Significance reigned in the 110th Big Game. For the first time in seemingly forever, hope for the future joined the Axe on Farm. Stanford closed the chapter on the most extended period of Cal dominance since the 1920’s, with five consecutive Bear wins by an average of nearly 21 points. Stanford won for the just the third time in 21 home games. I repeat, Stanford's home record dating back to 2004 was 2-18.
“I would say our team has learned how to win – we won the Big Game, and this team has knocked down a lot of hurdles,” Jim Harbaugh said in the afterglow. "The thing about our team is that they go into every game expecting to win…They are the ones who have knocked down those hurdles and that’s a great springboard for us going into next year.”
But one team’s coming out party is another’s pity party.
“It’s not like they’re the better team,” Bears linebacker Worrell Williams said. “They’re not. There’s no way no how. Everybody knows that.”
Oh, boo-hoo. Sounds like somebody doesn’t like giving credit where it’s due.
Or does he?
“But take nothing away from them.”
[Ed: What's that political saying about a gaffe being accidentally speaking the truth? Maybe he should have been nicer, but Williams is right – Cal was the better team that year.]
Williams’ postgame rant joined generations of useless blue-and-gold noise (Brian Treggs, mascot-assaulting students, Mike Silver, etc.) Nothing new there. The Cardinal rose above its 3-8 record coming in. Stanford swapped quarterbacks – behold, PritchStrander! – and harassed Cal’s talented offense all night. Nick Sanchez recorded two interceptions. All that represented a revelation.
On the other side, Cal’s already forgetful season low. The Bears collapsed from a start that saw them 5-0 and within minutes of a No. 1 ranking. Spectacular failures, from those wearing headsets and headgear, marked Cal’s sixth loss in seven games.
Jeff Tedford’s crunch-time strategy was to ride on Nate Longshore's arm and ignore tailback Justin Forsett. [Ed: One of those guys is a current NFL starter on pace for a 1,400-yard season; the other had a stint with the San Jose Sabercats.] The Pac-10's leading rusher, Forsett collected 96 yards on 19 carries for the game, but received just two carries in the fourth quarter, none on Cal’s final three drives.
Still, the Bears had the ball at the Cardinal 19 with two minutes to go, in position to tie a game they had never led. Back to throw dropped Longshore (22-of-47 passing, three total turnovers), who spotted Lavelle Hawkins in the clear in the end zone. He dropped it.
Two plays later, Sanchez played the role of sure handed receiver, diving to secure by far the biggest interception of his career. [Ed: Not counting the one against UC-Davis the refs didn't see. Grr..] Like fellow seniors Mark Bradford, Evan Moore and Ostrander, Sanchez stood out in his final game.
Lost amidst the win's importance were the methods used to achieve it. The Cardinal shuffled quarterbacks throughout. Ostrander (16-of-23, 151 yards) started under center, throwing a 28-yard strike to Bradford on Stanford’s second possession for a 7-0 lead.
Tavita Pritchard’s role was more limited (5-of-9, 45 yards) but effective nonetheless. The Cardinal extended its 13-10 halftime lead under his watch. After the second of the Bears' three punts in the third quarter (when they didn’t record a first down), Stanford took over at Cal’s 41. The Card needed only four plays and 1:47 to score.
Thanks mainly to a Syd’Quan Thompson pass interference penalty and 22 Tyrone McGraw rushing yards, Stanford stood at the one. Pritchard then rolled right on play action before finding a wide-open Austin Gunder. Derek Belch’s extra point gave the Cardinal its largest Big Game lead since 2001.
The two-possession hole added to the Bears' dissarray. They avoided Forsett while trying in vain to engage a receiving corps lacking an injured DeSean Jackson. Longshore’s third-quarter passing numbers: 2-of-6 for one yard, plus a sack, all against one of the Pac-10’s most generous defenses. Longshore then misfired on his first six attempts in the final period, culminating with Nick Sanchez’s first interception.
Stanford went conservative without (much) fail. TWISH all-time favorite Jeremy Stewart gained 70 yards on 24 carries. But J-Stew, whose 60-yard dash in the 2011 Orange Bowl remains the longest touchdown run in Stanford postseason history, nearly became the goat against the Bears. One play after picking up a coveted first down, he fumbled at the Bears’ 36 with 2:36 left.
Cal had one last burst, gaining 31 yards on a Longshore pass to Robert Jordan. Jordan's 10-yard catch on fourth and six moved the ball to the Stanford 19. But then came Hawkins’ drop, Sanchez’s heroics and the distinct feeling of change in the air.
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