jitters, executing a perfect option pitch to running back Hillary Shockley which resulted in a 52-yard first half touchdown run, then later in the first half tossing a 26-yard touchdown pass to John Winesberry. Stanford led 16-0 at halftime and ended up shutting out the Tigers, 19-0. In a most confident debut as a starter, Bunce threw for 269 yards.

But the real story in the Show-Me state that day was the Stanford defense. The Thunderchickens--the the Stanford defensive line's nickname in 1970 which carried over into 1971--spearheaded a complete shutdown of the Tigers' offense. Missouri did not register a first down until its eighth possession. Frustrated, Missouri's coaches tried three different players at quarterback. Together, these three could manage only 65 yards passing for the game.

It would not be the first "statement game" for the Thunderchickens and the Stanford defense in 1971. Although 1970 All-Pac 8 defensive tackle Dave Tipton was gone to the NFL, defensive linemen Pete Lazetich, Greg Sampson and Larry Butler were back to lead the 1971 Thunderchicken edition. And behind this defensive front were three future NFL players: linebackers Jeff Siemen and Jim Merlo, along with defensive back Benny Barnes.

More stellar Stanford defense was on display in games Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Game Two was a 38-3 win at Army. Game Three was a 38-17 home win over Oregon and its potent offense led by Dan Fouts and Bobby Moore, two future NFL standouts. (Once in the NFL, Moore changed his name to Ahmad Rashad).

Game No. 4 was the first Stanford stumble, a 9-3 home loss to Duke. Bunce, ever confident, brashly predicted that Stanford would score six touchdowns to Duke's zero. He was only half-right.

Although the Stanford defense kept its opponent out of the end zone yet again--for the third time in four games--Bunce and the Stanford offense could not score a touchdown either. Duke's Ernie Jackson picked off a Bunce pass early in the first quarter and returned it for a touchdown, giving the Blue Devils the lead. As the game wore on, Stanford lost the ball three times on fumbles, and also missed three field goal attempts by new kicker Rod Garcia, who did manage to convert his fourth attempt for Stanford's only points. Bunce had produced lively pregame quotes and a 229-yard passing effort, but not a 'W.' As in 1970, Stanford dropped Game Four after three season-opening wins.

But in its first sign of resiliency, the Indians bounced back in Game Five. Stanford's defense led the way in a 17-6 win over quarterback Sonny Sixkiller and a Washington team averaging nearly 50 points. Lazetich had four sacks, while Benny Barnes had three interceptions and two sacks on blitzes.

Nearing the midpoint of the season, a mere 35 total points had been allowed in five games. And the post-Plunkett quarterback question had been answered: Bunce was a capable successor, even if sometimes his cockiness exceeded his productivity.

But a big test awaited. Game Six provided a big stage (Los Angeles Coliseum), bright lights (8 p.m. kickoff), and a revenge-seeking opponent (USC). The 1970 Trojan Rose Bowl drive had been derailed in a 24-10 Stanford Stadium loss.

The 1971 Trojan team, however, would suffer the same fate as its predecessor, losing to the Indians, 33-18. Despite a wet football and soggy turf, Bunce engineered the first Stanford win over USC in Los Angeles since 1957. Stanford's record was 5-1.

Game Seven was another setback, a 24-23 loss to lowly Washington State at Stanford Stadium. But then came more resiliency in Games Eight and Nine--the former a tense 31-24 victory at Oregon State, the latter a tough 20-9 home win over UCLA.

Stanford's Pac-8 record was now 7-2, and the Indians were one conference win away from another Pac-8 championship and a back-to-back Rose Bowl appearance.

But before the Pac-8 finale against Cal came a nonconference interlude: Game Ten, San Jose State. It was to be one of the oddest Stanford home football games ever played, given Stanford's excellence in 1970-71 and its relative talent advantage over San Jose State in those years.

With the exception of its defense, Stanford could do little right that November 13th afternoon in a 13-12 loss to the Spartans. Rod Garcia missed five of Stanford's field-goal attempts, as well as an extra point.

The shocking San Jose State loss put everything in doubt. For a second time during the 1971 season, Stanford's kicker missed three or more field goals in a game.

Could Stanford hope to win a close game, such as the following week's Big Game or possibly a Rose Bowl game down the road, with a kicker so off his game?

