Cal's Gritty Effort Falls Short: Stanford Wins the 114th Big Game, 31-28

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 19: Isi Sofele #20 of the California Golden Bears runs the ball against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 19, 2011 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

"The Bear will not quit; the Bear will not die."  -- Joe Kapp

For obvious reasons, Joe Kapp's mantra from his 1980s tenure as Cal head coach is most often associated with The Play.  On a rainy Saturday night at Stanford Stadium, the California Golden Bears embodied the spirit of Joe Kapp's mantra in the 114th Big Game.  After falling behind the eighth-ranked Stanford Cardinal just 1:18 into the game and finding themselves behind by 15 points and on their heels through three quarters, it would not have been surprising for the 17-point underdog Bears to collapse under the Stanford freight train.  

Instead of collapsing, the Bears dug deep and fought to the very end.  Unfortunately, the end was bitter.  Stanford made the plays it had to make and walked away with a 31-28 win to retain the Axe.  Though Cal (6-5 overall, 3-5 Pac-12) showed grit and determination -- not to mention the highest level of play Cal fans have seen yet from quarterback Zach Maynard -- a loss is a loss.  And the Bears now have to win at Arizona State this Friday night to avoid their second straight season with a 3-6 conference record.  Meanwhile, Stanford (10-1 overall, 8-1 Pac-12) is in a place that the Bears would rather be: holding the Axe, with a 10-win season in hand, and in the mix for a second straight BCS bowl appearance.  

Cal fans had to be pleasantly surprised by the play of the much-maligned Maynard.  Plagued by inconsistency and inaccuracy all season, Maynard stepped up his game big time in the Big Game, completing 20 of 29 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns.  Still, it was Maynard's mistake that helped put the Bears in an early hole.  On the game's second offensive play -- and right after Cal got everyone's attention with a 42-yard strike from Maynard to wide receiver Keenan Allen on the first play from scrimmage -- Maynard pitched the ball when he shouldn't have to a surprised Isi Sofele, who was expecting a handoff.  Stanford recovered the resulting fumble and, three plays later, found the end zone on a 34-yard touchdown run by Ty Montgomery on a perfectly executed reverse.  Just like that, it was 7-0 Stanford.  

It might have been understandable if you thought the rout was on.  But if you did, you ended up being wrong.  

Cal answered back with a Giorgio Tavecchio field goal to cap a 13-play, 67-yard drive, exactly the type of possession the Bears needed to keep the ball away from Stanford's offense.  Then, Steve Williams intercepted Andrew Luck to set up the Bears at the Stanford 19-yard line.  Cal cashed in with a 17-yard touchdown strike from Maynard to Allen and the Bears suddenly had a 10-7 lead.  

Cal extended the lead to 13-7 later in the half on a 19-yard Tavecchio field goal.  Though the Bears had the lead, there was still the issue of missed opportunities.  On three red zone possessions, Cal came away with only one touchdown.  And the settling for field goals looked costly after Stanford took advantage of its second-quarter red zone opportunity with a 6-yard Tyler Gaffney touchdown run, which gave Stanford a 14-13 lead at halftime.   

Stanford came out in the second half intent on seizing control of the game.  And they seemed to do just that on their first two possessions after halftime.  The Cardinal scored touchdowns on both possessions, and made it look too easy for a Bear fan's comfort.  When Luck found a wide open Ryan Hewitt for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cap the second of those drives with 5:42 left in the third quarter, Stanford had a seemingly commanding 28-13 lead.  And considering the Bears' offense at that point had not made a first down since early in the second quarter, it was a real possibility that the rout would be on before the night was through.  

It looked even more that way when Cal's next two possessions ended in a failed fourth down at the Stanford 43 and a fumble by Sofele at the Cal 39 on the final play of the third quarter.  But a funny thing happened on the way to a Stanford domination of the second half and the game:  just when perhaps it was least expected, the Cal defense rose to the occasion and kept the Bears in the game.  First, Cal forced a three-and-out after the offenses failed fourth down.  Then, after what could have been a back-breaking turnover, Aaron Tipoti stoned Stanford's Stepfan Taylor on a 4th-and-2 at the Cal 31 to keep it a two-possession game with 13:25 remaining.  

And then the Cal offense came to life.  On a play from the Stanford 48, running back C.J. Anderson sold the notion that he was staying in to pass block, slipped out of the backfield, and caught a short pass from Maynard in open space.  Anderson did the rest, rumbling down to the 9-yard line to give Cal a first-and-goal.  The Bears cashed in on third-and-goal, when Maynard faked run to bait a defender, then threw to a wide open Spencer Hagan for a touchdown.   Coach Jeff Tedford then went against conventional wisdom and went for the two-point conversion. The decision worked, as Maynard hit Jones for the two-point conversion to pull the Bears to within 28-21 with 10:53 left.

Stanford needed a drive to stem the Cal tide -- and the Cardinal got it.  Stanford gave Cal a steady diet of Hewitt on the ensuing possession.  Hewitt ran for two first downs and caught two passes from Luck for good gains during a drive that took 7:46 off the clock.  The drive ended in a 35-yard field goal to give Stanford a seemingly insurmountable 10-point lead with 3:07 to play.  

But Cal didn't go down quietly.  Cal drove 74 yards in 10 plays, including two catches by walk-on wide receiver Jackson Bouza (who took over for an injured Michael Calvin).  On the down side, however, Cal took a lot of time to reach the end zone.  When Anderson scored on a 1-yard run to cut the Stanford lead to 31-28, there were only 14 seconds left.  And when Coby Fleener recovered Tavecchio's onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, the game was finally decided.  

There are no moral victories when the Big Game is concerned.  The Axe's residence in Palo Alto for another year will stick in the craw of those who bleed blue and gold.  But if the Bears can repeat Saturday night's performance in their next two games, they might find themselves looking back at an eight-win season.  

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