Big Disappointment

If you imagined all the scenarios for how this 2003 edition of the Big Game would play out, you probably did not imagine a fast start for your Cardinal off an unending string of Cal miscues. And if you were told that would be the first quarter story, then perhaps you would imagine a dominating win much like the ASU game. Instead, Stanford fans were dealt disappointment in a 28-16 loss that reminded us of the 2002 UCLA game in its futility.

You can sum up this edition of the Big Game with one statistic: 10 points off four first half turnovers.  With so many opportunities handed to the good guys, so little was capitalized.  And though Stanford led their cross-Bay rivals 10-0 at the half, a 28-0 run would irrevocably turn the tide in favor of the California Bears.  Though the final statistics will show poorly for the Cardinal defense, they admirably hung tough through three quarters before the dam broke late.  Had the offense capitalized on any more of their golden opportunities, the Stanford defensive effort might have been good enough.  More importantly the defense might have been kept off the field a little longer and been under less duress in the fourth quarter.

The game opened with a Big Game tribute to famed fumbling fool Tony Gonzales, as Weenie kick returner James Bethea took the opening kickoff and promptly coughed the ball up into the air when hit by Stanford linebacker Michael Craven.  In a scene that can only play out in a Big Game, the ball was snagged from the air by kicker Michael Sgroi, who was ironically covering his first kickoff of the year.  With fantastic field position and a quick grip on the momentum of the 106th Big Game, Stanford moved the ball into a 1st and Goal situation at the four-yardline, but failed to move it on the next three plays. The first was a failed J.R. Lemon run up the middle, while the second and third attempts were errant Chris Lewis passes.  The second down toss was intended for a crossing Alex Smith in the back of the endzone with a couple steps on his defender, but the ball was thrown high and behind him and nearly picked off.  The third down attempt sought out freshman tailback David Marrero in the flat, but it was thrown out ahead of him and glanced off his outstretched fingertips.  Sgroi finished the possession he started, with a 22-yard field goal to make the score 3-0.

There was excitement in the air for having struck on the scoreboard so quickly, but a thin layer of dismay that Stanford could not find four yards on three plays to score a prized touchdown.  The misfires from Lewis were unfortunately the beginning of a long and dark day for the senior, with only a couple fleeting flashes.

If Cal fans were hoping to shake off opening jitters with their supposedly potent offense on the field, their hopes were quickly dashed.  They were forced to punt three-and-out on their first possession, and then on the second possession they fumbled the ball again.  Craven again knocked the ball loose - this time recovered by Oshiomogho Atogwe.  Stanford took over with the ball on the Cal 24-yardline, and Lewis would execute his best pass of the day with a beautiful play-action fake and then a soft toss deep in the endzone right over the shoulder of fellow fifth-year senior Luke Powell.

"They had a nickel corner on me, and they didn't give him any help," Powell explains.  "Chris made a check to the seem route and made a perfect throw."

Already up 10-0, Stanford would receive the gift of yet another fumble, forced by T.J. Rushing and recovered by Atogwe at the Cal 46 late in the first quarter.  The Stanford offense picked up moderate chunks of yardage on each of their next five plays, with tosses to Mark Bradford, Alex Smith and Luke Powell for a total of 23 yards.  J.R. Lemon mixed in a pair of seven-yard scrambles, and all of a sudden the Cardinal were on the nine-yardline and poised for a critical third score.  But on 3rd and 3, Lewis was calling an audible to his teammates in the shotgun when senior center Drew Caylor fired a snap over the quarterback's shoulder.  Lewis was the first to the ball but he gingerly leaned over to pick it up, as if it were some rare species of butterfly.  Cal defenders swarmed and knocked the ball loose, eventually recovering on the 31-yardline.

Ouch.

The good news was that Cal was unable to make the Card pay for the lost opportunity.  The Bears turned the ball over yet again, this time four plays later when JC transfer quarterback Aaron Rodgers fired a pass right between the numbers of Stanford linebacker David Bergeron.  The redshirt junior returned the interception 10 yards into Cal territory, but Stanford could not move the ball and would punt harmlessly away.  Cal mounted their best drive of the half, pushing 67 yards down the field, but their gloom grew with a chip shot field goal missed wide left.

Starting with their worst field position of the half, the Cardinal ironically put together their best sustained offensive drive.  With Kenneth Tolon's ankle taped up, the redshirt junior tailback entered the game and sprinted to gains of 13, four and three yards, on the heels of passing first downs hauled in by Powell and Greg Camarillo.  But with 3rd and 3 on the Cal 16-yardline, Tolon would drop a wide open pass in the flat on the ride side.  He had only green between him and the endzone, taking away not only a sure first down but also a probable score.  Michael Sgroi punched the ball wide right on the 24-yard field goal attempt, stranding Stanford still at a tenuous 10-0 lead.  That marked the second straight trip inside the redzone where the Card came away with no points, and it would define this painful loss.

"That long snap really hurt - and the dropped passes," Powell lamented afterward in the locker room.  "The entire game would have been different if not for those two plays."

"We just need to convert," head coach Buddy Teevens added.  "It would have made a big emotional difference at the half."

