Also, the biggest game next weekend as it relates to Stanford's Pac-12 title hopes will occur hundreds of miles south. Stanford against UCLA? I like the Cardinal seven times out of 10 (which is not that bold when the Card have won the last five and counting in the series...) Stanford against USC? With Ronnie Harris in a walking boot? And a fired-up USC playing to its potential? Flip a coin. My other press box neighbor, one Andy Drukarev, disagrees, for what it's worth...
Bears moving left to right as we start the third quarter. Think they need a touchdown on this opening drive to stay in the game and keep their crowd interested after McCaffrey's backbreaking return to close the first half. Don't like their 28-yard Tre Watson run to start the half. Dislike their road jerseys, which look like a bad San Jose impression with the white jerseys, gold pants and blue helmets. Dislike Vic Enwere missing the hole, dancing around, and running for just two on a rare Cal run blocked for a solid eight. And most of all, were I a Cal fan, I'd dislike the decision to take the three on fourth and two from the Stanford eight. Jared Goff's third-down swing pass took his receiver off his feet, hence the fourth down, but trading threes for sevens isn't going to keep the Bears in this one for much longer.
Stanford 21, California 9, 11:55 remaining, third quarter
Bears squib away from Christian McCaffrey, but Barry Sanders catches at the 21 and returns to the 34, and I would take that starting field position just about every time. McCaffrey loses one, with two guys in the backfield, he has to take what I believe is his first negative play on the day. Then Cajuste on a drag for seven and McCaffrey for three -- but on third and four, thanks to the first-down loss. Alex Robinson might be the defensive MVP so far, as he again comes through with a nice effort, this one 43 yards without a return, as the Bears start from their 14. They have started from their own 17 on average, with five of seven drives starting from within their 20.
Stanford with their first sack of the game, as Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas combine for the honors. However, Aziz Shittu limps off the field, and he is perhaps the player on the entire team who Stanford can least afford to lose. (Other nominees: Hogan, McCaffrey, Brennan Scarlett.) Ahh, but Shittu is back two snaps later, and pantomimes the ref throwing an intentional grounding flag. Sure enough, pressure starting to get home in this second half, we must have again adjusted nicely at the half and drawn up some blitzes. Alas, Cal catches and runs for 19 on third and 18, and the tempo might be getting to the Cardinal. Quick run for 17, with Watson nearly beating the last Stanford defender (and badly outrunning Blake Martinez, who doesn't have the lateral speed to catch up with a guy 50 pounds lighter), and then Goff with perfect timing and touch to drop in a 20-yard post to Trevor Davis just before Dallas Lloyd closed in from centerfield.
But Cal is in their house of horrors now -- namely, the red zone, and after a second-down slip and drop on a wide-open slant, it's looking like whoever owned Cal's kicker on DraftKings was about to buy himself a new house (or, in the Palo Alto market, a modest studio condo, but I digress...) However, unlike in the second quarter, the game didn't follow my preordained narrative this time, as Goff comes out the next snap, throws another ball on the money, and I guess the seventh time's the charm, because a Cal receiver does finally hang onto a touchdown. Cal with the strange decision to take the extra point instead of go for two to pull within four, but they're within five, for whatever that's worth.
Stanford 21, Cal 16, 4:54 remaining, third quarter
Can't remember the last two-game stretch where our defense looked this vulnerable. Ronnie Harris' injury appears to be the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back for an already shorthanded unit. And with Notre Dame up next, I'm thinking that a Stanford win is likely to follow the 2009 recipe -- that is the game, if you remember, where Toby Gerhart carried the team (and Notre Dame's safety) on his back en route to an overtime win.
Back to action, Stanford now at the Cal 39, make that Cal 30, with McCaffrey now at 116 rushing yards on 17 touches. Stanford goes heavy on second and one, and wastes the free down (figuring you can probably convert on third and one, so not a bad play to take a deep shot) with a McCaffrey toss strung out. Third and one, and Remound Wright vultures for the first down. Importantly, with the ball at the Bear 28, the Cardinal are now in position to push their lead to eight, even if this drive should stall out. Now the deep shot, but Hogan's ball to Austin Hooper is broken up at the last second by two late-closing Cal defenders. No matter, McCaffrey for eight, then a chain-moving five, and then Kevin Hogan keeps for two to bring the third-quarter to a close.
Stanford 21, Cal 16, End Third Quarter
Alright folks, we have a ballgame. Cal with the 359-233 yardage edge, Goff 27-of-37 for 277, compared to Hogan's 6-of-11 for 84 yards. And Cal has run 55 plays to Stanford's 39 -- who would have seen that coming? But Christian McCaffrey is at 326 all-purpose yards, his fourth game north of 300 on the year, and more materially for the Card's Pac-12 North hopes, Stanford is threatening a backbreaking score here to reclaim a double-digit lead. But still anyone's game, which has to be a victory of sorts for Cal through 45 minutes.
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