Upset for the Ages triggered WSU turnaround

FORMER COUGAR coach Jim Sweeney calls it one of the five most memorable games of his 200-win college coaching career. As testament, the first memento he hung on his office wall at Fresno State back in 1976 was a yellowed newspaper clip recounting the contest.

Ty Paine is all smiles as he describes how tight end Jim Forrest kept the winning drive alive with a spectacular, one-handed catch -- "a thing of beauty." Ron Mims says he can picture the last, anxious seconds as vividly today as he did in 1971. And offensive lineman Steve Busch was so moved by the feat that he permanently borrowed the game film before graduating.

If this Saturday's much-anticipated clash of the unbeaten Cardinal and Cougars turns into the donnybrook that pundits are forecasting, it'll still have to border on the extraordinary to rival the Stanford-WSU contest played 30 years ago this month.

On that day, Sweeney and his scrappy band orchestrated one of the most improbable, nail-biting wins in Washington State history: A 24-23 clock-beating triumph over tenth-ranked Stanford. A sports writer proclaimed it the "most astounding" upset in all of college football that season. The win sparked a turnaround for a WSU program whose woes were unmatched until 1998-1999-2000 cascaded into one giant meltdown.

ALL-COAST BACK BERNARD JACKSON.

The significance of that victory went beyond one Saturday or one season. It was a glimmer of hope. A reason to cheer. For the first time since the Cardiac Kids of 1965, there was excitement in the Palouse air. A wild win over Oregon the following week carried the momentum.

"People were talking Rose Bowl around here," said Wallace Williams, Jeremey's dad, in an interview a few years ago. "It was a turning point for the program."

Sweeney said that the confidence boost set the tone for WSU's Top 20 finish the following season. "We earned national recognition for the first time in a long while. The program had been in ashes -- this was a large building block for us."

Don Sweet kicked a 27-yard field goal as time expired to give the Cougs the one-point win in front of 52,250 disbelieving fans in Palo Alto. The boot capped a drive that began 85 yards away with 1:10 on the clock.

"We were on the left hashmark, four seconds left," Sweet remembered in a 1996 interview. "Gary Bergan, my holder, made a perfect spot. It was a piece of cake. I didn't realize time expired, so I just picked up my tee, thinking I had to kickoff. Everyone else was celebrating. Sweeney noticed that and started telling everybody how cool I was." Sweet would later play 14 seasons in the CFL.

So memorable was the victory that a 1993 poll of long-time Cougar watchers rated it among the top 10 WSU wins of the last 30 years.

"I can still see that ball twirling through the goalposts," remembered Williams, one of 16 JC transfers who fueled the 1971 renaissance. "We jumped around like kids in a candy store."

Mims, a star defensive back, said he'll always marvel at the joyous walk to the locker room afterward because so many Stanford players and fans came up to offer congratulations.

The late Bernard Jackson, who rushed for 141 yards that day and went on to play nine years in the NFL, recalled years later that the team returned to Pullman around midnight and found Stadium Way packed with cheering students. "The bus driver had to stop. We ended up walking to Bohler Gym. When we got there we had a huge, impromptu pep rally. It sent shivers up your spine."

To put the enormity of the win into perspective, consider that the Cougars, going into that contest, hadn't won a conference game since the 1968 Apple Cup. They were riding an 0-16 record in conference play. The previous season, 1970, saw the Cougs go 1-10 and get humiliated at home, 63-16 by Stanford. Adding insult to injury, remembered WSU defensive end Brian Lange, "A drunk Coug fan tackled a Stanford back who was running in for another TD."

Stanford, meanwhile, was riding high. The defending Rose Bowl champions were in the midst of another great season -- one that would conclude with a second straight victory in Pasadena.

"I never had a team as psychologically ready to play a game," Sweeney recalled of his '71 club. "After the embarrassment the year before, we were bent on revenge. Every night at dinner I'd ask one player what he, personally, would do to help us beat Stanford. Some were prophetic."

Indeed, the autumn of 1971 proved to long-suffering players, fans and competitors that Ol' Wazzu would be a doormat no more. As former linebacker Crosby Anderson put it, "Finally, we were the ones walking out of the stadium with a swagger. That was important for everyone."

THE GAME-BREAKERS

  • Ty Paine and the late Ike Nelson hook up on a 71-yard pass to put the Cougs up 14-3.
     
  • Sweeney convinces a distraught Paine, who fumbled in Stanford territory with four minutes left, that there was time for redemption.
     
  • Cougar defense holds, forcing a punt with 1:17 left.
     
  • Bernard Jackson goes 26 yards on a screen pass and gets out of bounds at the 50.
     
  • Paine passes 13 yards to Jim Forrest on third down to keep the drive alive.
     
  • Nelson leaps to catch a pass Paine was throwing out of bounds to kill the clock - he picks up 8 yards and gets out of bounds with four seconds left.
     
  • Sweet kicks winning field goal.

OTHER NAIL-BITERS

The Cougs and Stanford have waged a number of classic battles over the years.

Besides the 1971 affairs, two others in the last 30 years stand out most. In 1984, the Cougs trailed 49-14 with five minutes left in the third quarter. And then Mark Rypien and Rueben Mayes put the fabled RPM offense into overdrive to produce the Pac-10's greatest comeback win.

Mayes tallied five TDs and the Cougars won 49-42. In 1988, one week after upsetting No. 1 UCLA, the Aloha Bowl-bound Cougars pulled out a 24-21 win at Stanford when linebacker Chris Moton intercepted the Card at the Cougar goal line in the waning moments.

Cougfan.com Recommended Stories