It might just be possible, as the Washington Huskies learned to their considerable grief last Saturday, to have too much respect for John Elway, Stanford's peerless quarterback. The heavily favored Huskies were so intent on stopping Elway, sometimes with suicidal safety blitzes, that they neglected, as Elway himself assuredly did not, the other weapons in the Cardinal arsenal. The oversight proved costly, as Stanford brought its record to 5-3 by beating Washington 43-31 in this season's biggest upset.
The Huskies' defeat will surely drop them several notches in the Top 20 ratings—they had been atop the UPI poll and ranked second by the AP and SI. And, equally surely, the win boosted the Heisman Trophy candidacy of Elway, who, though he generously delegated responsibility on this afternoon, still completed 20 of 30 passes—16 of his last 17—for 265 yards and two touchdowns.
Elway is one of those rare athletes whose mere presence so obsesses opponents that they tend to concentrate on him at the expense of all else. Says Stanford Coach Paul Wiggin, "Every team we play puts up a picture of John and says, 'That's our battle cry.' " Not without cause, of course. Elway already holds Pac-10 career records for completions (698), touchdown passes (72) and passing yardage (8,408), and he's only 26 yards shy of the conference's total offense standard of 8,178 yards established by one of his Stanford predecessors, Jim Plunkett, who has helped while away the NFL strike by attending some Stanford practices and giving Elway an occasional tip. But mere numbers cannot account for Elway's impact on opponents, nor do the stats tell the story of Saturday's emotional triumph in a game Wiggin and his players agreed, "We have to win."
As it turned out, Stanford was almost too ready for the Huskies, and its eagerness hurt the Cardinal early. On the first play from scrimmage, with a mist hanging so heavily over Stanford Stadium that Washington should have felt right at home, Stanford Halfback Vincent White fumbled after gaining 14 yards, and Huskies Tackle Ron Holmes recovered on the Cardinal 34. Faster than you can say Jacque Robinson, it was 7-0 Washington, Tailback Robinson having barreled in from 13 yards out. On its next offensive play, Stanford again handed the ball over, this time on Chris O'Connor's leaping interception at the Cardinal 39 of Elway's first pass of the afternoon. But Stanford held, and after an exchange of punts, Huskies Quarterback Steve Pelluer matched Elway in one statistical category when Stanford Outside Linebacker Kevin Bates intercepted Pelluer's pass intended for Robinson at the Washington 36. Three plays later Elway lofted a 35-yard scoring pass to Flanker Steve Brown to pull Stanford even. No matter. The Huskies still seemed in command. Midway through the second quarter, they were ahead 17-7, and Stanford didn't look very fit. Within minutes in the first quarter, its starting and backup fullbacks, Greg Hooper (pinched neck nerve) and Rob Moore (torn right knee cartilage) were out of the game. Kaulana Park, a sophomore from Hawaii who had carried the ball only four times all year, was called upon to fill in.
Halfway through the second quarter, on a first down from the Washington 46, the Huskies set up as usual to protect against the pass. Strong Safety O'Connor had moved in close to the line in a posture that indicated blitz. Which was fine by Stanford Offensive Coordinator Jim Fassel, who said afterward, "If they sack us, they take seven yards away from us. But if they don't, they give us seven points." The safety blitz obliges the defensive backs to play man-for-man, a gamble the Huskies were willing to take with their all-senior secondary. This time, the gamble failed. Elway didn't pass. Instead, he handed off to Halfback Mike Dotterer. Park, meanwhile, picked up the blitzing O'Connor and dropped him with a perfect block five yards behind the line of scrimmage, leaving a gaping hole in the defense. Now with O'Connor out of the action, Dotterer crossed the line of scrimmage and found open turf between him and the end zone. "There was no one there," said Dotterer, "so I just turned on the burners."
After the extra point Stanford was back in the game, trailing by only three points. Elway did a little dance, and the Cardinal bench erupted. "I could feel things picking up," said Dotterer, the son of Dutch Dotterer, a catcher for the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators, and a gifted scholar-athlete. Like Elway, Dotterer could play professional baseball next year—an outfielder, he turned down a contract offer from the Oakland A's to complete his senior year at Stanford—if he doesn't win a Rhodes scholarship.
Indeed things did pick up as Stanford again held Washington and forced another punt. Seven plays later—among them, two Elway passes to Tight End Chris Dressel good for 32 yards—Dotterer scored from one yard out and Stanford took the lead. Then, after a 53-yard drive, and four seconds before the half, Mark Harmon kicked a 45-yard field goal that gave the Cardinals a 24-17 lead. Early in the third quarter, Elway beat yet another Huskies safety blitz, this time with an 18-yard pass into the end zone to Split End Emile Harry. That 68-yard drive was again sustained by a pass up the middle to Dressel, for 41 yards.
Dressel, who had six catches for 106 yards, found himself free over the middle for most of the Washington game, partly because Elway was so effective at looking off the inside backers. "They were playing my eyes," said Elway. "By looking off, I got them flaring out. That left the middle open." At 8:17 of the third quarter White ran around right end for a three-yard touchdown to give Stanford a 20-point lead that was soon shortened to 13 when Pelluer hit Leroy Lutu for 17 yards and a TD.
It was left to 5'8", 190-pound White to carry Stanford out of reach. Because of a bruised shoulder, he was used sparingly the previous week in the Cardinal's 31-26 defeat of Washington State, and he shared halfback time Saturday with Dotterer. Together they rushed for 162 yards and scored four touchdowns. Wiggin had not wanted White to resume his normal punt-return chores for at least another week, but when Mike Tolliver fumbled a kick and almost muffed another, Wiggin decided he needed his surest-handed returner at this critical juncture of the game. White was instructed just to fair-catch the ball, and that was his intention as, with 5:30 remaining in the game, he awaited Jeff Partridge's 57-yarder on his own 24. Then he realized that Partridge had outkicked his coverage. "I decided to run," said White.
As the Huskies converged—failing to cover the lateral 30 yards Coach Don James insists on—White swerved sharply to the right sideline behind a screen of blockers. And that's just what it was: a screen. Not a block was thrown on White's behalf as he headed for the sideline. Suddenly, he was loose, twisting and juking the way his friend Nelson had done before him. Near the Washington 40, he was confronted by Partridge. "I knew then I had a chance to go all the way," said White. Partridge got a hand on White's jersey but couldn't hold on. Free again, White reversed his field, cutting across the center of the gridiron and angling for the left corner of the end zone. He had eluded nine tacklers, by Wiggin's estimate. When White reached the goal line after this tortuous jaunt, he looked back for officials' flags. Finding none, he bounded high in celebration.
The 76-yard return was the second longest in Stanford history. "I've never seen a run like that in my life," said Dotterer. "I still can't believe he made it," said former Cardinal and now Minnesota Viking Darrin Nelson, who, having no football to play for the moment, was watching his second Stanford game as a spectator.
"If you told me we'd score 31 points and lose, I would be quite honest and say that would be a mistake," said James, who had only the day before put to rest rumors that he would be the next coach of the Seattle Seahawks. "Maybe he should reconsider," said one disappointed Huskies fan. "They read most of our blitzes real well," said James, understating the case. "We were in a lot of coverage-type defenses and they did a great job of running against the package."
Obviously, a package designed specifically to stop Elway simply couldn't hold all the Cardinal players.