Hill Prepares for Final Big Game

Heading into his final Big Game, California senior nose tackle Derrick Hill has been through it all…

Since joining the Bears as a blue-chip recruit in 2006, Derrick Hill has pretty much experienced all the highs and lows of Cal football.

Hill was part of the defenses that made the crucial play to preserve upset road victories over Oregon in 2007 and Stanford in 2009. Yet, Hill was also on the sideline when he saw Cal lose the opportunity to be No. 1 because of – well, you know by now.

Hill has been prone to injuries playing the most physical position on the field – suffering everything from your standard shoulder and knee injuries, to an unusual battle with gout. Those injuries have affected his playing time, which in turn has added to his rollercoaster experience.

But Hill had one of his top moments in last week's 15-13 nail-biting loss to No. 1 Oregon.

Down 15-7 early in the third quarter, the Bears were looking for a play. With an offense that was struggling, it became obvious that the only way the Bears would get back into the ballgame was through the defense.

With Oregon backed up deep on their end of the field, Hill pushed his way into the backfield, and found an open lane straight at Oregon sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas. Rather than just go after the sack, Hill brilliantly got his hand on the football just as Thomas was winding back to the throw, forcing the fumble. The ball went backwards into the end zone, where Hill had the right of mind to dive on the football and secure the touchdown.

"The main thing was to make sure that I got to that ball before it went forward," said Hill about the play. "I am from Oakland, so we remember the 'tuck' rule...that was put on the Raiders. So, I wanted to make sure that I got to the ball before [Thomas] was able to come forward."

"When I hit the ball, I knew for a fact that it was going back. So, there was no hesitation in my mind that it was a fumble, and all I was thinking when I chased it was, 'Don't go out the end zone! Don't go out the end zone!' and I just jumped on it."

And just like that, Hill experienced another high in his career. On national television (in 3-D, no less), against the No. 1 team in the country, Hill made the play that provided the Bears with a near opportunity to pull off the rare upset.

"A play like that alone brings the atmosphere to a whole new level," said Hill. "And it's not just because of who we play, but also of the time and of that play, it was just great. The most beautiful part about that whole thing was before the play. [Junior end] Trevor Guyton was saying, 'We are twelve yards from the end zone. We are putting that ball in on this drive!' When he said that, it got me excited, and it just so happened that, on that very next play, we put it in the end zone. It is the little stuff like that that not only motivates the fans, the team, and the individual. But it is something that becomes a domino effect."

But still, a loss is a loss, and the Bears, while valiant, only added another L to their season. Ironically, while the play was personally a high for Hill, it really did not mean much in the grand scheme of things to him.

"Even though it was a big play, it did not have as much value to it because we ultimately lost," said Hill. "If we would have won, it probably would have way more value. But because we did not, it was just another play in a losing effort. I told people on Monday, when I ran down [then Stanford running back Toby] Gerhart two years ago, that play means more to me than the touchdown last week, because that play helped us win the ballgame. I would trade that touchdown in for a win any day."

Makes sense because the fifth-year senior loves nothing more than to beat his archrival.

And like all the other fifth-year seniors on this California (5-5, 3-4) squad, Hill is 3-1 against Stanford (9-1, 6-1), currently ranked sixth in the nation. Parallel to his career at Cal, he has been through the highs and lows in the rivalry – taking part in blowout victories, to dramatic last-minute wins, to a heart-wrenching loss in 2007, which resulted in him walking off the field surrounded by emphatic Stanford students and fans.

But what Hill and the other fifth-year seniors do have is a first-time opportunity – the chance to knock Stanford permanently out of the BCS hunt, while securing the Stanford Axe and a bowl berth of their own at the same time.

"It would be a tremendous thing for us to go out there and retain the Axe," said Hill, referring to the prized Stanford Axe awarded to the winner of the annual Cal-Stanford Big Game.

"The Axe is a wonderful thing to have. It uplifts not just the team but the whole campus. It is something that we always cherish and we always love to have here. To continue to keep the Axe here for 8 out of 9 years would only be a great way to go out as a senior."

To retain the Axe, Hill and the Bears defense are going to have to defend Stanford's physical rushing attack combined with the very-talented Cardinal sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck – who many project to be a first round selection in next year's NFL draft.

"They present a very good, physical O-Line," said Hill. "They knock everybody off of the ball. We faced a great O-Line at Oregon State that did the same thing, and it is on us to continue to practice low pad level, knock back, and drive our feet. When [Stanford] comes against another great D-Line, it is always a great battle. Last year, they had a great O-Line, and it was a great battle for four full quarters. This year, I expect no different. It is going to be a hard-fought game, and we look forward to leaving everything on that field."

Stanford's north-south, pro-style offense is in no way similar to Oregon's east-west, spread. But the Cardinal is still averaging 39.8 points per game, good for ninth nationally. With that in mind, Hill would love to do nothing more than make a similar play on Luck as he did last week on Thomas.

"If anything, [Luck] has all the pressure on himself," says Hill. "He has to perform and meet expectations...we don't. If we add more pressure onto him, then that only makes his job that much harder. For us, it is all about this Saturday, and stopping him, and making his job harder to win the game."

And if Hill does, then you can count on him adding another 'high' to his resume, though this one might mean the greatest of them all.

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