You knew that this game was going to be interesting when the Cal band's drum major nearly bowled over his lead band member in their signature triangle in their pre-show.
Poor guy, I felt bad for him, had no hat, ran too late onto the field, hit another band member in the back as he was running, was almost subsequently run over by his own band, and was lucky to catch his baton after throwing it in the air. I thought it was a bad omen for Cal in terms of things to come.
Instead, the California Golden Bears came out and gave their cross-bay rivals all they could and nearly pulled off the upset against the Stanford Cardinal. In the latest start for a Big Game in its 114 year history, Stanford tight end Coby Fleener recovered an onside kick and sealed the Stanford win, its second straight Big Game victory and taking back Stanford Stadium after losing the last Big Game played on Foster Field.
On the defensive side of the ball, Stanford again had issues with the passing game. The Cardinal gave up at least three receptions of at least 20 yards to the Bears. While in its past two wins against Utah and Oregon State Cal had powered its way on the ground to victories, Maynard threw the ball with a surprising accuracy, given his past performances, against the Cardinal. He burned the Stanford defense on several occasions, most notably on the opening play in which he threw a 42-yard bomb to Keenan Allen. It was not a good game for Delano Howell and the rest of the secondary.
Aside from keeping the Axe in Palo Alto, Stanford did make some marginal improvements from its disaster against Oregon last week. While many Cal fans (and some Stanford fans) bemoaned the condition of the field, Stanford had fewer slips and falls this week compared to last. Perhaps the equipment staff learned from its travails last week. Even though Tyler Gaffney's slip on the wildcat play toward the end of the 7:45 drive in the fourth quarter prevented Stanford from pulling ahead late in the game by two touchdowns, there were fewer instances where Stanford rushers and receivers slipped on critical plays.
Whatever the case, Stanford managed to stay on its feet more often than not while California could not adjust. While it is unfortunate (and yes, in some cases, tragic) that several California players were injured by their runs on the field, most notably Michael Calvin who barely limped off the field in the second half, it should be noted that both teams played under the same field conditions as each other. I'm sure I speak for all Stanford fans, though, when I say that we never want an opposing player to end their football career in a game against us and wish Calvin and the other injured Cal players well.
The field conditions were the result of a storm that was somewhat deceiving. If there had been no wind, the rain would have been the equivalent of a drizzle or a light rain. However, as anyone that sat in the upper deck can tell you (particularly the north end zone where the Cal fan section was), this rain was no typical Bay Area storm. The rain began about 10 minutes before kickoff and never stopped for the entirety of the game. The air temperature was dropping faster than it has all season this year, and perhaps most unappealing, the wind was biting and strong from the south. These factors combined resulted in a veritable exodus of the upper deck during halftime with a majority of those who left their seats settling instead for standing in the concourse jostling for a position to see the game under the stands.
Aside from the field, why were the conditions important? Well it may have played a part in Stanford's poor first half performance before it made second half adjustments. Take for instance PK Jordan Williamson's missed field goal. What should have been an easy 33- yard attempt for Williamson in his first game back instead ended up traveling wide. Williamson, it should be noted, was kicking into the wind towards the Red Zone student section. That missed field goal prevented Stanford from going up by four with momentum going into the half. It also gave head coach David Shaw one heck of a decision to make in the fourth quarter with his team only leading by a touchdown and more than three minutes remaining in the game. Luckily for Stanford, Williamson connected on the field goal -- again, into the wind. Though the layout of the stadium prevents much wind from reaching ground level, winds most definitely reach the upper deck and the top of the FG posts.
Another quick takeaway from the conditions, and this just my personal A+B=C observation, is that Stanford's receivers and Luck himself just do not play well in wet and/or cold conditions this year. As many have noted, Stanford has not looked the same since the USC game on October 29th. But consider the conditions that Stanford has played in in the three games that followed. In Corvallis, Stanford battled the Beavers in a steady, cold rain. Against Oregon, the Bay Area was literally inundated under a monsoon for the majority of the night prior to the game. In Big Game, similar to the Oregon State game, a steady, cold rain poured on the Bears and Cardinal. In games where the field is dry and the temperature is moderately warm, Stanford has done extremely well. In cold, wet conditions, Stanford hasn't. While this belittles the effort of Stanford's opponents, I think the correlation might be one to consider going into next weekend's Notre Dame game.
This Big Game, as alluded to earlier, was not without its drama. Stanford was able to pull ahead of the Bears after trailing in the first quarter for only the second time this season on a Gaffney six yard run where he powered his way to the endzone with several Cal defenders doing their best to drag him as far as possible from the goal line. Stanford then came out with a bang in the second half with a Levine Toilolo touchdown pass in the corner of the endzone. After a California three-and-out, Luck led the Cardinal for a six play, 78-yard drive to the endzone to put Stanford up by 15.
