It's hard to know where to start with this game. Big Game is usually either exhilarating, nerve-wracking, or depressing, but somehow Saturday's version seemed to have equal parts of each. Going into the game there was talk that the Cardinal might have trouble staying focused after losing the biggest game in program history a week before, but surely having the Cal Bears on the opposite sideline and the Axe marching around the stadium would keep them in the moment.
Early on, it didn't look like it. Stanford received a gift when California quarterback Zach Maynard botched an attempted toss to his running back and smarty pants linebacker Brent Etiz recovered the fumble. Andrew Luck hit Ty Montgomery for a fourteen-yard gain, then two plays later Montgomery was sprinting thirty-four yards into the end zone on a slick reverse.
The Cardinal led 7-0 only a minute and a half into the game, and everything looked fine, but then the Cal offense came back out and announced the Bears wouldn't be steamrolled as they had been last year. Maynard had transferred to Cal and brought a lot of optimism with him, but his first season had been marred by inconsistency. Tonight, though, he showed what all the hype was about.
Just before that fumble on the first drive, he had connected with his half-brother, wide receiver Keenan Allen for a forty-three-yard gain, and the two hooked up three more times on this second drive, including two third-and-long conversions. The Stanford defensive scheme early on featured lots of man-to-man coverage by the corners, and it didn't work too well. (Allen would finish the first quarter with six catches for ninety-seven yards and a touchdown, but to the defense's credit, he wouldn't catch another ball the rest of the game.)
Cal's drive would eventually stall at the Stanford eight resulting in only a field goal, but the Bears had easily marched sixty-seven yards with a perfect balance of run and pass, chewing up six and half minutes of game clock. They had essentially used a Cardinal-style drive on the Cardinal.
Things got stickier only a few moments later. The Cal defense was completely selling out to stop the run, answering Stanford's typical power formations by bringing all eleven defenders to within five or six yards of the line of scrimmage, daring Luck to throw. Understand that -- they were facing the presumptive Heisman Trophy winner and best quarterback prospect of the past twenty years and daring him to throw.
Not only were they flying in the face of conventional wisdom, they were finding success. Luck wisely ran play action against that defense on the first play of the first possession, and tight end Levine Toilolo slipped behind the safeties and was wide open for what might have been the game's first touchdown -- except Luck badly overthrew him.
Luck still looked shaky on this second possession, failing to hook up with Griff Whalen on first and second downs. The most beneficial aspect of a balanced offense is that third and long situations are few and far between, but after those consecutive incompletions, Luck faced third and ten. Montomgery lined up wide left and ran what was supposed to be a comeback route. The idea was that he would sell the deep route by driving hard at the cornerback, then abruptly turn back towards the line of the scrimmage and catch a ball that Luck would throw before the receiver even made his turn.
When executed perfectly, it's a difficult route to defend. On this play, it wasn't executed perfectly. As Montgomery dug in to make his break back towards the ball, he slipped on the wet turf and fell (for the second week in a row Stanford players seemed to have more difficulty with the field than their opponents). The ball, of course, was already well on its way, but the only man standing was Cal cornerback Steve Williams. Williams made the easiest interception of his life, then zig-zagged forty-nine yards for what appeared to be a touchdown and the third pick-six of Luck's season.
The touchdown was negated by a penalty, but it only took three plays for the Bears to convert that turnover into a touchdown (Maynard to Allen) and a 10-7 lead.
A funny thing happened on the Cardinal's next possession. Andrew Luck handed the ball off to Stepfan Taylor on first down, and it was a shock, but just for a second. Kind of like when your kids wake you up on your birthday and you're momentarily surprised, but only for that split second as you're rubbing the sleep from your eyes. Then you remember -- today's my birthday -- and it all makes sense. That's how it felt. I had forgotten all about Taylor, but my first thought when I saw him crashing through the line was simple: "Of course we're going to Taylor. That makes sense."
Even though those first two Stanford possessions had been short -- a two-play touchdown drive and three plays before the interception -- Taylor had been forgotten. When he took that handoff from Luck and ran for nine yards, more than nine minutes of game time had already elapsed, by far the longest amount of time before his first touch. In the previous ten games he had handled the ball on the Cardinal's first play seven times, the second play once, and the third play twice. As much as Shaw talks about running power as they get off the bus, it didn't happen that way on Saturday night, and I think that was part of the problem.
Taylor ran the ball again on the next play but was stuffed for a two-yard loss, and the power game was put away. Luck passed on the next four downs and was sacked for a fourteen-yard loss on the fifth, forcing a punt. I don't have the time to research how often Luck has looked to pass on five consecutive downs, but I think we know it could only have been once -- a week ago against Oregon.
