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Loss of Brian Johnson a Big Blow to Stanford : Starting Quarterback Is Knocked Out With 7:41 Left and Cardinal Leading

Times Staff Writer

Stanford quarterback Brian Johnson never knew what hit him.

Johnson was knocked out with 7 minutes 41 seconds remaining in Saturday’s Pacific 10 opener against USC when he was hit by Trojan defensive back Chris Hale.

Johnson, who had thrown two touchdown passes to help the Cardinal grab a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead over the sixth-ranked Trojans, departed with a concussion. And Stanford’s chances of knocking off USC also disappeared when he was carried off the field as the Trojans rallied for a 24-20 win before 57,000 at Stanford Stadium.

Johnson went back to pass on second-and-five at the USC 20, but he decided to run when he saw a hole open up. Johnson scrambled to the Trojan 16, where he lowered his head and dived for the first-down marker. But Hale was waiting for him, and they butted heads like two charging bulls.

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“The last thing I remembered was scrambling to the right when Chris Hale was in my face,” Johnson said after being examined by doctors in the locker room. “That’s when I went down to try to get one more yard, right through him, and that’s the last thing I remember. Everybody’s been telling me what has happened since then. I’ve got a bit of a headache.”

Johnson outplayed USC quarterback Rodney Peete for much of the game, completing 18 of 28 passes for 176 yards. Peete, who played a superb game in USC’s 34-7 season-opening win over Boston College, got off to a poor start, throwing two interceptions in the first half.

“I felt we had the game won,” Johnson said. “I felt we executed and beat them in every phase of the game, but it doesn’t mean anything because they had more points on the scoreboard than us. They won fair and square.

“We battled them but we couldn’t close it out. Despite the result, I think we are off to a decent start. Now it’s time to go out and beat San Diego State next week.”

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Hale said he was surprised that he knocked Johnson out of the game.

“Our helmets just came together,” Hale said. “He lowered his head, and I lowered mine. I’ve hit people harder. I’m surprised he didn’t get up. I’m not a very big guy (5 feet 9 inches, 170 pounds).”

Jason Palumbis, a redshirt freshman who relieved Johnson, came in and drove the Cardinal to the Trojan 2-yard line, but the drive stalled as Cardinal Coach Jack Elway called three consecutive running plays into the middle of the Trojan defense.

Jon Volpe, Stanford’s workhorse running back, who led the Cardinal with 97 yards in 24 carries, lost a yard on two straight dives up the middle, and Palumbis was nailed for a 2-yard loss by USC defensive lineman Dan Owens and linebacker Michael Williams on a quarterback keeper on third down.

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“I tried to fake left and run left, but they loaded up to that side,” Palumbis said. “It was great defense.”

If the Stanford fans weren’t already second-guessing Elway for his conservative play-calling on the goal-line series, the Monday morning quarterbacks came out in force after Elway went for a field goal on fourth-and-goal at the Trojan 5. John Hopkins shanked a 22-yard kick to the left.

Peete then drove the Trojans 80 yards to the winning touchdown, hitting wide receiver John Jackson with a 10-yard touchdown pass with 1:19 left.

Elway admitted that he may have made a mistake by not going for the touchdown.

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“I was wrong four times (on that series),” Elway said. “I was wrong on the first three plays and in kicking a field goal because we didn’t make it. I wanted to come away with something, and we didn’t. If I knew the outcome I wouldn’t have gone for it (the field goal).

“Afterwards, you can look at it and say that anything else would have been better than what happened. I’ll say it over and over again that I’m not blaming any of the players.”

Elway said he didn’t change his game plan when Palumbis replaced Johnson at quarterback.

“I thought Jason (Palumbis) came in and handled the offense well,” Elway said. “We wouldn’t have done anything differently if Johnson had been in on that last drive. If you analyze the whole thing, it all came down to short-yardage plays, and that was our problem. What I told the team was that it was an unfortunate loss, but now we know the level that we can play at. We could have won the game and we didn’t.”

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The Cardinal had one last chance after Peete’s touchdown pass to Jackson, but Hale intercepted a pass from Palumbis to seal the win for the Trojans.

“I made a couple of mistakes that cost us,” Palumbis said. “Coming in at that time was unexpected, and my nerves were pumping a little. Brian was doing a great job, but I’ve always got to be ready to play. It’s pretty disappointing because we played a great game and lost.”

Stanford refused to blame Palumbis for the loss, however.

“Johnson is a great leader,” Volpe said. “It’s hard to change quarterbacks in the middle of a drive like that, but Jason did a good job and there is no blame on him. I think we played a better ball game than it showed. They are really a good team. We were underrated more than they were overrated.”

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The Stanford players didn’t think Peete, USC’s Heisman Trophy candidate, was overrated.

Cardinal defensive back Rob Englehardt, who intercepted two of Peete’s passes, said, “He’s a great leader and he showed it on that last drive.”


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