Cal 37, Stanford 16
Most fans are unrealistically optimistic about their team's chances. Therefore, any season that conforms with your average fans' expectations is a strong one.
Most Stanford fans, at least most Stanford fans I've heard from, thought 5-7 was about as good as it could get this season. 4-8, with victories over USC and Cal, was certainly as good as last year could have been. If Jim Harbaugh continues meeting his fans' expectations at this trajectory, he'll be 6-6 next year and in BCS bowls four years from now.
So the big picture dictates that we have no reason to complain.
And yet, we saw problems that had exposed themselves all season long rear their ugly heads in Berkeley Saturday and couldn't help but frustrate.
We saw a defense that played its heart out for 50 minutes seemingly collapse for one key stretch, and all but ruin Stanford's shot at a victory. The 2008 defense finishes with a mixed legacy: better numbers than the 2007 unit, but a tendancy to underperform when it mattered most. The '07 D will be remembered for its goalline stand against USC, for Bo McNally and Clinton Snyder and a slew of other playmakers. The '08 unit took fewer risks and allowed fewer yards, but what huge stops, what key interceptions will we remember years from now?
We saw a passing game that perfectly summarized its 2008 season with one game. At its best, it was efficient if not electrifying, serving as a competent complement to the rush attack in the first half. At its worst, I'm sure I wasn't the only one in Stanford red forced into a "No Tavita... no Tavita... OH JESUS!" Other teams have probably thrown more interceptions, but I've never seen a squad throw so many painful ones right at opposing defenders.
We saw stupid mistakes. We saw the stupid penalties that cost us so dearly against UCLA. We saw the turnovers that cost us in seemingly every loss this season.
We saw that Jim Harbaugh's enthusiasm may be unknown to mankind, but fourth downs prove a powerful antidote. Why not go for the early fourth and two, especially when running between the tackles was this team's core identity? The rush offense racked up big numbers again, but in critical downs and distances, in fourth and two, in goal-to-go and the ball on the one, the rush attack, like the defense, mattered less than its statistics would suggest.
And finally, we saw a game that mirrored the season itself. The team was plucky early, hanging around longer and keeping it closer than the the opponent's superior talent and a rash of Stanford mistakes should have dictated. Yet when a good opponent started swinging, Stanford didn't punch back. TCU, Arizona State, USC and now Cal delivered knockout punches to the Card's season, with surprisingly little resistance. When Stanford played those teams, all four were considered top-25 caliber at kickoff. The Card didn't come close once.
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To my eyes, Washington had comparable talent to Stanford. (They certainly had a better starting quarterback.) Heck, the professionals thought so too, installing the Huskies as a slight favorite when Stanford visited Montlake early in the season.
Washington finished 0-12. Stanford easily could have been there, and we would have happily given a kidney for 5-7.
Yet, the season is still too recent and the pain too raw for cold logic to silence our inner voice right now. It is a voice that knows that, one day, we'll look back on this season with some semblance of pride. But right in that moment, as we watched the Axe change hands and saw the sullen looks on the faces of its Stanford guardians, some part of us felt as empty as they did.
The final horn had sounded, the fans had piled out of the stadium and the college football world had moved onto bigger games without nary a second glance. Yet our season still felt horribly incomplete. In our hearts, we knew we hadn't accomplished what we had set out to do. We knew there was still work left to be done.
That's our take. Here's what other writers thought...
Scoring three touchdowns felt good. Keeping Stanford out of a bowl game felt better.
Stanford came to Memorial Stadium for the 111th Big Game on Saturday aiming for a bowl game. It left striving for more.
Those paying close attention could sense Jahvid Best might finally be healthy enough to have the best game of his still-developing college career on Saturday.
There was reason to celebrate and reason to despair. The Stanford football team, despite losing four of its last five games, finished a remarkable season with a look toward an even better tomorrow.
Cal's student newspaper distributed a special edition before the Big Game on Saturday.
Two games remain in Cal's football season — two weeks from now against 0-11 Washington, and the sub-orbital bowl game to follow.
After a slow first half, Cal exploded for three touchdowns in the first 7:52 of the third quarter to turn a close game into a rout.
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