Best Big Game in years decided by big run, big mistake
10:26 AM
Art Spander in Big Game, Cal, Stanford, articles, football

By Art Spander

STANFORD, Calif. — One great burst by the other guy, the great runner, Bryce Love. One big mistake by their guy, the improving thrower.

The best Big Game in years could be distilled down to those two plays, which is both unfair of so many plays but very fair because, in a game as close as this one was Saturday night, the difference invariably is a play or two.

Yes, as expected, Stanford won, beating Cal for an eighth straight time of out 120 times the schools have played, but they won 17-14, the smallest margin of those eight games. And against a team that has more muscle and has had much more success, that counts for something.

Stanford was supposed to win this one and win it big, as it has the past few years before Justin Wilcox took over this year as Cal’s coach, installing a defense, instilling hope.

Yet the Golden Bears were there at the end, basically until their thrower, their quarterback, Ross Bowers, went deep and was intercepted.

“This one hurt,” said Wilcox. “We had our opportunities. We weren’t able to capitalize.”

What they didn’t have, or didn’t have enough, was the ball. Stanford grinds it out and grinds you up, and then unsurprisingly, Love, the prep sprint champ, gets the ball and, literally untouched, goes 57 yards down the sideline in the third quarter.

Cal got that touchdown back when Bowers bulled a yard to end a 75-yard drive. But in the fourth quarter, after Cal had moved to the Stanford 48, Bowers threw long and was picked off on the six-yard line. There were more than seven minutes remaining on the clock. But in reality, time had run out for Cal.

“We strain to compete against Stanford,” said Wilcox. His record as a rookie head coach, Cal’s record, is 5-6, 2-6 in the Pac-12, with a game remaining Friday night against UCLA in Los Angeles.

Stanford is 8-3. 7-3, also with a game to play, against Notre Dame. But it’s another game, between Washington State, which beat Stanford, and Washington, which lost to Stanford, that has more meaning to the Cardinal.

A Washington victory and Stanford plays in the Pac-12 championship against USC. A Washington State victory, and it’s old WSU (Wazoo in the vernacular) that faces the Trojans.

But that doesn’t particularly concern Wilcox.

“It was one of those games,” said Wilcox of Cal-Stanford, “when we knew possession and third-down situations would be important.”

Of course. When you’re the underdog, the team that is trying to prove it belongs, trying to change the direction of recent history, you must keep the ball on drives and stop the other team — Stanford in this case — when needed, which Cal was unable to do.

That’s why Stanford is an elite team and why Cal is not.

The stats were balanced and misleading. Cal converted 6 of 12 third downs. So did Stanford. But Stanford kept the ball when it had to. In the third and fourth quarter.

That was Stanford football under David Shaw, power football, get the ball and shove it through the other guys, eating up the clock, wearing down the opponent. It’s brought them to Rose Bowls and other bowls.

And still it’s the one man, the Christian McCaffrey, the Bryce Love, who makes the big move, who shows the greatness. We used to think of Stanford for quarterbacks, John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, and John Elway. Now it’s all about running backs, about grabbing the football and either dashing or powering to daylight. That beats up the defensive line. That keeps the ball away from the other team.

Love is from North Carolina, Wake Forest, which has a darn good university football team. But he came west, and if Stanford wasn’t playing those awful late-night games (it was after 11:30 pm in the east when the game ended) he would have good shot at the Heisman, injured ankle or not.

Love has 11 touchdowns of 50 yards or more this season, breaking a FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) record. His teammates, naturally, were elated.

“It’s down to the point,” said Stanford receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside, ”where it’s like, ‘There he goes again, let’s go celebrate with him in the end zone.’”

A celebration that, for Cal, was something they watched with pain and regret.

Article originally appeared on Art Spander (http://artspander.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.