When I think about Big Game, countless memories rush back from over the course of my thirty seasons watching Stanford football. There are the obvious ones, ranging from the John Hopkins field goal to clinch the miracle comeback in 1990 to Ty Montgomery's five-touchdown first half in 2013, but the game I've been thinking about the most is probably a loss.
In 2009, the first year that Stanford was consistently competitive under third-year coach Jim Harbaugh, the Cardinal entered Big Game with a 7-3 record and thoughts of reclaiming the Axe. Andrew Luck was in his first season, and although he certainly showed flashes of brilliance and gave hints of what was to come, that year's team revolved around Toby Gerhart and his Hesiman-runner-up season. Gerhart had a typical game against Cal, rushing for 136 yards and four touchdowns, but Luck had probably the worst game of his Stanford career, finishing 10 of 30 for just 157 yards and an interception that ended any hopes of a Cardinal win. Trailing by six in the final minutes of the game, Luck engineered a drive that looked like it would end with Stanford players hoisting the Axe in triumph. He scrambled to pick up one key first down, then from midfield he checked down to his third or fourth receiver and found Gerhart in the flat for what should've been a five-yard gain. Instead, Gerhart ran through four different Cal defenders and rumbled -- I think Gerhart probably even rumbled from class to class that year -- for a 29-yard gain to the Cal 13.
Listening to the radio feed at the time, I was certain of three things -- Gerhart would eventually get the ball and carry it the rest of the way for the touchdown, Stanford would win the Axe, and Heisman voters around the country would have no choice but to cast their votes for the man who had scored five touchdowns in his rivalry game. (I was young and naïve back then.) But he wouldn't touch the ball again. Two plays after Gerhart's long catch and run, Luck dropped back and threw one of the worst interceptions I can remember him throwing, and the game was over. No touchdown, no Axe, no Heisman.