True to Joe Kapp's infamous words, though, Cal never gave up. Heading into the fourth quarter down by two possessions, the Bears held Stanford to a four-down drive at the California 32. This is the drive that Shaw probably questioned Williamson's ability to kick a 49 yard field goal into the wind, which resulted in him calling for a Stepfan Taylor rush on fourth-and-two. Cal built up its fourth quarter momentum by responding with a Maynard three yard touchdown pass to Spencer Hagan to cut the lead to nine. On a drive that saw Maynard throw a 39-yard bomb to C.J. Anderson, Maynard again hit paydirt on a two point conversion that dwindled the Stanford lead to a single touchdown and PAT. Cal fans were ecstatic at that point and clamoring for more.
However, Stanford's 7:45 drive that followed quickly injected adrenaline into both sides of the stadium. Stanford drove down the field largely on a combination of three of the same plays repeated over and over. Short gain rush, Luck pass to Ryan Hewitt, short gain rush for a first down. Stanford's drive finally ended when Tyler Gaffney took the ball in wildcat formation on second down followed by a short yard run by Luck to the California 17. This time, though, Shaw sent out Williamson who made the game once again a two possession game.
A California touchdown, with some questionable clock management by coach Jeff Tedford, on the following drive pulled the Bears to within three with 0:14 left on the clock in regulation. As 1990 and 1982 have shown fans, that is far too long of a time for any team to assure itself of a win (or a loss). A Fleener open-air catch of the onside kick, though, does provide that assurance.
The game was littered with the usual assortment of questionable penalties, crazy time keeping (which, might I add, is becoming quite the norm at Stanford Stadium), and a fumble recovery that no one in the stadium was even aware was being reviewed. Regardless, Stanford came out of Big Game holding onto the Axe for the second year in a row. What made the victory even more special is what had transpired on Friday night in Ames, IA and Saturday in Raleigh, NC, Waco, TX, and perhaps most satisfying in a strange, "this is the only time a Stanford fan will applaud a USC win", in Eugene, OR. Despite being down and out in the national championship picture after last week's game against the Ducks, Stanford finds itself a few, however improbable, upsets from going to New Orleans in the second week of January.
But a BCS bowl bid is no assurance, especially without a win against the Irish. If it doesn't rain again (current forecasts have rain coming into the area later this week), Stanford Stadium will sell out its sixth game of the season in front of a packed house split between Irish and Cardinal fans. If Stanford can't win its regular season closer, it will find itself in the same position it found itself after the Oregon game, only with a much higher chance of going to San Antonio as opposed to Glendale. Stanford needs to return to the way it was playing in October in order to beat Notre Dame. The effort that Shaw and his team showed Saturday night against Cal probably will not be enough to win this Thanksgiving weekend. In essence, Stanford's season comes down to a single game. Win, and while its destiny is out of its hands, it most likely will result in a second consecutive BCS bowl game. Lose, though, and Stanford's bowl game is more in question than it has been the entire season.
Stanford 31, California 28
While the college football world was turned on its head by the most exciting weekend of the season so far, the Pac-12 wasn't immune from its own share of exciting games.
Washington 21, Oregon State 38 -- Is Washington the new Arizona? Following a similar trend that the Wildcats did last year, the Huskies started off 5-1 before dropping four of their next five games. On paper, this game should never have been close, but a quarterback change for the Huskies gave the opening that OSU needed as the Beavers ended Senior Day with its best game of the season.
Utah 30, Washington State 27 (OT) -- Three points. That is all that separates Wazzu from challenging a faltering Husky team with bowl eligibility on the line and an eighth consecutive bowl-less season. What makes it worse for the Cougars is that the loss came on its snow-covered field in overtime. The Utes, meanwhile, managed to stay in the Pac-12 South division race, although they will need help in addition to winning against new rivals Colorado in order to "win" the South crown.
Colorado 6, UCLA 45 -- QB Tyler Hansen all but assured fans a CU win after upending Arizona last week, but instead came out flat in Los Angeles. The Bruin win helped cool the very warm coaching seat of Rick Neuheisal on Senior Day in the Rose Bowl. To ensure Neuheisal's job security, though, will require a monumental upset of their cross-town rivals that would end a four-game losing streak to the Trojans and give UCLA their first South division title outright.
USC 38, Oregon 35 -- I'm not sure Oregon fans have really come to grips yet with the reality that they lost their first conference game in 20 tries or that they've lost at home for the first time in just over three years. LaMichael James was effectively shut down by the USC defense as the Trojans kept Oregon to its worst scoring output at Autzen in several years in an upset of the Ducks in Lane Kiffin's biggest win as a head coach (of any team), ending Oregon's national title aspirations.
Arizona 31, Arizona State 27 -- It's been a dismal year for the Wildcats, but almost nothing can cure season-long woes like a win over the Sun Devils. Its even sweeter when you do it on your opponent's home field as multi-touchdown underdogs. Dennis Erickson, after leading his ASU squad to a 5-1 record and a victory over USC, has been at the head of a massive free-fall for the preseason South division favorites, putting into question his future in Tempe.