Stanford Bowl Hopes End in Berkeley
Nov. 22, 2008
BERKELEY, Calif. - For the vast improvement Stanford football made this season, it ended much too quickly. In summary, success was met with disappointment.
An unmistakable sense of renewal was ever-present as the team's victory total increased for the second consecutive season under coach Jim Harbaugh. But the losses may stick around a while too.
Such was the case in the 111th Big Game, when Stanford advanced into the Cal red zone three times in the first half and managed only three points.
Whether the second half may have turned out any differently, with Cal scoring 27 unanswered points to break open a close game, was anybody's guess. But the truth was that Stanford lost opportunities that may have altered a game that ended with a 37-16 loss before 70,086 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
A Cardinal season that was so positive in so many respects - a school single-season rushing record by Toby Gerhart, a commitment to smash-mouth and physical football - ended with three consecutive losses. A victory in any one of them would most likely have catapulted the Cardinal into its first bowl game since 2001.
The joys were as high as the losses were low.
There was Stanford's season-opening 36-28 nationally-televised victory over Oregon State, when the Cardinal forced a decisive fumble in the final minute. And there was the 23-20 loss to UCLA, suffered on a touchdown with 10 seconds left.
There was the 24-23 victory over Arizona, on Gerhart's score with 25 seconds left. And there was the 35-28 loss to Oregon, on a touchdown with six seconds to go.
Though there was the reality of the program's seventh consecutive losing season, it also accompanied an unmistakable sense of hope for the future of the program.
Harbaugh brought a blue-collar mentality to the program, as evidenced by his gasoline attendant-style shirts he distributed to his players at their first practice. The embroidered name on his read simply, 'Jim.'
And that's the way Stanford played, with a hit-first, ask-questions-later mentality. That style was embodied by the hard-running of Gerhart.
The junior ran for 103 yards on 19 carries Saturday. For the season, Gerhart finished with 1,136 yards, breaking Tommy Vardell's single-season rushing record of 1,089, a mark that stood since 1991.
Gerhart's 10-yard run with 2:37 left was his 15th rushing touchdown of the season, placing him No. 2 on the Stanford all-time list.
In the early going, Stanford moved the ball well. The Cardinal fell behind 3-0 and had to take possession at its own 1-yard line following a 76-yard punt by Cal's Bryan Anger (the first of his two 70-yarders on the day). But Stanford drove 91 yards.
The series ended when Aaron Zagory was wide right on a 25-yard field-goal attempt, his first miss inside 40 yards all season.
On its next series - after Bo McNally's interception of a Cal pass in the end zone - Stanford again drove downfield, advancing to the Bears' 11-yard line.
This time, Gerhart was stripped of the ball by Tyson Alualu as Gerhart broke through the line and Cal's Anthony Felder recovered. It was Gerhart's first fumble on a carry since 2006.
The drive paid dividends for Cal as quarterback Kevin Riley found Shane Vereen out of the backfield on a fly pattern down the left sideline. Vereen caught the pass in stride at the 17 and cruising into the end zone for a 59-yard scoring play with 4:10 left in the second quarter to take a 10-0 lead.
The Cardinal settled for a 20-yard Zagory field goal in the final seconds of the first half to close the deficit to 10-3, but only after two Gerhart runs on second-and-goal from the 1 failed.
The second half became an exhibition for Cal speedster Jahvid Best, who scored three touchdowns - a 14-yard hook-and-lateral, and runs of 3 and 45 yards. He finished with 19 carries for 201 yards, averaging 10.6 yards per carry.
The Stanford offense, meanwhile, suffered three-and-outs, sacks and two interceptions and was not a factor until Cal had boosted its lead to 37-3.
A 34-yard touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin highlighted Pritchard's day. The quarterback finished with a career-high 306 yards passing, completing 22 of 37 throws.
Stanford players and coaches realize they could have avoided a must-win Big Game if it had finished off UCLA and Oregon. But lessons undoubtedly will be learned in a season that may ultimately be recalled not as disappointing, but of promise.