This past Saturday the
California Golden Bears faced their first major test of the year Ė a road
game at the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The game was full of factors that had
been stumbling blocks for the Bears in recent seasons. Cal had not played
well on the road, winning only one of its last 9 road games. Cal had failed
to show up in the first 3 quarters of its past two road games against major
conference teams, Tennessee in 2006 and Maryland in 2008. Cal had also
struggled to win while ranked last season and while ranked highly in the
last few seasons. They took all of this into a 9 AM PST (11 AM Minnesota
time) kickoff in a sold out TCF Bank Stadium, a brand new facility hosting
its second ever Golden Gopher game.
Hope. Belief. Disaster.
Disillusion. Jubilation. This, to date, has been the unlikely path of the
2009 Cal football season.
Cal began the season with
high hopes built upon a solid yet unspectacular 2008 campaign and the return
of the vast majority of the key contributors from that 2008 team. Early in
the season the two teams viewed as Calís primary foils in the PAC10ís race
for Roses, Oregon and USC, each suffered an embarrassing loss leaving Cal
alone as the conferenceís prohibitive favorite. The Bears were undefeated
and ranked 6th in the nation.
Then conference play began,
only someone forgot to alert Cal. The Bears were thoroughly inept in all
phases in a shockingly bad loss in Eugene, easily the worst loss of the
Tedford era, and then only marginally better in a home loss to USC. By the
time the final whistle mercifully blew (though nowhere near as hard as the
Bears did) Cal had lost by a combined total of 72-6. Panic, depression, and
anger set in amongst the fan base. The natives were restless, the pitchforks
sharpened, the torches lit, the tar and feathers were at the ready.
The most optimistic fans
still held out hope for a 10-2 season and a BCS at large berth. The Rose
Bowl was, for the 51st straight season, a fleeting dream. Cal responded by
winning at UCLA, the Bearsí first win in Los Angeles against either UCLA or
USC this millennium. That was followed by a blowout of the toothless Cougars
of Washington State and a last minute win at offensively challenged Arizona
Cal returned to the
national rankings and faced rising nemesis Oregon State at home. Once again
Cal was outclassed on its own field. Oregon State dominated in all phases
and literally knocked out Calís star player, running back Jahvid Best, who
laid motionless on the turf for 15 minutes before being immobilized and
taken off the field on a stretcher.
Cal followed that up with a
home upset of Arizona, surprisingly keyed by the first inspired defensive
performance of the season. Still, Cal was, for the first time in the Tedford
era, a significant underdog entering the Big Game. Stanfurd had just
steamrolled USC and Oregon and was the hottest team in the country not
ranked in the top 5. While early losses had assured that the Cardinal (for
those unfamiliar, this refers to the color and not to the bird and has no
discernable link to their mascot which is an inebriated cartoon tree) were
not in contention for a national championship they were still in contention
for an unlikely Rose Bowl berth and had quickly ascended as high as 14th in
the various national rankings.
As a Cal fan I have a
healthy dislike of Stanfurd. I enjoy the rivalry and hope that all 4
remaining Stanfurd fans do as well. But Calís dominance in the rivalry this
millennium, coupled with the perennially sub par teams put forth by the
Junior U across the Bay, has dulled the impact of winning. Itís still more
fun and enjoyable than most wins but the emotional focus is on not losing
the Axe rather than on winning. Itís the game on the schedule every year
that would feel the worst to lose but has been supplanted by USC (due to
their usual status as conference king of the hill) as the opponent who fans
most want to beat. The distinction is subtle but real.
The rise of the red menace
rekindled the fire in the belly of the Bear. The ultimate judgment of the
success of the season rode on the Big Game. This is as it should be in any
good rivalry Ė you know itís special when beating your rival makes any
season at least a somewhat successful one.
The Big Game is a special,
unique rivalry game. It dates back to the 1800s and is the only rivalry game
played by BCS conference teams who are also globally recognized as elite
academic institutions. The Golden Bears and the geeky bores from Shallow
Alto compete not only on the field but also in the classroom, the boardroom,
and the Nobel selection room (it should be noted that supremacy in the first
two is highly disputable but the Bears easily win the third category). There
is an interesting mix of mutual respect and disdain.
When Big Game week comes
along the battle lines are clearly drawn. That was especially true this
year. Stanfurd, coming off their wins against USC and Oregon, was the
national flavor of the week. Cal was looking to regain some luster and
remind everyone that it still is the preeminent program in Northern
California. Stanford fans, assured of having their team in a bowl game for
the first time since George W Bush was the most popular president of all
time, magically regained their trademark arrogance. Cal fans wanted nothing
more than to see their Bears smack the snooty smile off the treesí faces.
The game began poorly for
Cal. Stanfurd running back Toby Gerhart ran 60+ yards untouched for a
touchdown on the gameís first possession. Not long thereafter Cal had a punt
blocked and Gerhart scored from closer range. Cal was in a 14-0 hole early
on the road. You could almost hear the home alumni collectively calling
their secretaries to start booking travel for Pasadena.
From there Cal took over as
they hadnít done all year. The offensive line was suddenly blowing open
holes with some regularity. The defense was stout against a potent and
Cardinal-red-hot offense, even managing to yield no points when forced to
start at their own 27. Kevin Riley found receivers and running back Shane
Vereen, filling in for Best, ran, contorted, and willed himself to nearly
200 yards rushing on an unbelievable 42 carries. Behind all these collective
efforts the Cal offense sustained long time consuming and opponent deflating
drives in a manner not seen all year. The Bears scored 24 straight points
and later led 31-21 in the 4th quarter. Stanfurd then scored a touchdown,
forced a Cal punt, and gained possession down only three points. Calís
defense held on 1st down, held on 2nd down, and held on 3rd. Stanfurd,
facing 4th and 8 inside itís own 30 and holding all of its timeouts made the
bizarre decision to go for it. Again the Bear defenders proved too sturdy
and Cal took possession.
Craziness in the crowd. A
chance for the Bears to seal the deal. Shane Vereen runs right, has space,
gets the first down and then smartly falls down in bounds to keep the clock
running. In the stands we can taste victory. Then Cal forces Stanfurd to
take all 3 timeouts and kicks a field goal and, worst of all, forces itself
to kick off. Stanfurd starts on the Cal 42 down by 6 with over two and a
half minutes left.
Bear fans made up about 40%
of the attendance at Stanfurd Stadium that night, a shockingly high number
in any other rivalry game that isnít played on a neutral field. But we
managed to top that by accounting for 90% of the noise. Stanfurd made a few
big plays and got inside the Cal 15. We grew hysterical to get our voices
down onto that field, to help our defense hold one more time. And then it
happened. Stanfurd quarterback Andrew Luck finally made a mental mistake and
Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed cradled the intercepted pass as he, his
teammates, and his gloriously overjoyed fans celebrated.
Three kneel downs later
thousands of Bear fans joined our team down on the field Ė at Stanfurd
Stadium no less - to continue the celebration. There is no feeling in sports
quite like winning your rivalry game as an underdog on the road and then
topping it off by conquesting your rivalís field. Singing Bear Territory had
never felt so satisfying.
The win changed the outlook
on the season. Cal was heading to a minor bowl game anyway and the win may
have upgraded that bowl some, but with the PAC10ís bowl agreements there
isnít a huge difference in the bowls the non-champions get. Yet after the
win everything seemed so much better. Suddenly Cal was looking at the
possibility of a 10 win season which is pretty good. The Axe was staying in
Berkeley and we got to revel in the misery of our rivals who had
accomplished so much in such a short time span and yet will have no Axe nor
a major bowl to show for it. The Axe is ours! Gloriously, joyfully ours!
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