By Jeremy Harness
AP photo Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan with keeper gets in end zone against Cal
STANFORD – If there was any question as to how Stanford would respond to a big loss, that was answered in a big way Saturday night.
The loss to Oregon last weekend knocked the Cardinal out of the College Football Playoff picture, but there was still plenty to play for, such as the Pac-12 title and another trip to the Rose Bowl. And besides, this was the Big Game, and if you’re Stanford, how can you not get up for this?
“I got the question about guys bouncing back, and I’m telling you, it’s Cal week,” head coach David Shaw said. “When it’s Cal week, we don’t worry about anything else. They really wanted this game.”
Carried primarily by the legs of Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey, No. 11 Stanford clinched the Pac-12 North championship by taking down Cal at Stanford Stadium in the 118th edition of the Big Game, 35-22, and will play the winner of next weekend’s USC-UCLA game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium for the right to play for the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Before then, they can wreck the playoff hopes of Notre Dame, currently in the fourth and final playoff spot, with a victory at home next Saturday afternoon.
Although very slim, Stanford has a chance of grabbing one of those four spots with the victory over the Fighting Irish and a victory in the Pac-12 title game, and McCaffrey had a lot to do with the Cardinal’s chances staying alive Saturday. He torched the Golden Bears with 390 all-purpose yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“Has anybody has seen a football player better than Christian McCaffrey?” head coach David Shaw asked. “Tell me. Show him to me.
“He’s truly, truly special. Our guys know that, and they take a lot of pride in blocking for him.”
McCaffrey amassed 282 all-purpose yards in the first half alone, and the choke-hold that he had on the game on offense and special teams was so evident that Cal began to pooch and squib its kickoffs to keep the ball away from him. In the process, however, the tactic gave Stanford very good field position, and the Cardinal took advantage.
The early going featured some feeling-out on the part of Stanford, which tested out their passing game on their first possession but with no success before being forced to punt.
The Cardinal ditched that attack when they got the ball again and pounded Cal with their prized running game, and they did not look back from that point. The 52-yard drive, which consisted of four runs and a pair of passes, culminated in Remound Wright’s second effort two-yard touchdown and gave Stanford a 7-0 lead.
By the end of the first half, McCaffrey had firmly left his imprint on the game. Late in the second quarter, he took a screen pass, broke a tackle and zig-zagged past a few more defenders on his way to a 49-yard touchdown that extended the Cardinal lead to 14-3.
“Football is a lot of instincts, and if you think too much, that’s when you end up messing up,” McCaffrey said. “But when you just allow your football instincts to take control, it makes football a lot of fun.”
Following a Cal field goal in the final minute of the first half, McCaffrey returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown that started to break the game wide open in Stanford’s favor and prompted a collective decision by Cal to stop kicking it to him altogether.
While Stanford mixed up their attack but kept it centered on the run, Cal primarily aired it out, which explains Jared Goff’s 386 passing yards while completing 37 of his 54 throws. While the Golden Bears had success in moving down the field that way, the attack stalled once it got into the red zone. While Stanford punched it in during its sole trip in the first half, Cal paid two visits inside the 20-yard line and had to settle for field goals each time.
“Keeping the ball in front of us and not giving up touchdowns, and (just) giving up field goals in the red zone, that was huge,” head coach David Shaw said.
After settling for another field goal on their first possession of the second half, the Golden Bears finally got it into the end zone when Jared Goff hit Darius Powe for a 3-yard score that narrowed Stanford’s lead to 21-16.
Trailing by 12 midway through the fourth quarter, Cal made its way down the field and into the red zone again. However, a big penalty kept the Bears out of the end zone, as a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call on Chris Borrayo forced a third-and-25, and when Goff’s fourth-down heave into the end zone fell incomplete, the Cardinal took over.
Four plays later, freshman running back Bryce Love darted right past the entire Cal defense for a 48-yard touchdown run to end the competitive phase of the game.
Jeremy Harness is the Stanford Cardinal football beat writer for http://www.sportsradioservice.com