The 2017 season is finally upon us! The long wait is over and we can finally sit back and watch college football once more. Even more superb is that Stanford fans have the shortest wait possible as the Cardinal start the season a week in advance. Technically, there will be five games being played on “Week 0,” but with the possible exception of Oregon State at Colorado State, this will be the most interesting matchup. Most of the intrigue in this game is derived from the circumstances of the meeting and not the teams themselves. The Stanford Cardinal and Rice Owls are playing across the Pacific Ocean, all the way in Sydney, Australia.
I want to welcome you to “The Vault,” it’s a series I plan on writing throughout the season, where I profile a memorable game in Stanford’s recent history (the Harbaugh-Shaw era) featuring the current matchup of the week. I’ll admit that the Stanford-Rice series isn’t the best place to start with regards to Cardinal history but it’s what the schedule has given us. These two opponents have only met five times in total and only once in the past fifty years. Still, I’m going to look back at the Stanford-Rice series because I’m starved for football and I am rabidly waiting for kickoff. If you’re reading this then perhaps you are as well.
It might surprise you to know that Rice actually owns a 3-2 all-time record against Stanford. The Cardinal and the Owls scheduled two home and home series in the late 50’s and early 60’s. If you as a Stanford fan aren’t familiar with any stories of Cardinal heroics from that far off time it’s because there wasn’t much to celebrate. Meanwhile, the Rice Owls were celebrating their most successful period in school history under the guidance of Jess Neely. Rice was a perennial contender in the old Southwest Conference in that era. During Neely’s tenure, from 1940 to 1966, the Owls won 144 games and claimed the Southwest title four times. Rice attended an Orange Bowl, a Sugar Bowl, and three Cotton Bowls, and they came away with a 3-2 record in those illustrious New Year’s Games.
From 1957 to 1964, Stanford and Rice played four times. A good way to illustrate the disparity between the programs at the time is by looking at the stability of the head coaches. Neely paced the sidelines in all four encounters, but on the opposite side there were three different head men leading the then-Stanford Indians. The inaugural football matchup between these two esteemed academic institutions was held on October 5th, 1957, and it was a blowout. Rice dominated Chuck Taylor’s Stanford squad in Houston and ran away with a 34-7 victory. That year, the Owls dropped two non-conference games and lost to Texas but they still managed to win the Southwest Conference. Rice attended the Cotton Bowl where they lost to Navy 20-7. Times have changed. It would be the last outright SWC title the Owls would ever win.
1958 was a similar story. Chuck Taylor resigned as Stanford head coach following his 6-4 campaign the previous season in order to become the university’s assistant athletic director. In came Jack Curtice. “Cactus Jack” had a strong tenure at Utah but his disastrous stint at Stanford was one of the lower points in program history. On September 27th, their second game of the season, the Indians were cleared from their own home field, losing 30-7 against what would turn out to be a fairly mediocre 5-5 Rice team. Stanford finished the year a dismal 2-8, though it was only the second worst season they’d endure under Curtice.
The 1957-58 home and home series with Rice was rightfully forgotten by Stanford fans. The team was noncompetitive in both games but the schools decided to try another home and home a couple years down the line. The 1963-64 series showed a bit more promise on Stanford’s end but it began in a similar manner as the previous losses. Jack Curtice had left the team the year before. He was replaced by John Ralston, who had just led a revival of fortunes at Utah State and would do the same in Palo Alto. Unfortunately, Ralston didn’t turn them around quick enough to beat Rice in his first season. On October 12th, the eventual 6-4 Owls beat Stanford 23-13 in Houston, extending their series lead to 3-0. The Indians went an uninspiring 3-7, but it would be their only losing season under Ralston. Meanwhile, Rice enjoyed their final winning campaign under Neely.
1964 was a watershed year for both programs. Stanford was slowly building into a competitive squad under Ralston. Stanford would be one of the most successful programs in the West Coast in the late 60’s and early 70’s and it was thanks to Ralston’s leadership and the arm of Stanford’s first ever Heisman quarterback, Jim Plunkett. However, the two PAC-8 championships and Rose Bowl victories were still far in the future in 1964. Stanford barely scraped to a 5-5 record, but it was progress. Rice wasn’t so lucky. On October 10th, the Owls staggered out of Stanford Stadium after getting beat 34-7, a perfect mirror of the 1957 game played between the schools. Stanford finally had a win in the series, and would soar on to greater heights as the program developed under Ralston.