Fortunately, no kicker-dependent scenario materialized in the 74th Big Game against Cal. In another signature performance by the Thuderchickens and the Stanford defense, the Indians shut out the Bears 14-0, earning Stanford a second consecutive Pac-8 championship and second straight invitation to the Rose Bowl. It was the first repeat Rose Bowl appearance for a Stanford team since the 1930s.

The great 1970 Stanford team had found its match in the 1971 squad, at least through the regular season portion of the schedule. The routes may have been different, but the regular season results had turned out the same. A big nonconference road victory in the September season opener. A big October win over USC. And a Pac 8 title clinched in November.

Like the 1970 team, the `71 Indians would face an undefeated Big 10 team in the Rose Bowl and be the underdog. But this time, the foe would not be Woody Hayes-coached Ohio State, but rather the Bo Schembechler-coached and fourth-ranked Michigan Wolverines.

The great Stanford defense was expected to be a huge factor in the game. But would Stanford's offense be able to make enough plays to come from behind, like the 1970 team against Ohio State? And would the kicking game foil Stanford's drive to win back-to-back games in Pasadena?

The Indian defense initially lived up to its stalwart reputation, holding the Wolverines to a field goal in a game that remained 3-0 halftime. The offense was sputtering against Bo's defense. Stanford again would need to call upon the resiliency card if it were to win.

It certainly seemed possible that Stanford could face a decisive final drive or a last-second field goal scenario. And that meant its kicker was looming as a potentially big factor in the upcoming second half.

Midway through the third quarter, Garcia made his first appearance on the field--for a 42-yard field goal attempt. The kick was good. Garcia had passed his first test. The score stood, 3-3, as the third quarter ended.

Early in the fourth quarter, Fritz Seyferth scored on a 1-yard run for Michigan, and the Wolverines took the lead, 10-3.

But the Indians answered midway through the final quarter. Faced with a fourth down on the Stanford 33-yard line, Coach John Ralston called for--and the Indians perfectly executed--a fake punt for a 31-yard gain and a drive-preserving first down.

Five plays later, Stanford running back Jackie Brown ripped off an electrifying 24-yard touchdown run--his third touchdown in two Rose Bowl games--and the Indians had drawn even, 10-10.

With 3:18 left, Stanford's confidence became over-confidence. Michigan's Dana Coin was short on a 46-yard field-goal attempt, but Stanford safety Jim Ferguson--catching the short kick in the end zone and brashly deciding to run it out--was tackled before he could get out for a safety. It was a controversial call by the referee, but in the age of no replay the call stood. It was now 12-10, Michigan.

Free kick by Stanford, ball to Michigan. Do or die for Stanford--the defense had to get a stop, and did its job when Michigan could not get a first down and had to punt. Stanford got the ball back on its own 22-yard line, with 1:48 remaining on the clock.

It was time for Don Bunce and that confidence to work its magic for Stanford one more time. And Bunce, the future surgeon, did just that: five straight completions in five pressure-filled pass attempts, surgically moving the ball 61 yards in just under 90 seconds to the Michigan 17-yard line with 22 seconds left.

But the next two plays netted only three yards, to the Michigan 14. Only 12 seconds remained.

On to the field trotted Rod Garcia.

Six weeks earlier, Garcia had missed the five field goal attempts in the loss to San Jose State. Twelve weeks earlier, Garcia had missed three field goal attempts in the loss to Duke.

This time, with the weight of an entire season on his back, Garcia had an opportunity to become the most memorably resilient Stanford football player of all in 1971.

Garcia was ready for this moment. The 31-yard field goal split the north end zone uprights, and Stanford had won its second straight Rose Bowl game, 13-12.

The questions about repeating, about whether the 1971 team could equal its marquee 1970 predecessor--these and all others were all answered with one swift kick.

Rod Garcia had bounced back from his regular-season miscues to make the biggest kick of all, the biggest kick in Stanford history. Confidence--and resiliency--at the Stanford kicker position in 1971? Check.

Bunce, the question-mark successor to Heisman Trophy winner Plunkett, was named Rose Bowl MVP with a 24-of-44, 290-yard performance. Confidence at the Stanford quarterback position in 1971? Check.

And the Thunderchicken-led Stanford defense, which gave up fewer than 12 points per game and held high-scoring Michigan to just 12 points in the Rose Bowl--even better than the great Thunderchicken unit of a year earlier? Check.

-- John Platz


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