No. 24: So close, yet so far

Stanford was flying high in November 2009. Two weeks ago, the Cardinal beat Oregon 51-42 to ensure their first bowl berth in eight years. The previous week, Stanford had run away from USC, 55-21, in the "what's your deal" game. The subsequent week, Stanford would down Notre Dame as Toby Gerhart took over late.

We continue our ambitious offseason series, counting down the top 40 moments of the Harbaugh/ Shaw era.

No matter how you slice it, Stanford football has arrived. Though we've since assumed all the trappings of a football powerhouse – the three straight runner-up finishes in Heisman voting, the two straight BCS bowl berths and top-10 finishes, the top-ten 2012 recruiting class, or the eminent graduation of top pro prospect of the last decade – it wasn't that long ago that Stanford football was an afterthought.

On December 19, 2006, new athletic director Bob Bowlsby hired Jim Harbaugh, a former star quarterback, but an unproven coach who had never worked at the FBS level. The rest, as they say, was history.

We are pleased present Stanford football's 40 most memorable moments, trends, games and personalities from the magical five-plus years that followed that December 2006 announcement.

24. So close, yet so far
Luck's worst game costs Card 2009 Big Game

This week marked the one blemish on the month that comes in like a lamb and leaves like a lion, as the Cardinal fell 34-28 to the California.

Looking to defend its 20-13 Big Game win in Berkeley the year previous, No. 17 Stanford pleased its home fans by jumping to a 14-0 lead over archrival Cal. The No. 25 Golden Bears, however, would use three consecutive Shane Vereen touchdowns to score 24 straight and claim a 31-21 lead with 13:14 left.

But just like Cal had rallied, so too would Stanford. Starting at his 13 with 9:03 left, Luck would complete passes of 37, 12 and 12 yards to advance to the Bear 26. Toby Gerhart would rush for 21 and then for a five-yard touchdown, and, like that, Stanford had pulled to within 31-28 with seven minutes left.

The teams traded punts and then the Bears could do no better than a Vince D'Amato field goal. (Side note: Speaking of Cal special teams, was punter Brian Anger's school email address, because that would be awesome? I always wondered.).

Anyhow, facing a 34-28 deficit with 2:42 on the clock, Stanford assumed possession and the chance to write a storybook ending. Except sometimes your opponent's dreams get to come true as well.

In preparing for this countdown series, I solicited input from The Bootleg staff. (General reaction: Good luck, but you're crazy for trying it.) Staff writer Wyndam Makowsky wrote the following about this game:

"Luck's game-ending INT in the 2009 Big Game should be in there, although more for the head-scratching decision of having Luck throw it in the first place when a) Toby was running buck wild, b) we had to burn clock and c) Luck was having his worst game of his career to date."

Wyndam's take hews closely to the conventional wisdom about the final minutes of the 2009 Big Game, which is that, in a nutshell, Jim Harbaugh screwed the pooch. There's a lot of evidence in that corner. On the fateful play, we did have just under two minutes to go with the ball at Cal's 13, as Wyndam points out. Gerhart would finish with all four Stanford touchdowns and 136 rushing yards. That he accomplished all that in just 20 carries (6.8 yards per carry) suggests Stanford should have certainly fed him more throughout the game.

Plus, to lift from that Five for Fighting song, even heroes have the right to bleed, and on this day, Stanford's Superman quarterback had a decidedly human performance. He would finish 10-of-30 for 157 yards and with Stanford's only turnover of the day, a fateful, last-minute interception.

However, the last drive and the current drive had seen Luck thrive. The previous drive, whose play-by-play is outlined above, started with three Luck passes for 61 yards before Gerhart carried it the rest of the way. On the final drive, Andrew Luck accounted for every single yard. Stanford marched from its 42 to the Bear 13 as Luck scrambled twice for 16 total yards before Gerhart ripped off a 29-yard gain -- but on screen pass from Luck.

