The Axe comes home
The Axe is coming back to Stanford.
The No. 6 Cardinal football team won Stanford’s annual rivalry game handily, defeating California by a final score of 48-14. Stanford (10-1, 7-1 Pac-10) scored 31 points in the first half to zero for the Golden Bears (5-6, 3-5), playing a strong game on both sides of the ball throughout.
Tension between the two teams bubbled to the surface early in the game as both benches emptied during the coin toss and players faced each other down at the center of the field. While it wasn’t clear to most observers exactly what was exchanged between the two teams, the end result was personal foul penalties for both teams and the ejection of a Stanford wide receiver, sophomore Jamal-Rashad Patterson.
“It’s a rivalry game,” said senior cornerback Richard Sherman. “Tempers flare. They were trying to show their enthusiasm, and we were trying to show our enthusiasm. Even before that, in warm-ups, it kind of escalated early on.”
Stanford set the tone early in the game, on Cal’s first drive. On the third play of the game, Cal quarterback Brock Mansion fumbled the ball and it was pounced on by redshirt junior defensive end Matt Masifilo to give Stanford its first possession of the game deep inside Cal territory.
Asked whether it mattered that his team turned the ball over on its first drive, Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said, “Absolutely. No question. You don’t fumble a snap and give them the ball down in the red zone to start the game. There were a lot of plays to be made, but we didn’t play well enough to win.”
However, Stanford was unable to fully capitalize on its early opportunity. Indeed, the Card failed to gain any offensive yardage on its first drive — it gained 15 yards on a pass interference penalty. A field goal from senior kicker Nate Whitaker gave Stanford its first points of the day.
On their next drive, the Golden Bears appeared ready to match Stanford and recover from their early miscue. After a kickoff return to the Cal 34-yard line, Mansion and running back Shane Vereen led the Golden Bears deep into Stanford territory. Mansion lofted up a pass into the Cardinal red zone that was easily picked off by Sherman at the Cardinal’s own five-yard line.
“Turnovers cost us down in the red zone — us getting in the red zone and turning the ball over, and then turning the ball over in their end zone to give them a short field,” Tedford said.
After the Sherman interception, Stanford redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck marched his offense down the field, scoring its first touchdown of the game on a short run from sophomore running back Stepfan Taylor. The biggest play of the drive was a scramble Luck turned into a 58-yard gain down the left sideline, dodging and battering through several Cal defenders before finally running out of bounds all the way down at the Cal 21-yard line. The run included a memorable stiff-arm on Cal defensive back Sean Cattouse.
“It was just a lesson for me,” Cattouse said. “At the last second, I got caught between making that big hit and wrapping him up.”
Stanford proceeded to score touchdowns on its next five drives, more or less imposing its will on Cal’s porous defense. The Cardinal employed a highly balanced attack, mixing its signature power running game with throws from Luck at short and long range. Its 467 total offensive yards were almost perfectly split between 235 passing yards and 232 rushing yards. The performance was especially notable because it followed a weak showing last weekend against Arizona State, where the Card mustered only 17 points.
“They knew what they had to do,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Chase Thomas said about his team’s offense. “They made a lot of adjustments early and they weren’t stopped after that.”
Stanford’s defense played opportunistically, forcing three turnovers. The Cardinal held the Bears to 6-of-14 third down conversions, forced one turnover on downs and limited the offense to 299 yards overall. Mansion, who started the season as Cal’s backup quarterback, had a rough day under center, going 19-37 for 173 passing yards, including two interceptions and one touchdown pass.
“We put a lot of pressure on [Mansion],” Thomas said. “He doesn’t have that much experience. I think he was exposed in the game. He had a couple interceptions, he fumbled a snap; he seemed pretty rattled. I think that helped us out.”
Comparatively, Luck had a very strong game to lead the Stanford offense, going 16-20 for 235 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. Luck was also first on the team in rushing with three carries for 72 yards.
After the game, Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh called Luck the “best college football player in the country.” His teammates had similar words of praise.
“He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” Taylor said. “He makes it a lot easier. It’s hard to play defense out there against him. He can run and pass. We all see him week in and week out. He’s a great quarterback.”
The win was also significant for Stanford as it broke a recent string of futility in Big Game matchups. Cal had won the last two Big Games and seven of the last eight, and there’s no doubt the rivalry added an extra dimension to the game for both teams.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of emotion in this game,” Luck said. “Obviously, you’re not going to be able to pull out all of those emotions…it was a little tough not trying to get involved in everything, but we knew we just had to play football.”
Last year’s close Big Game also played into Luck’s motivation. Stanford had opportunities to win that game, but eventually fell, 34-28, after a Luck interception late in the game.
“I definitely had some motivation coming off of last year’s disappointment,” Luck said, “but, that being said, it was a new year and you can’t really dwell on the past too much.”
Each team moves forward with very different postseason possibilities. Stanford is unlikely to drop in the polls after beating the Golden Bears, and will be a strong contender for a BCS at-large berth if it beats Oregon State at home next Saturday. On the other side, Cal needs a win next weekend against Washington to get to six wins and bowl eligibility.
“We are going to win that game, and we are going to go to a bowl game,” Cattouse said.
While several factors will influence Stanford’s final bowl placement, the players don’t appear to be dwelling too much on which bowl game they will play.
Asked where Stanford deserves to go in the postseason, Sherman said, “Whatever they give us, to tell you the truth. You always feel like you deserve it, but another team could be just as deserving.
“I think we’re capable of playing with some of the top teams,” he continued. “But you can’t control that, so all we can control is going out every Saturday and trying to get a win.”