Oct. 18, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - It's October, so it must be Big Game Week. What?
I know. Weird. That's the word seemingly everybody is using to describe Saturday's scheduling of the 115th Big Game at Memorial Stadium.
But, you know what? Stanford players are pumped up and so are the students. There's been a buzz on campus all week. The fountains have been dyed red, and a pep rally attracted nearly 1,000 people.
The football team has moved on from last week's tough defeat at Notre Dame and couldn't wait to return to the practice field. The No. 22 Cardinal can't afford to let the loss linger.
Cal enters Saturday's game with a head of steam after consecutive wins over No. 25 UCLA and Washington State. The Bears smell red and don't want to lose The Axe for a third straight year.
As expected, life without Andrew Luck has been a challenge. He did things no other quarterback in school history has ever done. More times than not, Luck made it look easy, and made everyone around him better.
But don't forget, there was a learning curve. Even Luck threw a costly late interception in the 2009 Big Game at Stanford, which the Bears hung on to win, 34-28.
Josh Nunes has only played six games as a college quarterback, and not surprisingly, has been inconsistent. The offense has yet to score a touchdown in two away games, which likely must change Saturday for the Cardinal to win. But the game doesn't rest solely on his shoulders.
Dropped passes and penalties have also hindered Stanford. So has converting on third down. Stepfan Taylor is a warrior, but can't do it alone.
The Arizona game aside, the Cardinal defense has been stout, but surrendered late scoring drives in the losses to Washington and Notre Dame. With such a small margin for error, the unit must finish games as it did against USC and Arizona.
It's worth noting that Stanford's first six opponents are a combined 24-7, and the Cardinal is 4-2. Stanford still controls its own destiny and can win the North Division of the Pac-12 Conference by winning out.
Prior to the season, most Stanford fans circled Sept. 15 (USC) and Nov. 17 (Oregon) on their calendars. The Cardinal took care of the Trojans, but four important games remain before the trip to Eugene.
This week, four Pac-12 teams are ranked in the AP Top 25, and Arizona State is 26th. Washington and Arizona also received votes. There are seldom easy wins in this league.
A Stanford victory in Berkeley would help erase the disappointment from South Bend. Cardinal players know victory was within their grasp. The big mistake was giving the officials a chance to decide the outcome.
Newly-renovated Memorial Stadium figures to be rocking on the 30th anniversary of The Play. Not a pleasant memory for Stanford fans, but hardly a rallying cry. No current Cardinal players were even born in 1982.
Unlikely heroes often emerge from the Big Game, and they become forever linked with the rivalry. Four come to mind:
* 1988: Tuan Van Le, who blocked a 20-yard field-goal try by Cal's Robbie Keen with four seconds remaining to preserve a 19-19 tie in Berkeley.
* 1990: John Hopkins, who kicked a 39-yard field goal as time expired to lift Stanford to an improbable 27-25 win in Berkeley. This, after the Cardinal scored a touchdown with 12 seconds left, then recovered the onside kick.
* 1991: Tommy Vardell, who was a plowhorse, powering for 182 yards on a school-record 39 carries in a 38-21 win at Stanford Stadium.
What have we learned about the Big Game, which is separated by only 52 total points? Expect a close contest. Excluding ties, 42 have been decided by seven points or fewer.
A Big Game in October might not sound right. But by noon on Saturday, it will feel like mid-November.
-- By Mark Soltau, Stanford Athletics
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Palo Alto native Mark Soltau has spent his whole life and much of his career around Stanford sports. A sportswriter for 35 years, Soltau spent 16 (1981-97) at the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered not only the Cardinal, but all five 49ers Super Bowl-championship teams. Golf always has been his passion and Soltau served as the sport's beat writer for the Examiner, national golf writer for CBS Sportsline, contributing editor to Golf Digest, and since 1997 has been the editor of tigerwoods.com.