Though Stanford and Rice would remain competitive in the academic realm, the pair wouldn’t meet on the gridiron again in the 20th Century. Stanford rode John Ralston to two consecutive Rose Bowl wins and remained a decently competitive team after he left. Soon after, they changed the name and became our beloved Cardinal, and while the team experienced some ups and downs they have had a comparably good run next to the Owls. Jess Neely finally retired following the 1966 season after giving Rice football 26 of its best years. His final three campaigns were losing ones, and the Owls lost still more after Neely departed. Rice became a punching bag, and was often the worst team in the Southwest Conference until SMU got the death penalty. The Owls wouldn’t have a winning season until 1992 and they wouldn’t win more than seven games until 2001. Their most successful run since Neely left has arguably happened under current head coach David Bailiff. Stanford can also claim to be having its most prosperous stint since the Ralston years, though obviously their successes are different in scope.
This brings us to 2016, the first meeting between Stanford and Rice in 52 years. The match was held on November 26th, the final game of the regular season for both schools. The Cardinal came in with an 8-3 record, having won four in a row against PAC-12 foes. Stanford was ranked 24th in the CFP rankings and the Cardinal just made their first appearance in the AP Poll since falling to Washington State on October 8th. The Owls were 3-8 but had won their previous two games against Charlotte and UTEP, this was only good enough to tie them for last place in their division.
It was a rainy affair, with a drizzle pouring down on the crowd for most of the game. The announced attendance at was 36,171 but those numbers appeared generous and by the second half there were clearly only a few thousand brave souls left watching the game. It was a bit sad for a Senior Night sendoff, but a game on Thanksgiving weekend against a horrible Rice team in bad weather doesn’t quite get the blood pumping.
The tone was set early. Rice had to punt on their first set of downs and would do so in their next three drives. On Stanford’s first drive, Keller Chryst scrambled 62 yards down the line and into the endzone on the third play from scrimmage. For the rest of the rainy afternoon, Stanford leaned on Christian McCaffrey, playing in his final home game in a Cardinal uniform. McCaffrey rushed for 204 yards on 30 carries with a 19 yard touchdown run and a 23 yard td reception. Conrad Ukropina was also having a successful senior night. One of the most potent legs in college football kicked his final two field goals in Stanford Stadium during the fourth quarter. Ukropina also tacked on five extra points with his near-automatic efficiency. Rice finally scored to close the first half, kicking a field goal following a six minute drive, only their second drive in the game not to end as a three-and-out. The score was 20-3 Stanford.
The Cardinal came out in the third quarter ready to put the game away. An aborted attempt on the first drive was rectified by a quick strike on the second, 42 yards in four plays. Rice finally came to life as well, they followed up Stanford’s score with a touchdown drive of their own. The Owls run game led by Samuel Stewart and Jowan Davis ground out a four minute drive that ended with Davis rushing six yards into the Cardinal endzone. Determined to end the threat, however small, Stanford returned fire even quicker than before. In just three plays, the Cardinal rushed 62 yards into the endzone. Bryce Love ran the final 50 yards virtually untouched on a sweep to make the score 34-10. Rice only managed another three-and-out. Taking only two plays to respond, Chryst connected with Francis Owusu downfield and Owusu hustled into the endzone to complete the Cardinal’s 41 point night.
Shaw let the offense coast the rest of the way as the game was readily in hand. The Owls managed another touchdown deep into garbage time to make the final score 41-17. A couple thousand rain soaked fans (yours truly included) saw off McCaffrey, Ukropina, Solomon Thomas, Michael Rector, Noor Davis, and the rest of the senior class.
It was a modest win against a less than competitive opponent, and in the grand scheme of things it won’t be remembered much by Stanford or Rice fans. The 2016 meeting did get the Cardinal only one game away from tying the all-time series record. It’ll be up to the 2017 Stanford squad to finally even the score.
From the final game of 2016 regular season we turn to the first game of 2017. Stanford football starts on Saturday! Thanks for joining me in The Vault, I promise that there will be a lot more excitement in the forthcoming installments.