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The Wayback Machine: A 20 year Rewind to Stanford Football's 1996 Season

How far has the Stanford program come in 20 years? A very, very long way

Head coach Ty Willingham looks on during the 1996 Sun Bowl
Head coach Ty Willingham looks on during the 1996 Sun Bowl
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

We're less than 60 days away from the start of the 2016 Stanford football season, so let's take a stroll down memory lane - 20 years to be exact - and revisit the 1996 Stanford campaign. While the 1996 edition of Stanford Cardinal football may not belong in the pantheon of elite Stanford football teams, the ‘96 Cardinal, coached by Ty Willingham were one of the more resilient groups we have ever seen on the Farm. While they may not be remembered by a dominant Rose Bowl victory or a PAC 10 championship, they provided great memories. Here's to some of the great moments of the 1996 season.

The come from behind victories versus UCLA and USC

The Cardinal entered the UCLA game 2-5, still licking their wounds after a thorough 41-9 shellacking courtesy of Arizona State. With the Cardinal clinging to 14-7 halftime lead over UCLA at the Rose Bowl, Stanford's offense hit the skids and could not move the ball consistently in the 3rd quarter. The Cardinal defense gave up 13 unanswered points, so UCLA took a 20-14 lead late in the 4th quarter. With a few minutes left in the contest, Chad Hutchinson led the Cardinal down the field, tying the game with a touchdown pass to Brian Manning in the corner of the end zone. With only 58 seconds remaining, the all-important PAT was the only thing separating Stanford from victory. The ball soared through the uprights giving the Cardinal their signature road win of the season. Stanford had come from behind in the 4th quarter and had won a close game over the favored Bruins, 21-20. No one could foresee the feat being repeated a week later against the Trojans.

But it didn't start off well. The Trojans sprinted to a 20-7 lead late in the 2nd quarter and stifled a late 2nd quarter Stanford drive with an interception. The Trojans headed to halftime 20-7 and in firm control of the game. In the 3rd quarter, tailback Mike Mitchell cut the Trojan lead to 6, 20-14. Later, fullback Greg Comella willed his way into the end zone, putting the Cardinal ahead 21-20 with under two minutes left in the 3rd. The 4th quarter would end in several stymied drives by both offenses. On the final USC drive, senior defensive tackle Pete Swanson intercepted the ball deep in Trojan territory, setting up a chip shot field goal and closing the door on the Trojans, final score 24-20.

The Stanford defense were the heroes of the 99th edition of the Big Game

The Cardinal had reached .500 at 5-5, but to become bowl eligible, they would need to defeat the 6-4 Bears. Could they continue their upward trajectory and reach the post season? The game's first pivotal play came when Cal two-way player Deltha O'Neal fumbled inside Bear territory, providing great field position for the Cardinal. Unfortunately, Stanford's offense were unable to capitalize and had to settle for a field goal, 3-0 Cardinal. The start of the 2nd quarter saw the Stanford defense make their 2nd big play of the day, as Kailee Wong intercepted a Pat Barnes pass and rambled 55 yards towards pay dirt and a commanding 17-0 lead.

The Bears regained their composure as Pat Barnes found tight end Tony Gonzalez for a touchdown over the middle, pulling the Bears to within 10, but it was only cause for temporary celebration. On the ensuing drive, the Stanford offense called a slip screen against a blitzing Bears' defense, the always slippery Troy Walters was not even touched as he sprinted 57 yards for a score, putting the Cardinal ahead 24-7. The Stanford defense then continued to make plays, intercepting Barnes once again inside Bear territory and setting up another field goal, the Cardinal were up 27-7 at the half.

Early in the 3rd quarter, speedy receiver Damon Dunn took a reverse 37 yards for a score; the Cardinal were now up 34-7 but the game wasn't over yet. The Bears finally found their groove on offense and Pat Barnes connected twice through the air to pull the Bears to within 13. Stanford mounted a time consuming drive, culminating with Mike Martin snagging a short Hutchinson pass for six, putting the Cardinal ahead 42-21 in the 4th quarter and sealing the Big Game victory.

The Sun Bowl showdown with Michigan State, coached by Nick Saban

The Cardinal defense seized momentum early in the 1st quarter, when safety Josh Madsen intercepted the ball at the Cardinal 31. While in route to the end zone, Madsen lateraled the ball to cornerback Leroy Pruitt, who sprinted the remaining 50 yards for the first score of the game. The Cardinal were up 7-0 early in the contest. As the 2nd quarter began, it was evident that the extra practice had benefited Hutchinson well. His control of the offense, as well as touch and chemistry with his receivers had continued to improve. Behind Hutchinson's strong passing, Stanford was up 21-0 at the halfway mark.

The 2nd half mirrored the first, with the Cardinal defense suffocating the Spartans offense and Hutchinson leading a balanced attack. After Dunn took a reverse 35 yards for the score, the Cardinal led 31-0. Stanford would add the final points of the game after a punt block and a Tim Smith scoop and score deep in Spartan territory. The Cardinal had won convincingly, defeating the Spartans 38-0. After starting the season 2-4, Stanford had won five straight, finishing the regular season with a record of 7-5.

Fast forward to 2016.....

Twenty years later, much has changed for the Stanford football program, and there have been several peaks and valleys. The last ten years have seen the Cardinal go from worst to first and the Stanford brand is now more popular than it has ever been.

The Cardinal faithful have become accustomed to smelling the roses in Pasadena, New Year's Day bowl games and fresh batches of top recruits. For those of us that actually remember the painful losing decades, such as the 80's, we know that there was a time when a 7 win season, including wins over Cal, USC, UCLA and a bowl game victory were causes for celebration. So we salute the 1996 Stanford Cardinal football team because of their mental toughness, because of their ability to persevere even when many Stanford faithful were already looking toward the next season. The '96 Cardinal never quit; never gave up.