STANFORD, Calif. — Cal fans really couldn’t have asked for more.
Is that an acceptable thing to say? There are no such things as moral victories, and the Cal football team admitted as much after its 31-28 defeat. The Bears sniffed blood, but fell short of the actual ‘W.’ The Axe did not return to Berkeley.
But Saturday night was Stanford defending its home stadium — a place known as “The Library” just a few years ago — before a sellout crowd of over 50,000. And it was Cal putting up a more relentless fight than it had all season.
Yes, fans could have asked for an outright seizure of the Axe, something reminiscent of the Bears’ 2009 upset at Stanford Stadium. Isi Sofele could have channeled Shane Vereen’s 42-carry marathon. Mychal Kendricks or D.J. Holt could have forced a late, game-changing turnover.
In some ways, this was the more impressive game. The 2009 upset saw Cal tempt fate, spotting the Cardinal a two-touchdown lead 10 minutes into the game. It took a superhuman performance by Vereen — 193 yards, three touchdowns — to pull Cal back into contention. Even on the final drive, Heisman finalist Toby Gerhart — who already had four touchdowns — was bearing down the field for first downs. He was going to score, and everyone in the stadium knew it.
One bad throw by Luck, still a redshirt freshman, killed his team. Linebacker Mike Mohamed plucked it out of the air, and a game the Bears had no business stealing turned into one of the most exciting wins in Big Game history.
Last Saturday was different. The Bears seized an early lead, and never looked overmatched even after they lost it. The offense was balanced, the defense was solid. Rarely was there a facepalm moment.
Cal walked onto the Farm a 20-point underdog, but no one watching the game could have guessed.
A caveat: Stanford is not the same team without Chris Owusu; the roster’s only deep threat is lost to multiple concussions. Luck had receiver Griff Whalen open on multiple deep routes, but placed the ball a step or two ahead — where Owusu’s hands certainly would have been.
Whether or not his presence would have made for a blowout isn’t clear, but a few other things are.
Quarterback Zach Maynard played the game of his life. He finished 20-of-30 for 280 yards and a TD and —most importantly — didn’t have Cal fans holding their breaths every time he took the snap. In the first half, the guy schooled Luck. The NFL Draft’s next golden boy was only 8-of-15 for 81 yards and an interception.
Running back C.J. Anderson solidified his standing as a fan favorite. The junior transfer only recorded two yards on the ground, but he more than made up for it with three grabs for 71 yards. He does not touch the ball often, but he will knock down multiple defenders when he does.
The defense forced field goals and three-and-outs. It harrassed a better Stanford team, tossing Luck to the ground on one particularly monstrous sack.
It rained and rained and rained, but the Cal section made a louder showing than it had all year under brilliant AT&T Park weather. The swaths of blue and gold stayed put, even as holes pockmarked the home crowd.
This rivalry will never reach the levels of the SEC, whose West division now has the top three teams in the country. The barbecues are not as delicious. There is almost zero chance of topless women.
There is none of the same vitriol. Both school mascots beg to be laughed at, almost satirical of the college football atmosphere. No one attends Stanford or Berkeley for gridiron bragging rights.
So no, the Bears couldn’t ruin Luck’s career the way they did John Elway’s nearly 30 years ago. But were you not entertained?