Cal took over and Maynard continued to outplay Luck, moving his team eighty-one yards before the Stanford defense finally stood strong and forced a field goal from the two-yard line. That field goal pushed the Cal lead to 13-7 and moved my meter from "irritated" to "concerned."
The defense was bending to Cal's will, and the offense was becoming dangerously one dimensional. Worse still, that one dimension wasn't working. I exchanged a few tweets with another concerned fan, and we both agreed that it was hard to watch what was going on. Tweeted memomoment: "It's also been hard to watch Andrew Luck, normal college QB, when we're so used to Luck the superstar." Perfectly said.
Faced with the reality that Luck wasn't playing his best -- for the third week in a row -- Shaw finally returned to the running game. Stepfan Taylor, Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney, and the once-forgotten Anthony Wilkerson combined to carry ten times for seventy-seven yards on the next two Stanford possessions. Gaffney's six-yard touchdown on the first possession gave the Cardinal a 14-13 lead, and even when Jordan Williamson missed a thirty-three yard field goal at the end of the second drive -- Stanford's first empty red zone trip all season -- it seemed like everything would be okay. The offense was looking good again, and in between those two successful drives the defense had shut down Cal for a three and out. It was halftime, and things were finally looking up.
As the second half opened, it seemed like the game was about to open up like an oyster hiding an Axe instead of a pearl. Luck was back to his usual brilliant self, connecting on five of six passes for sixty-one yards on the first possession out of the break, capping that drive off with a four-yard lob for a touchdown to Levine Toilolo. After another Cal three and out, Luck picked up where he had left off, clicking on all three passes for seventy-four yards, including a ten-yard touchdown to Ryan Hewitt.
Hewitt's touchdown seemed a bit odd at the time. He swung out from his fullback position and found himself wide open in the right flat after a perfectly executed play action fake from Luck. Luck's pass led him perfectly towards the pylon, and he could've scored untouched had he just continued on that line. That would've been too easy for Hewitt, though, so he turned up field and ploughed through a linebacker on his way to the end zone. In the postgame press conference Luck admitted he wasn't surprised by Hewitt's change of direction, and revealed that the rest of the offense refers to Hewitt as the "resident bad ass." Hewitt simply shrugged and explained that he prefers to go north rather than east or west. The goal line was closer than the pylon.
Stanford led 28-13, and all signs pointed towards another second half blowout, but the Cardinal offense failed to earn a single first down on either of the next two possessions. The Bears then scored a touchdown and added a two-point conversion on their first drive of the fourth quarter to pull to within 28-21.
Luck and the Cardinal offense took the field with 10:47 to play and an awful lot hanging in the balance. Just two weeks earlier Andrew Luck was a near certainty to win the Heisman Trophy; failure here would reduce him to a spectator at the New York ceremony. Two weeks earlier the Cardinal were undefeated national championship contenders; failure here would leave them hoping for an Alamo Bowl invitation.
All Luck did was engineer a perfect drive, consuming seven minutes and forty-five seconds while bringing his team to the Cal seventeen. He only passed the ball four times, but each pass was critically important: fourteen yards to Coby Fleener on second and twelve, nine yards to Hewitt on second and ten, ten more to Hewitt on second and eight, and another eight to the Bad Ass on second and nine. The drive stalled when Luck's dive for the first down marker came up two yards short. Luck didn't win the Heisman with this drive, but he secured the game, and you and I both know he'd tell you that's what really matters.
Jordan Williamson nailed the field goal to give the Cardinal a two-score lead, and the game was essentially over. Sure, the plucky Bears managed to squeeze the ball into the end zone to pull to within 31-28 with twelve seconds remaining, but it was over. Sure, even David Shaw admitted that he had thoughts of 1982 and 1990 spinning through his head, but it was over. Finally. It was over.
After Fleener recovered the onside kick, and Luck took a knee, the game was over and the Axe was safe.
But as the seniors were hoisting that Axe into the air and celebrating in front of their fellow students, something was missing. I was relieved, not excited, and it didn't seem like I was the only one feeling this way. Even the players' celebration on the field seemed a bit muted as compared to last year's, but I don't think it was just because they had only retained the Axe instead of recapturing it.
There was something lingering over this victory, an understanding that an opportunity had been lost the week before and that this win had not only been unimpressive, it might've cemented the perception that this Cardinal team isn't ready to be grouped with the elite teams in the nation. Andrew Luck completed 20 of 30 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw his fourth interception in the past three games and looked a lot more like Clark Kent than Superman for much of the night.
Even so, it's hard to be too disappointed. The Axe will be home for the second year in a row. Stanford is 22-2 over the past two seasons, 22-0 against teams that don't play their home games in Eugene, and they'll likely finish this season the same as last -- with a BCS bowl game. And did I mention we have the Axe?
[Photo Credit: Marcio José Sánchez/AP Photo]