And with the rivalry atmosphere alive in the chilly November air, junior quarterback Brock Mansion took the field – crowd of 67,793 at his back – and lined up under center.
The critical first play was… A deep pass? Solid run? Trick play?
Try a muffed snap.
It was that type of day for the Bears in their 48-14 loss to Stanford. California consistently shot themselves in the foot with unforced errors that essentially gift-wrapped Stanford with a seemingly uncontested victory. For Stanford, the win keeps their bid for the BCS alive. For Cal, the loss puts the Bears' bowl hopes on one game – next Saturday versus Washington.
And while Brock Mansion recovered that muffed snap on the first play of the game, he was not as lucky just two plays later.
A second mishandled snap in a three-play span this time found itself in Stanford's arms, as junior defensive end Matt Masifilo pounced on the ball, giving Stanford possession at Cal's 29 yard line.
That turnover resulted in a field goal, giving the Cardinal a 3-0 lead.
"You can't afford to waste plays, No. 1," said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. "No. 2, you can't afford to turn the football over. That was costly to give them a short field, even though the defense held up and they only got a field goal out of it. You just have to execute better. You can't afford to do that against a great football team."
The California miscues would not only be limited to mishandled snaps.
On the Bears' next offensive possession, Mansion and junior running back Shane Vereen orchestrated a solid drive deep into Cardinal territory. But an ill advised and poor throw by Mansion on 3rd-and-10 fluttered right into the hands of Stanford senior cornerback Richard Sherman at the 5-yard line, thus immediately ending Cal's early scoring threat.
"I was rolling out right," said Mansion. "They were in their cover-2 look, and [junior wide receiver Alex Lagemann] slipped behind the corner. I don't know, from what I was throwing...I thought I had put enough on it. But, as the results show, I had not."
The errors would not end there, as the Bears committed a crucial offsides penalty on 3rd-and-4, handing the Cardinal the first down. Three plays later, Luck escaped the pocket and rumbled for a physical 58-yard gain, trucking Cal players along the way. Moments after that, the Cardinal punched the ball into the end zone, and Stanford built a 10-0 lead.
From there, the errors would only continue to amount. The Bears committed nine penalties for 95 yards, and were never in rhythm. Mansion struggled in the first half, completing 8-of-16 for 57 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. He finished 19-of-37 for 173 yards with one touchdown and the two picks.
"You don't fumble a snap and give them the ball down in the red zone to start the game. They were a lot of plays to made, but we didn't play well enough to win," said Tedford. "Stanford's a great football team, the No. 6 team in the country, and you can't afford to make mistakes. You've got to make sure that you're executing, and we didn't do it."
Shane Vereen got little support as well, slugging his way for 63 yards rushing on 15 carries.
And like the California errors, the points would only continue to mount for Stanford. Lead by sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, Stanford passed and rumbled their way to 31 first-half points. Luck showed his NFL potential, completing 16-of-20 for 235 yards and touchdowns with 72 yards rushing, including 10-of-12 for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
"You have to give Andrew Luck a lot of credit," said Tedford." In my opinion, he's the best quarterback in the country. I haven't seen all the quarterbacks, but he plays about as well [as anyone]. He's a very accurate passer. He doesn't make mistakes. When he pulls it down, you can't arm tackle him. He's going to run through things. He has speed and athleticism. He's a great player. And I would suppose, if he chose to come out, he'd be the first quarterback taken in the draft."
After thwarting No. 1 Oregon's spread, speed, and tempo, the Bears could not handle Stanford's physical, power pro-attack. If the Bears are to attend their eighth straight bowl game, they are going to have to deal with another pro-style offense and NFL-caliber quarterback in Washington senior Jake Locker. A win means a likely bid to the Sun or Holiday Bowl. A loss means the Bears will be spending the holidays at home.
"We have one more game. We're home against Washington to get our sixth win and to be bowl eligible," said Tedford. "Going into this week, there will be a lot of focus, and we have to be able to prepare well."
The Huskies (4-6, 3-4), who are also playing for their own bowl bid, provide the Bears with one last chance to finish the season strong and build for next year. A bowl game means an extra 15 practices and live in-game experience for next year. A win means the Bears can temporarily close Memorial Stadium with a win, while it undergoes renovation during the 2011 season.
Meantime, the Bears will have suffered their sixth loss of the season – their most since the 2007. The Bears will lose the prized Stanford Axe for only the second time in nine years. And, if the Bears do not come out with a victory next Saturday, they will lose the opportunity to go bowling – their first since 2002 when they were ineligible.
"If you can't get motivated for that, then there's a problem."
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