Stanford opened the second half with J.R. Lemon back in the game, and he picked up gains of five and two yards to open things.  But on 3rd and 3 a throw to Brett Pierce came up just inches short of the first down marker.  The ensuing punt handed Cal decent field position on their own 33, and they started off with two of their better runs of the day with an 11-yard scamper by J.J. Arrington and then 12-yard scramble by Rodgers.  Rodgers on the fourth play of the possession hit NCAA-leading wide receiver Geoff McArthur with a 44-yard catch and run against T.J. Rushing. The pass came off a weak play-action fake, but Rushing lunged to make a play on the ball at the seven-yardline. He came up empty and McArthur high stepped into the endzone for Cal's first score of the day.

With only four minutes gone in the second half, and Stanford holding a 4-0 advantage in the turnover column, the game was a mere three-point affair. It was clear to all 67,950 in attendance that the home Cardinal needed to convert on offense to hold on in this game.  They would do no such thing until after Cal rattled off another three touchdowns to put the game effectively out of reach.

One answer appeared to come right away as Stanford opened their second drive of the half with a five-yard run by Lemon followed by a 24-yard fade thrown by Lewis to Bradford. The next play found Brett Pierce open for a short catch and run for six yards, moving the ball into Cal territory. But then Chris Lewis ran backwards with Cal tacklers in pursuit and gave up a killer 16-yard sack. Stanford would punt away harmlessly with the momentum quickly quashed by the miscue.

The remainder of the half looked like a blurry Geoff McArthur highlight reel.  He topped a quiet 106 yards receiving in the first half with a strong 139 yards and two scores in the second stanza.  Sophomore cornerback T.J. Rushing was the man beaten on many of those plays, though he was not out of position.

"From the sideline it looked like we were in great position and didn't make the plays," says co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Tom Williams.  "On the two touchdowns, coverage was tight on both."

Bergeron spoke up to give the defensive front seven a share of the blame that was resting on Rushing's shoulders in the post-game locker room like a ton of bricks.  "We were not executing our assignments in the second half," the redshirt junior linebacker offered.  "We put out corners in a lot of stress - put a lot of pressure of them.  And I thought McArthur made excellent plays."

One of the quiet but lethal aspects of the Cal offense that hurt Stanford in the second half was the scrambling feet of their quarterback, Rodgers.  Countless times the secondary had coverage, only to see the signal caller scramble for first downs.  He rushed five times (excluding sacks) for 60 yards.  "Those were the difference-makers in keeping those drives alive," opines Williams.

Meanwhile, Stanford was struggling back on offense.  Chris Lewis was not finding any sort of groove throwing the ball, and Teevens did not make the move to Trent Edwards until four minutes were gone in the 4th quarter.  The redshirt frosh slinger had an inauspicious beginning when his opening play was a pass thrown a little behind Alex Smith, which the tight end knocked up into the air for a Cal defender to snare.  Edwards did bounce back with a beautiful 26-yard pass to Powell to start the next possession, though he would turn the ball over on downs with a handful of incompletions.  On his third series he connected on a few passes to move the ball down the field in the waning minutes of the game but hobbled off the field after he took a helmet to his thigh on a cheap shot from a Cal defender after Edwards tossed a pass to Alex Smith.  Lewis reentered the game and finished the game at 0:00 with a 30-yard touchdown to Bradford.

In a play of great interest to gamblers, Stanford went for the two-point conversion and could have covered the the 10 1/2 point spread, but failed.  The final tally stood at 28-16, and for the first time since 1994, Cal retained the Axe.

While it is true that the Bears put up 533 yards, I contend that Stanford's defense was in fact not awful.   They kept the game in play through three quarters and in fact they handed the offense numerous opportunities in the first half.  Most impressive was their job against the Cal running game, where Adimchinobe Echemandu and J.J. Arrington combined for just 19 net yards on 14 first half carries.  No, this loss fell most squarely on the shoulders of the offense, and fairly or not the blame of the passing game will fall on the shoulders of Chris Lewis.  That leaves fans wondering why Teevens did not go to Edwards sooner.

"Hindsight is obviously 20/20," the head man responded after the game to that question.  "When we did make the move, we felt the need to go with Trent because we needed to throw the ball."

While Sunday morning quarterbacking will ask "What if?" for this 106th Big Game, had Edwards been put in the contest earlier, there remains one final game in this 2003 season and now a QB controversy has to be ripe.  Lewis received some support for his play in the Arizona State win, but he has stumbled mightily since.  Moreover, with a winning season and bowl game now out of reach, the season finale against Notre Dame can best be used to build for 2004.  Edwards is the future, and a compelling case can be made for starting him toward a brighter future for this program...

  • Several recruits were in attendance for unofficial visits, including offensive tackle commit Ben Muth from Arizona.  Also traveling from out of state was 6'8" tight end John Solder.  A local recruit of note, though completely expected, was Pinole (CA) cornerback Wopamo Osaisai.
  • After the game Teevens reported that fullback Cooper Blackhurst "dinged his shoulder", Trent Edwards took a shot to his quadricep and Babatunde Oshinowo rolled his left ankle.  The status of all three were uncertain, though Oshinowo appeared to be of the greatest concern.  An x-ray is scheduled for Sunday to determine if anything is broken.
  • Oshinowo left the game with his ankle injury in the first quarter, and you have to wonder if the Stanford defense's anemic pass rush was partially a result.  This is man the Cardinal cannot do without, particularly next week against the rising running game of Julius Jones and Notre Dame.

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