Welcome back to The Vault. The 120th Big Game will be played at Stanford Stadium this weekend, so it’s fitting that we’ll be looking back at what I consider the best Big Game of the last ten years. The 2007 game comes close, as Harbaugh’s streak-breaking win was a sign of the progress that would soon be made, but I think that the 2009 meeting will go down in the annals of this rivalry as one of the best finishes, though not in a way Stanford fans would appreciate.
It’s amazing how much things have changed since 2009. For starters, Cal began the season ranked and Stanford didn’t and that was considered normal. The Bears had dominated the Big Game since 2002, having won six of the previous seven contests. Stanford’s only win, a 20-13 home victory in 2007, was a big upset. Without that loss, Cal would have tied the record for the longest winning streak in Big Game history, which had been set by the Cardinal from 1995 to 2001.
The 2009 California Golden Bears had been seeking to once again challenge USC for the top spot in the PAC-10. Cal had challenged for the conference title in the mid-2000’s, even becoming co-champions with the Trojans in 2006, but they were left out of the Rose Bowl yet again. The 2007 and 2008 seasons saw the Bears fall short of expectations, but they were still a talented team with a lot of potential.
Cal had to replace the successful Nate Longshore under center, but junior Kevin Riley proved up to the challenge. Junior running back Jahvid Best was augmented by Shane Vereen in the backfield. Receivers Marvin Jones, Verran Tucker, and Jeremy Ross were all major contributors downfield. The defensive line was led by senior Tyson Alualu, and the linebacking corps was anchored by, of course, Mike Mohamed.
The Bears began the season ranked 12th in the AP Poll and were picked to finish 2nd in the PAC-10 behind USC. After clearing through their nonconference schedule without incident, Cal hit a wall. The Bears lost at Oregon (who would eventually win the conference) and to USC (still riding high) by a combined 72-6 and they tumbled out of the rankings. Cal clearly wasn’t going to challenge for the Rose Bowl this year. The Bears did well to acquit themselves, winning three October games against UCLA, Washington State, and Arizona State, with two of those three coming on the road. They once again made the AP Poll but lost the next week at home to Oregon State. A win over Arizona put the Bears at 7-3 entering the Big Game. They’d face Stanford in an unusual position, entering the game as underdogs.
The 2009 Stanford Cardinal weren’t given much respect at the beginning of the season, and why not? Stanford hadn’t had a winning season since 2001. Having hit rock bottom in 2006, Jim Harbaugh was brought in and immediately began to turn around the program. The exciting and meaningful 4-8 campaign in 2007 generated a lot of fan interest, the streak breaking wins over USC and Cal showed a huge amount of upside, but to undo the years of neglect would take time. The 2008 season almost felt like a missed opportunity, with the 5-6 Cardinal shut out of a bowl game thanks to a 37-16 drubbing in Memorial Stadium by their archrivals. The turnaround was still a work in progress. Things were trending up, but you can understand why Stanford was still considered a bit player in the PAC-10…
…until you looked at the roster. In hindsight, the 2009 Stanford Cardinal were destined for greatness. Redshirt freshman Andrew Luck was starting for the first time. Luck would have a very strong season, but he still took a backseat to the man standing next to him in the backfield. To say that Toby Gerhart had a breakout season in 2009 is an understatement. The hard-nosed Gerhart was the workhorse of the offense and was the best running back in the nation. Familiar faces Ryan Whalen and Chris Owusu were Luck’s favorite targets that year. The Cardinal defense was shaping into the terrifying unit that would appear in the nightmares of various opposing OC’s the week before gameday. Bo McNally, Delano Howell, Richard Sherman, Shayne Skov, Clinton Snyder, and Chike Amajoyi were all major contributors at the various defensive positions.
Despite all this talent, Stanford didn’t make many waves early in the season. Again, it’s hard to blame the media for not paying attention when the Cardinal lost in Week 2 to Wake Forest. Stanford beat Washington State, Washington, and UCLA to open conference play, but just when momentum seemed to be building, losses at Oregon State and Arizona kept the Cardinal out of the national spotlight. However, Stanford, and Toby Gerhart, really hit fifth gear when November started. An easy home win over Arizona State was an appetizer, the back to back wins over #7 Oregon and #11 USC were eye openers for folks across the country. The Cardinal quite literally ran away with both games, outscoring the old and new leaders of the PAC-10 by a 106-63 combined margin. Stanford was catapulted into the top 25, going from unranked to 14th in just two weeks. The Cardinal entered the Big Game 7-3, just like Cal, but they were clear home favorites.
The game started about as well as possible. Stanford received the opening kickoff on their own 31 yard line. Two short gains set up 3rd down with 2 yards to go and Andrew Luck handed the ball off to Toby Gerhart, who broke through the withering defenders for a 61 yard touchdown run. I’m sure plenty of Stanford fans were optimistically thinking “we’re gonna hang 60 on them!” Cal was cornered into a three-and-out on their first drive. Both teams punted on their second possession, but the Bears’ attempt was blocked and Stanford recovered the ball on Cal’s own 19 yard line. With the short field the Cardinal easily converted, Gerhart barreling into the endzone on a two yard play for his second touchdown. The Bears got onto the board late into the first quarter, as kicker Vince D’Amato split the uprights from 21 yards out. It was 14-3 Stanford.
