You know what today is. And if you don't, ask your friendly neighborhood cal fan what today is. Chances are, they'll gleefully tell you without hesitation that today is the 20th anniversary of "The Play."
The observance of that sequence of events is the main subplot of this year's Big Game. For cal, this week is a celebration of the wackiest ending in sports. For Stanford, this week is more of a begrudging acknowledgement of the wackiest ending in sports.
Every once in a while, they replay the 1982 Big Game on ESPN Classic. And every time they do, I sit down and try to watch the game from start to finish. I watch as cal receivers make two tremendous diving catches for scores. I watch as Vincent White take a pass in the flat and speed off for the Stanford score. I watch as the great John Elway drops back nine steps and lasers a 29-yard pass to Emile Harry on 4th-and-17. I watch as Mike Tolliver and Mike Dotterer move Stanford downfield with big plays. I watch as John calls timeout with eight seconds to go, looks at the clock to see how much time was left, and then smacks himself on the side of the helmet for the harmless mistake of calling timeout too soon. I watch Mark Harmon knock through the chip shot field goal to win it, sealing a Heisman Trophy for John and cementing The Comeback as the 1982 Big Game's legacy.
I watch as cal starts to fling around the football on the ensuing kickoff like an old sock. I watch as Garner is swallowed up by the pile, but suddenly the ball is back in Rodgers's hands. I watch as Ford blindly flipped the ball to Moen, who was trailing Ford perfectly. I watch as the band suddenly came into view. I watch as Moen somehow slalomed his way through the band to the endzone, using poor Gary Tyrrell as a speed bump.
And then…and then…then…then I can't watch. I grab the remote and flip it to something else.
Sometimes I can't even make it that far without turning the channel. Last time I only got to the point where Garner's knee was down before I headed over to a "Match Game" rerun.
On November 20, 1982, I was seven years old and had absolutely no concept of what the Big Game was. And if I can't watch The Play from the start to the bitter end, I can only imagine how difficult it must be for those with Stanford affiliations who were actually there that day to experience the horror firsthand (and as tough as this season as been, it couldn't possibly be tougher to stomach than "The Play," could it?).
I do find it interesting that Kevin Moen, who scored the play's touchdown and tag-teamed with Tyrrell to put the oddest exclamation point of a play in the history of sports, won't watch the whole game either, albeit for different reasons. "Every time it's on TV, I start getting phone calls saying, ‘the game's on!'" Moen told me at Monday's Big Game media luncheon. "I tell them, ‘That's okay, I know how it ends. I'll just watch that part.'"
Fortunately, my personal memories of Big Game are far less scarring. Yes, my first Big Game was the 46-17 mauling in 1993, and things didn't get much better than that the following year. But since then, it has largely been good times on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, from the Rose Bowl-sealing win in 1999 to the overtime thriller in 2000 to the improbable sackfest and victory in 1998.
My personal favorite Big Game to date was the 1996 matchup. Three weeks before, Stanford had been sagging with a 2-5 record, but three straight wins put the Card in a position to complete an incredible run to the postseason with a win over cal. The Bears had gone in the opposite direction, beginning with a bang but faltering down the stretch. The Bears would still be bowl-eligible win or lose, but Big Game week was still full of suspense.
The suspense was killed quickly, when cal RB Deltha O'Neal began his Big Game career by fumbling on the third play from scrimmage. Stanford cashed in with a chip shot field goal that was blocked but barely cleared the crossbar, then added another touchdown before the first quarter was done.
Then, the killer. With the Bears driving, Stanford blitzed cal QB Pat Barnes, who responded by tossing the ball directly to Kailee Wong. Score. 17-0, Stanford. It was 27-7 at the half. After the Bears put two scores on the board, the Card put the game away with a demoralizing drive for the game's final touchdown in the fourth quarter. Stanford pulled off the 42-21 win and earned a trip to the Sun Bowl, while the Bears backed their way into the Aloha Bowl (doesn't that just sound wrong…the loser goes to Hawaii while the winner goes to El Paso?).
While I might not look back too fondly on this season as a whole, I'd love to remember the 105th Big Game as one of the more satisfying recent wins in the series. But plenty of things are going to need to happen for that to take place, with Stanford taking the right approach to this game chief among them. To steal from Marty Schottenheimer's motivational playbook, I think there should be two themes for Stanford this week: focus and finish.
This is the most intense week of the year, and for the youngsters especially, a week like this demands their focus on the task at hand. And the entire team must accomplish something that has largely been a struggle for this year's squad: they must finish. They finished San Jose State. They finished Arizona. They didn't finish Boston College. They didn't finish UCLA. Thanks to the two interceptions last week, they didn't finish Oregon State. They must finish cal. And they must finish the season.
And that brings me to my favorite sports cliché, which advises that "it's not how you start, it's how you finish." No one remembers how things started in 1982 because of the spectacular finish. The long, hard road that was the 1996 season was made much sweeter by that season's victorious finish. On Saturday, Stanford has a chance to erase at least some of the frustration that has become the trademark of this season and continue to right the wrongs of 20 years ago with a strong finish against the Bears.
RANDOM PAC-10 THOUGHTS
The key word of Monday's Big Game media luncheon was "civil." Both Coach Teevens and cal head coach Jeff Tedford used that word several times to describe this week's events. Had to be especially ironic for Tedford to use that word…
I had a chance to sit down with Tedford back in August. We began chatting, and soon the subject turned to last year's Stanford-Oregon game (Tedford was the Ducks' offensive coordinator that day). I told him how surprised I was on that critical third-and-one situation with three minutes remaining when Oregon disdained the run and tried to throw the ball, a pass that Tank Williams altered and Marcus Hoover intercepted. That turnover led to Stanford's winning points in the game's closing moments. Upon telling him that, Tedford explained to me, "Well, I got the incorrect spot from someone, and I thought we needed a short three yards for the first down. Based on that initial spot I called a passing play. I probably should have called a run anyway, but I never would have called a pass if I had known that it was actually third-and-one." Int