Longtime Arizona State followers have been loath to draw comparisons between the 1996 season’s Rose Bowl team and this year's club for fear of jinxing the current team or overstating its ability.
But with 15th-ranked ASU set to meet top-ranked USC in a mammoth college football showdown Saturday, the analogy is inevitable, the lessons of 1996 may be helpful and the similarities are outright spooky.
For starters, this is the second time ASU ever has faced a No. 1 team. The first came in 1996 when the Sun Devils shut out top-ranked Nebraska, 19-0, to leap into the national championship picture.
Senior quarterback Jake Plummer, the unquestioned leader of that team, wore No. 16. Senior Andrew Walter, this year's leader, also wears No. 16.
The ’96 team had an unknown junior college transfer named Derrick Rodgers who ignited the defense with his aggression and edgy play. Anybody see similarities with current linebacker Dale Robinson?
The ’96 club had a pair of cover-everything safeties in Damien Richardson and Mitchell Freedman who were adept at making big plays. Riccardo Stewart's forced fumble against Northwestern and Emmanuel Franklin's forced fumble against Oregon State are two of the biggest plays of this 5-0 season.
The 1996 team had enviable depth at the tailback position with Michael Martin, Terry Battle and J.R. Redmond. Depth is a major reason why third-string tailback Hakim Hill managed to rush for a career-high 134 yards in the Sun Devils' win Oct. 2 at Oregon.
There are subtle coincidences, too.
President Bill Clinton was campaigning for a second term here in 1996 when the Sun Devils prepared to take on top-ranked Nebraska. President George W. Bush was on hand Tuesday for a debate with Sen. John Kerry as the Sun Devils prepare to face top-ranked USC.
Ahman Green fumbled the Cornhuskers’ last chance at a touchdown in the 1996 game. Green is currently fumbling away the Green Bay Packers' hopes this season.
Nebraska was the defending national champ in '96. USC holds that co-distinction this year.
Few thought either ASU team would contend for the Rose Bowl or national title.
“It's actually pretty eerie because it's starting to look like '96 all over again," said 1996 ASU receiver Ricky Boyer.
That could change in a blink if the Trojans beat ASU before 80,000 to 90,000 fans at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Nobody on ASU's current roster has competed in a game of this magnitude. Dirk Koetter has never coached in a game this big. If ASU is looking for some wisdom and advice on how to handle the big-game atmosphere, the best place to turn may be that '96 squad.
“I think the biggest thing I'd tell them is you're coming out to face a great football team and they're going to win some of the battles, but what you have to do is stay consistent," 1996 offensive lineman Kyle Murphy said. “They can't be a roller coaster. That's what killed Cal against USC last week.
“In big games the mistakes are magnified so you have to concentrate on the fundamentals like stepping with the right foot and taking what they give you. In big-time games the talent is generally the same. It's the person who makes the least amount of mistakes and the most big plays that wins." Keith Poole, a receiver for the 1996 team, said the Sun Devils were easily motivated for the Nebraska game after a 77-28 loss in Lincoln the previous year.
“I thought about that game all summer long," he said.
This year's club has used revenge as an aid in beating Iowa and Oregon State. USC beat ASU 37-17 last season.
The 1996 team got added incentive as it took the bus ride from the Scottsdale Hilton, where it was staying, to Sun Devil Stadium. Cornhuskers fans lined the route with red cars, flags and boastful signs.
“It put an extra chip on our shoulder because they had just won the national championship the year before in that stadium and they came in with the attitude that that was their house," Boyer said. “We took big exception to that."
ASU also will face a hostile crowd — this time in Los Angeles.
“When you go in there and play you have to really be focused in on what your job is," said ASU secondary coach Mark Carrier, who played for USC from 1987-89.
Composure is important, but former receiver Lenzie Jackson said it was equally helpful to let loose before the Nebraska game in 1996.
“The night before the game we had a team meeting and (linebacker) Pat Tillman stood up after the coaches left," Jackson recalled. “He was usually quiet but that night he had something to say and it became magnetic. By the end of his speech everyone was fired up, jumping all over each other. A few chairs were thrown and we broke the dry eraser board."
Jackson said the biggest lesson he learned from that game was to respect a great opponent but not revere it.
“We respected Nebraska, but we never feared them and we went out determined to be physical with them," Jackson said. “It may take until the clock reads zero, it may take until the last play, but you always have to believe you're going to win."