So on the final play, it's second and ten from Cal's 13. After playfaking to Gerhart, Luck drops back, only to notice that a defensive lineman has shot a B gap and is barreling in on Luck. He has to get rid of it quick, but five yards short of a well-covered Coby Fleener probably isn't the best place to put it. Mike Mohammed has an easy interception and Cal kneels it out.

Was it the right play call, though? If you watch the play, you'll it sets Stanford up pretty well for success, even with the normally stout offensive line letting a lineman through. Gerhart sits down in front of the Cal zone at the line of scrimmage. Luck has an easy throw to his open All-American, who will do no worse than gain a yard or two if the Cal linebacker five yards away makes a great play, anticipating the throw, immediately charging and cleanly tackling Gerhart in open space. That's the worst-case scenario, and how likely is all of that to happen? More likely, the play's going for 3-5 yards in four-down territory and keeping the clock running – functionally the same as a run. The upside is that should Gerhart, who took a dumpoff for 29 yards two plays before, be able to break a tackle or get to the sideline first, he might have the game-winner.

Luck had posted awful numbers on the day while Gerhart was a stud, so the coaches probably should have run Gerhart more and passed less throughout the afternoon, especially since Stanford led for much of the early-going. However, on the drive in question, it was passes that successfully marched Stanford down into the red zone, and it was a very similar play, a dumpoff to Gerhart, that accounted for the drive's biggest gain. Didn't hear anyone complaining about that call.

On the play in question then, it wasn't a flaw in design or theory, but Andrew Luck, who despite his tough day had yet to commit a turnover, missing a wide-open guy on a check down and instead throwing it five yards short of a guy in coverage. (Plus, had the play been a run and had the offensive line missed the same block, that play was likely not going anywhere either, and then Stanford would have been facing third and long… when they would have had to pass.)

Bottom line: I appreciate the instinct to protect our players, but if the blame for this loss has to lie at someone's shoulders, I don't see how it's Jim Harbaugh's or Greg Roman's.

Here's the evidence: Link. (Stanford's final drive starts at 2:10, and the final play starts at 4:40.) Judge for yourself.

At the end of the day, the other team gets to impact the final result as well. In 2009, Stanford was at home, and was slightly better than Cal. Stanford, however, was not good enough that the Cardinal could expect to win on an off day, as they probably could in 2010 (and did in 2011), and certainly not a day when their quarterback would finish 10-of-30.

So Stanford fans all wish the last two minutes played out differently, and that I'm arguing with myself about a game from three years ago shows full well that the loss still stings. However, maybe it wasn't the coach's fault and maybe it wasn't a player's fault either (unless we expect him to be perfect and get to blame him any time he makes a mistake). Maybe the other team, who we can assume has practiced just as hard and is trying to win just as much as we are, had something to do with it. They, after all, are the ones who created the pressure that led to the bad decision, and then caught the pass to ice the win.

50-41. More memorable moments - Loukas, Luck, and a phantom clipping call
40. Fake out - Luck stuns UW with a naked bootleg in 2010
39. Polls and bowls - Stanford climbs into college football's beauty contests
38. Steamrolled - Card run for 446 yards in 2011 beatdown of UW
37. Opening act - 2009 win over Ducks launches a November to remember
36. Going bowling - Loss to Sooners doesn't ruin first bowl game since 2001
35. "Shut up and play football" - Cal jaws pregame, falls behind 45-0 in 2010
34. Look ma, no legs - Luck throws a 52- yard dart while in free fall
33. Sit down - Burfict's head leads to go- ahead TD, Wilkerson's ices W at ASU
32. Injury bug - Despite multiple injuries, 2011 Card manage to rally
31. Whale watching - Stanford starts recruiting at an elite level
30. Suck for Luck - The media machine anoints the next football savior
29. Outta my way - Luck bounces off Cattouse for a 50-yard run
28. 0 for 3 - Card post three shutouts in 2010 campaign
27. Laying the wood - Luck lays out Wright
26. Concussed - Owusu is knocked out of four games
25. Jumping ahead - A 21-3 lead vanishes in Autzen in 2010

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