Cal was starting to push back in the second quarter, forcing Stanford to punt twice on their two possessions. Kevin Riley and Shane Vereen took the Bears down the field twice. On the Bears’ first drive in that quarter, Riley was intercepted by Richard Sherman on Stanford’s own 9 yard line, saving the Cardinal. However, on their second attempt, Cal ground out a long drive that ended with Shane Vereen crashing through the Cardinal defense from one yard out with just 25 seconds left. The first half ended with a 14-10 Stanford lead. It was a game.
Cal took the initiative in the second half, Riley and Vereen engineered another five minute drive that again once again on a short run by Vereen. The Bears had their first lead of the game. Stanford blew a golden opportunity on their next possession. Chris Owusu took the kickoff 44 yards to the Cal 27, but the Cardinal offense was immediately stymied and Nate Whitaker missed the 45 yard field goal. The Bears threatened to pull away with another long drive ending in another Shane Vereen touchdown run. This time Stanford answered. Toby Gerhart busted through the Cal endzone as the third quarter came to a close and the Cardinal were only down a respectable 21-24.
The fourth quarter saw both teams dialing up the pace a notch. Kevin Riley led a two minute sprint down the field and the Bears take another ten point lead. Stanford was again forced to punt on a three-and-out, but Cal had to punt right after that, though not before drawing three and a half minutes off the clock. Andrew Luck finally found Owusu on two consecutive plays to move the ball from Stanford’s 13 yard line to the Cal 38. Toby Gerhart broke loose to move the ball to the five yard line where he promptly punched it in. The Cardinal were again down just by three.
Stanford’s defense would hold fast, limiting Cal to another punt. With four and a half minutes left, Stanford had the opportunity to drive down the field to tie or take the lead. Instead, they were shut down yet again. Luck couldn’t find a receiver and Gerhart was buried. On fourth and eight on the Cardinal’s own 23 yard line, Harbaugh elected to roll the dice. On fourth down, Luck’s pass to Jim Dray was broken up and Stanford turned the ball over. A heroic performance by the Cardinal defense limited the damage to a field goal and Stanford started their final drive at their own 42, suddenly things didn’t look too bad. There were two and a half minutes left, a relatively short field, with Luck and Gerhart behind the line.
Luck broke off two runs to bring the ball past midfield. On second down, Luck was forced from the pocket and dumped the ball off to Gerhart, who broke two tackles and rumbled down the sideline, he was only stopped by two Cal defenders on the 13 yard line. It was first down with over a minute and a half remaining. It was time for Toby Gerhart. The first play was an incomplete pass to Coby Fleener in the endzone. No big deal, there are at least three more plays left. On second down, Luck drops back and fires over the field, again towards Fleener. The ball doesn’t make it, Mike Mohamed read Luck like a book and sat on the pass, intercepting the ball on the six yard line. The Bears kneeled three times, and that was that. Cal fans rushed the field.
It was a bitter defeat. I understand why Harbaugh didn’t run the ball, there were no timeouts left and less than two minutes remaining, but Toby Gerhart was the best running back in the nation and he didn’t touch the football since taking the Cardinal to the red zone. It just didn’t make a lot of sense and left many Stanford fans scratching their heads and drinking away their sorrows after they filed out of the stadium.
Cal’s win brought the Bears back into the AP poll, but the success wouldn’t last. Cal was crushed by Washington to end the season and they then lost the Poinsettia Bowl to future PAC-12 member Utah. Stanford ended the season by beating Notre Dame for the first time in eight years, snapping another long losing streak, but Andrew Luck injured his finger early in the game. Luck wouldn’t play in the Sun Bowl against Oklahoma and the Cardinal fell 31-27. Stanford ended the season just out of the top 25 with an 8-5 record, same as Cal.
The 2009 Big Game is a rueful memory of mine. I was there and I remember the stinging disappointment as Mohamed came down with that pass. It’s still the most visceral and painful memory I have of the Big Game, but that’s likely due to my being so young. It reminds me of the stories my dad would tell me of the 1970’s and 1980’s, back when the Big Game was a much more unpredictable affair, often featuring upset bids and ruined seasons. I remember watching the 49th Super Bowl, watching Malcolm Butler intercept Russel Wilson and thinking immediately back to Mike Mohamed. We haven’t had a lot of that lately in the Big Game, not that I’m complaining.
Stanford may have lost the battle in 2009, but the Cardinal certainly have won the war. Stanford regained the Axe in 2010 in a 48-14 thrashing at Memorial Stadium. Cal has only really threatened to retake the Axe once since, in 2011, but for the most part the Big Game has served as an annual referendum for how divergent the paths each team has taken since 2009. The Bears slid into irrelevance and fired Jeff Tedford, the man responsible for their greatest successes since Pappy Waldorf. It hasn’t worked and Cal has remained irrelevant. Stanford, meanwhile, has been the class of the new PAC-12. No team in this conference has had a higher winning percentage or has been to more Rose Bowls since the Cardinal retook the Stanford Axe in 2010.
Stanford currently stands on the border of history. Their current seven game winning streak has tied the Cardinal’s own record as the longest in Big Game history. Another win and the Harbaugh-Shaw Cardinal will have officially dominated Cal like no Stanford team ever has before. Let 2009 be a lesson against complacency, because even a favored Cardinal team at home can slip up. Shaw was there in 2009 as offensive coordinator, he should know when to hand the ball off to Bryce Love.