November 18, 2017: Stanford Cardinal running back Cameron Scarlett (22) tries to escape Cal’s defense, during a NCAA Football game between the California Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal at the Stanford Stadium in Stanford, California. Valerie Shoaps/CSM (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
By Jeremy Harness
PALO ALTO – The Big Game has almost become an afterthought, with the Stanford Cardinal establishing itself as the clear dominant force in this annual rivalry game against the California Golden Bears, but it sure didn’t play out like it on Saturday.
Although it remained close for much of the game, Stanford avoided becoming a victim of the notorious “Pac-12 After Dark” trend, which has consistently featured big upsets and high drama during conference games after the sun had gone down, and held on for a 17-14 win over Cal at Stanford Stadium.
With the win, the Cardinal kept themselves in the running for the Pac-12 North title and the right to face USC, which has already claimed the Pac-12 South, in the conference’s title game on December 1.
Stanford has done all it can do at this point, and now they have to play the waiting game. The Cardinal will need Washington State–which, like Stanford, has two conference losses and owns the tiebreaker over the Cardinal by virtue of its head-to-head victory–to lose to Washington in the annual Apple Cup next Saturday to earn that berth.
In the process, Stanford got a real scare from Cal. The Golden Bears kept it close in the first half by limiting Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love to 17 rushing yards in the first half. Stanford, however, held a 10-6 halftime lead, thanks to K.J Costello’s 17-yard touchdown hookup with tight end Kaden Smith midway through the second quarter.
Love has been bothered by an ankle injury, which he re-injured in the fourth quarter and eventually gave way to Cameron Scarlett, who had several key runs to keep drives alive and allow the Cardinal to bleed out the clock down the stretch, as well as Trevor Speights.
However, there was a strong feeling that it was just a matter of time before he broke at least one long run to leave his imprint on the game, which he did midway through the third quarter. With some solid blocking from the offensive line that sealed the left edge for him, Love broke off left tackle and sprinted down the sideline untouched for a 57-yard touchdown that extended Stanford’s lead to 17-6.
Love finished the game with 101 rushing yards on 14 carries.
As it appeared that Stanford was starting to pull away, Cal used the legs of junior running back Patrick Laird to march right back down the field. Laird put the Golden Bears on the doorstep with a 39-yard run, and one play later, he punched it in from a yard out.
Laird had a big hand in giving Cal a realistic chance to win on Saturday, carrying the ball 20 times for 153 yards.
After quarterback Ross Bowers found the end zone on the ensuing two-point attempt, the Cardinal’s lead was trimmed to three.
As the Cardinal ventured into the red zone, they took a huge step back when guard Nick Wilson drew a 15-yard unsportmanlike penalty. That proved to be crucial, as Jet Toner missed a 41-yard field-goal attempt.
Cal then drove the ball in to Stanford territory when Bowers decided to take a shot at the end zone. His deep ball was underthrown and had a lot of air under it, allowing safety Ben Edwards to close the gap and pick the ball off, thwarting the Cal drive and set the stage for Stanford to play keep-away for the rest of the game.
The Cardinal host the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday, November 25 at 5 pm on ABC.