STANFORD, Calif. — As the remains of the Stanford student section emptied onto the field to rejoice with the team and paw at the victory axe, the Cal football team slogged out of a soaked Stanford Stadium just thinking about the little things.
Though it may have been the Bears’ strongest performance of the season, the notorious rivalry game boiled down to one fumble, two failed red zone trips and an ineffective third quarter to derail the dream of recovering the axe.
Despite an outstanding performance from quarterback Zach Maynard, a valiant defensive effort and the type of gritty team performance that draws fans to football in the first place, the Cal football team slipped up one too many times in its 31-28 loss on Saturday night in the 114th Big Game.
“We played well but not well enough to win,” head coach Jeff Tedford said. “Turnovers, a couple fumbles, things like that hurt us. But we kept fighting.”
Heisman Trophy hopeful Andrew Luck led the No. 8 Cardinal on 20-for-30 passing for 257 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The lauded Stanford signal-caller shook off a subpar first half to hit eight of 10 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter alone.
Luck’s exceptional play extended Stanford’s lead from a tenuous one-point halftime advantage to a comfortable 28-13 fifteen minutes later.
After Cal brought the game to within seven points on a Spencer Hagan touchdown and successful two-point conversion, Luck settled down and let his running backs and tight ends follow his lead.
The stellar junior commandeered a long fourth quarter drive anchored by running back dives and short passes on the flat that ate 7:40 off of the clock. The drive ended with Jordan Williamson’s back-breaking 35-yard field goal that put the Card up 31-21 with 3:02 remaining.
Cal cut the deficit to three after C.J. Anderson barged into the end zone from one yard out, but only 14 seconds remained on the clock and Giorgio Tavecchio’s last gasp onside kick settled softly into the cradled arms of Stanford’s Coby Fleener.
“It was the biggest line we have faced. They’re strong. They run a real pro offense,” said linebacker Mychal Kendricks, playing in his final Big Game. “They were in their giant formations. They ran a lot of play action and got guys out to the flat. They didn’t hurt us necessarily but they got a lot of first downs.”
Maynard played perhaps his finest game of the year, completing 20 of 30 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns. For a quarterback who admitted all season that he was struggling with the speed of the Pac-12 game, Maynard played a poised game aided by a fierce offensive line and sound performances from running backs Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson.
“He stepped up big,” Tedford said of Maynard. “He made a lot of plays, got out of trouble and threw a lot of really good balls. He grew up. We saw some great defense at play and I’m really proud of the way he played.”
Maynard hit his throws short and long, appeared comfortable in the pocket as well as out of it, but one early mistake proved very costly.
After drilling a streaking Keenan Allen for 42 yards on the first play of the game, Maynard immediately surrendered the ball after an ill-timed pitch to Sofele, a fumble that ended up in the arms of linebacker Brent Etiz.
“That was just a boneheaded play by me, just overlooking the run play,” Maynard said. “That was all my fault.”
Three plays later, the Cal defense could only watch as Stanford speedster Ty Montgomery took a reverse handoff 34 yards unscathed into the end zone to give Stanford a 7-0 lead.
The Bears bounced back nicely from the nasty early mistake by controlling time of possession and balancing a run-heavy approach with effective mid-range passing. But it was their inability to score inside the 10-yard line that would make a profound difference.
After two 13-play drives in the first half that took up a combined 14 minutes off the clock, the Bears were forced to settle for two short field goals despite getting the ball inside the 10-yard line both times.
First, Anderson couldn’t penetrate the Cardinal defense on a third-and-three which resulted in a Tavecchio 25-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 7-3.
Minutes after Maynard fluttered a picturesque lob to Allen for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Bears a 10-7 lead, the Cal offense couldn’t punch it in from the two-yard line to extend its lead to two possessions. Tavecchio’s ensuing 19-yard field goal gave Cal a 13-7 edge, which Stanford erased just 10 plays later on a six-yard Tyler Gaffney touchdown run.