Nov. 21, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. - On one decisive play, Stanford's Rose Bowl hopes ended.
It wasn't quarterback Andrew Luck's interception that caused Stanford's 34-28 loss to California in the 112th Big Game, before a record crowd of 50,510 at the renovated Stanford Stadium on Saturday. But it was Stanford's last shot.
With the ball at Cal's 13-yard line on a last-gasp drive with no timeouts left, Luck dropped back on second down. Looking for tight end Coby Fleener on a crossing pattern in the end zone for the potential winning touchdown, Luck's pass never got past Cal's Mike Mohamed.
The linebacker's interception at the 3-yard line with 1:03 left, essentially ended the game, leaving the redshirt freshman Luck beside himself after the first crucial mistake of his brief and brilliant collegiate career.
"I didn't get enough air on it," Luck said. "I thought I had a shot at Coby in the end zone, but I didn't get off a good enough throw."
This was the kind of loss that "hurts," said running back Toby Gerhart, who rushed for four scores to break Stanford season and career records for rushing touchdowns. After all, Stanford (7-4 overall, 6-3 in Pacific-10 Conference play) had to win to keep its Rose Bowl chances alive.
"Our season's been pretty decent, but we had bigger goals in mind," Gerhart said. "We wanted the Pac-10 championship. We wanted the Axe back.
"When all is said and done, there's an empty pit in your stomach. We didn't get the Axe back. We let it slip away."
Stanford bolted to a 14-0 lead, only to surrender 24 consecutive points, before trading scores the rest of the way until it needed to most.
There was no Jahvid Best, the outstanding Cal back who missed the game because of a recent concussion, but the Golden Bears turned up the running game with replacement Shane Vereen, who gained 193 yards on 42 carries and scored three touchdowns.
With Vereen ripping off decent gains on first down, Cal (8-3, 5-3) rarely was forced into long-yardage situations. And when the Golden Bears did face third down, quarterback Kevin Riley repeatedly made the plays.
Cal's touchdown drives went 85, 92, 72, and 72 yards. The Bears converted nine of 10 third-down conversions during the second and third quarters, and had 39 minutes of possession to only 21 for Stanford.
In contrast, Stanford struggled to pick up decent gains on first down. Gerhart had 136 yards rushing on 20 carries, but the Cardinal had trouble putting itself in short-yardage situations.
With Luck off his game for perhaps the first time this season - completing only 10 of 30 passes, for 157 yards - Stanford struggled to sustain drives. Because of that, Harbaugh tried to ignite his team, going for a first down on fourth and eight at its own 23-yard line with 4:18 left.
"I felt like we were going to go down swinging," Harbaugh said of the decision. "We were going to get our chances at the plate."
Luck's fourth-down pass toward tight end Jim Dray was far off target, seemingly ending Stanford's hopes. And yet, the Cardinal still found itself in position to win.
The Stanford defense held Cal on its subsequent possession to a 28-yard field goal by Vince D'Amato with 2:42 left, giving the Bears a 34-28 lead. The kick was set up when Riley took a couple of steps to his left and took a knee on third down, rather than go for one more shot at the end zone and a decisive touchdown.
"I wanted to make sure they were going to use all their timeouts," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "I didn't want to risk anything. I wanted to make sure it was a touchdown game. That was the only guarantee. They had to score a touchdown."
It also gave Stanford an opportunity, one helped along by a bouncing kickoff that Stanford's Josh Catron corralled and brought to the Cardinal 42-yard line.
Two Luck runs picked up 16 yards, followed by a short pass that Gerhart turned into a 29-yard gain by breaking three tackles, before being knocked out of bounds at the 13.
The unthinkable was on the verge of reality, a game in which Stanford was outplayed, but could win. It didn't turn out that way.
"I just didn't make the plays when it counted," Luck said. "Blame falls on me."
Harbaugh, however, wasn't about to let that happen.
"We probably should have run the ball a couple of times when we got inside the 15-yard line," Harbaugh said. "We probably should have given Toby a couple of carries there. There were a lot of should'ves in this game, offensively and defensively. Yes, Andrew could have made a better play, but it was a team loss.
"You get so used to Andrew painting every throw on the money every time. That's not realistic. But he's been that way most of the year. I thought he played his tail off."
Stanford got off to a great start, with Gerhart following a block by fullback Owen Marecic to run 61 yards for a touchdown on Stanford's opening series. A blocked punt by teammate Chase Thomas set up another Gerhart score, capping off a mere 19-yard drive that put the Cardinal up 14-0 with 4:46 left in the first quarter.
But the Cardinal wouldn't score again until 12 seconds remained in the third quarter, with the third of Gerhart's scores. Gerhart now has run for 23 touchdowns this season and 39 in his career, breaking the marks that "Touchdown" Tommy Vardell established in 1991.
"In the grand scheme of things, it's just one game," Stanford senior safety Bo McNally said. "We're going to feel it for the next day or two, and then we'll shake it off and move on to Notre Dame."
The Cardinal completes the regular season at home Saturday with a 5 p.m. game against the Irish, before heading to its first bowl since 2001.
"We are still a good football team," McNally said. "And we are a much better team than we showed today."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics