Take care of what’s important. Take care of what you can control.
That’s been a mantra for the Stanford football team all season, and on a night when four of the top seven teams in the country fell, the No. 6 Cardinal took care of what it could, defeating Cal 31-28 on a wet Saturday night in Palo Alto.
Once again, the Big Game came right to the brink, as the 114th edition of the rivalry came down to a Cal onside kick attempt with 14 seconds left and the Cardinal only leading by three points, a moment that sent head coach David Shaw digging through his memories.
““I got ‘The Play’ going through my head. I got the 1990 crazy game with the onside kicks going through my head,” Shaw said afterward. “But we knew if we got the onside kick the game was over.”
The kick bounced up and over the first wave of Cardinal receivers and directly into the hands of redshirt senior tight end Coby Fleener, who ended the intrigue by collapsing to the ground and giving Stanford back-to-back victories over the Bears for the first time in a decade.
Shaw, as usual, summed up the Cardinal’s performance the only way possible after the game.
“It wasn’t pretty, but doggone it, we fought to the end and we got the win,” he said.
And while Stanford didn’t hit on all cylinders in the victory, quarterback Andrew Luck said the win was exactly what the Cardinal needed after a deflating loss to Oregon last weekend.
“It was great,” he said. “The best medicine I guess is football, when you’ve lost a game.”
It did take a while for that medicine to take effect against the Bears, though, with Luck throwing an interception in the early going as Cal took a 13-7 lead early in the second quarter, marking just the third time the Cardinal had trailed all season long.
“Cal came out and battled as we knew they would,” junior defensive end Ben Gardner said. “A rivalry game, every year, no matter what the records are, you throw that out for this game, because it’s the big game, no matter how their season [has] been going we know they’re going to come and try and punch us in the mouth, and they did that for a while.”
Stanford responded with an expertly crafted touchdown drive to retake the lead before halftime, and, as it has done all season, came out of the locker room in rhythm and on point.
Luck, who was just 8-for-15 passing for 81 yards with an interception in the first half, connected on eight of his first 10 passes in the second half, including one that found junior tight end Levine Toilolo for a touchdown on the Cardinal’s first drive of the third quarter to make the score 21-13 in Stanford’s favor.
A big part of Luck finding his groove in the second half was the fact that he found junior fullback Ryan Hewitt, who became Luck’s favorite target out of the backfield and the engine of the Cardinal offense.
After a flawless, 41-yard, over-the-shoulder catch by Toilolo on the next Stanford drive, Luck flipped a screen pass to Hewitt, who rumbled in for a 10-yard touchdown while making sure to slam his 6-foot-4 inch frame into a Cal defender on the goal line.
““I don’t have great vision. I figured I could score if I could run north and maybe save myself a few steps,” Hewitt quipped.
Now leading 28-13, Stanford looked firmly in control and in position to run away from the Bears–-as it has done many times in the second half this season–-but Cal came storming back in the fourth quarter thanks to the play of junior quarterback Zach Maynard.
Maynard hit tight end David Hagan for a 3-yard touchdown to cap Cal’s first series of the fourth quarter, then connected with receiver Marvin Jones for the two-point conversion to bring the Bears within one score at 28-21.
Now needing its biggest drive of the night to try and put the Bears away once and for all, the Cardinal once again turned to Hewitt.
With 10:47 to go in the game, Stanford orchestrated a 14-play, 57-yard drive that ate 7:45 off the clock, with Hewitt single-handedly tallying 34 of those yards with three catches and two runs, both of which came on third downs. The Cardinal offense could only muster a 35-yard field goal, but the 10-point spread would be all that Stanford needed for the victory, even when the Bears scored a touchdown with 14 seconds left in the game.
After the wet, ugly victory was in the books, Shaw handed down his highest praise for Hewitt’s performance when the Cardinal needed a playmaker.
“Ryan Hewitt is one of the best football players I’ve ever been around,” Shaw said. “The guy can line up at fullback, outside at receiver, or in the slot at receiver. We lined him up at tight end again today. I can’t say enough about him.”
Luck, who himself rebounded to have a good game, going 20-for-30 through the air for 257 yards and two touchdowns, didn’t hesitate when Hewitt’s name was brought up.
“He’s always the guy. He comes to play. I can’t tell you his nickname on the team because there are words that aren’t suitable for the public. He’s the resident bad-aaa…” Luck said, drawing out the last syllable to further clarify the moniker.
After winning his first Big Game as Stanford’s head coach, Shaw, a 1994 graduate reflected on what the win meant to him and to the team.
“It’s special,” he said. “I didn’t think about it really until it hit me today, but looking at the fifth-year seniors in the fourth quarter, the look in their eyes, Corey Gatewood, Jeremy Stewart and those guys, they wanted it so bad, and as a coach you can’t help but pull for your guys and want them to be successful.”
Senior safety Delano Howell also said the win was critical to the Cardinal returning to balance after losing to Oregon last week.
““We understood that how we responded to the loss last week was a challenge to our character,” Howell said. “Grown men, they respond in a positive way. They don’t reflect on the past or use that in a negative manner or in an adverse way. In order to prove who we were as a team, we had to come out and make a statement tonight.”
A small side-note overshadowed by the drama of the Big Game was junior running back Stepfan Taylor, who gained 46 yards to go over the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second time in his career, joining Darrin Nelson and Toby Gerhart as the only players in Cardinal history to accomplish that feat.
And while it might have taken a little too long to ice away the Bears in this one, Stanford returned to its winning ways and kept itself on the inside track for a BCS bowl–-something other top-10 teams struggled to do last weekend.
The Cardinal now heads into its final week of the regular season for another highly anticipated matchup against No. 22 Notre Dame, which is riding a four-game win streak into Saturday’s game. A win against the Irish would likely propel Stanford to the Fiesta Bowl, even if the final weekend of college football’s regular season proves to be just as wild as last Saturday.
Of course, Stanford has to control its own destiny first.
The Cardinal and Irish will square off Saturday at Stanford Stadium at 5 p.m. Television coverage will be on ABC.