Monday, December 3, 2007

Big Game 12/1/2007

Stanford 20 Cal 13 This was the last chance for me to see us reclaim the axe as an undergraduate. Since freshman year, each Big Game had been progressively better, but with our performance against Notre Dame last week and the 13.5 point spread, I was not optimistic. That being said, Cal was slumping too - losing 5 out of their last 6 games - and was without star wide-out Desean Jackson. This was also the first Big Game in the new stadium. With entry to football games being free for all students this year, there were 2400 allotted seats for students based on a first come first serve basis, with a priority line for students who had attended at least two previous games. I personally felt that students who attended more games should have been rewarded but it is always hard to enforce administratively, as I would find out first hand later.

Since it was pretty easy to qualify for the priority line and it was a first come first serve, a couple of guys camped out the night before so that they could ensure themselves front row seats. Now, that's the spirit that is sorely lacking at Stanford. With kick off at 4pm and doors opening at 2, I got there just before 12 and was dismayed to find a couple of freshmen and their staff ahead of me. Judging from prior experience, this was a sure sign that the rest of the dorm would show up minutes before doors opened and cut in front of me, as was the case. When doors finally did open, they opened up multiple gates and let people behind to jump ahead. It was rather poorly done and many people who arrived early and waited for a couple of hours were frustrated. The students who designed the whole priority system should have regulated the lines better because it wasn't the event staff's job to figure it out.

In any case, I managed to get 3rd row seats and was pleased to see the student section slowly fill up even though it was more than 60 minutes to game time. I thought the band did a pretty good job with the "Big Game" hunting themed field show. Speaking of the half time field show, a Cal student was made to leave the stadium during it. I'm not sure why but I think they were yelling "Take off that Red Shirt" to event staff and someone might have thrown something or gotten out of hand. The drum major's raptor costume made me laugh when I saw it (freshman hall inside joke).

As kick off approached, the student section and stadium as a whole swelled. I still feel that that more Notre Dame than Cal fans showed up at our respective games, which is an impressive achievement on Notre Dame's part. The honoring of seniors on senior day is always one of my favourite moments as they are joined on the field/court by their parents to recognise their contribution to the program. Today was no different. By kickoff, the student section was packed. The first few rows of my section were doubled up and more people were streaming in (I don't think they really capped student entry at 3400).

When our defense forced on a fumble on Cal's first possession and TC found Bradford wide open on a crossing route for the easy score, I was pumped and it crossed my mind that today might be one of those days where things would go our way. The game was also broadcast on Versus. The last game that was on Versus was the USC game and we all know how that turned out. Cal responded with a score but we held them during their next possession after our intercepted trick play. Nevertheless, I liked the creativity, and according to Albert, the double reverse Bradford to Moore throw worked a lot more effectively when they ran it on the practice fields. During warmups, my eye was on Belch and he looked significantly better than during warmups against Notre Dame (and we all know how that turned out). He came through with two field goals in the first half that really made the difference from a strategy point of view. Full credit to him for bouncing week after last week's debacle and playing through his injury.

Offensively, I liked how we were able to sustain drives and keep the defense off the field in the first half. I also liked how we rotated our QBs with 2 series for TC and 1 for Tavita to keep the Cal defense off balance. I didn't even realise when Tavita was inserted for the first time, until we pulled out the naked bootleg that TC would never run. I don't think Cal was ready for him either although they adjusted much better as the game went on. Our O-line did a phenomenal job for the whole game (picking up blitzes superbly) despite playing without two original starters Fletcher and Mattran. If I'm not wrong, they only gave up 1 sack (which was a coverage sack). McBride and Phillips, who took their place really stepped up. TC played really well too and I liked how we played to his strengths by focusing on a short passing game (and avoiding sacks). The receivers also made key catches to sustain drives (except for Sherman although he did draw that crucial pass interference) instead of dropping the ball as they have been prone to do. Tyrone was huge for us with Kimble out. His ability to catch out of the backfield and turn the corner was crucial although I cringed every time he was hit. Finally, I loved the play-calling, especially the play action roll out at the goaline which was set up by Tyrone's run (that was the play that USC used against us last year to much success).

Our defense won us the game in the second when our offense stalled thanks to the adjustments made to defending screens and two great picks by Sanchez. They struggled somewhat against the run and were bailed out by several drops, but they wrapped up pretty well at the line of scrimmage (Snyder was a stud) and did just enough to slow down the offensive player when they missed, allowing the rest of defense that was in pursuit to catch up. Maynor had some huge hits on Longshore which shook him up enough to throw him off in the 2nd half. I also liked the fact that we committed so few penalties while Cal seemed to get a holding or personal foul every other series (I also felt that they were holding much more than was called). Their ill disciplined plays and drops were definitely keys to our victory. When time expired. the rushing of the field was a foregone conclusion. We had finally reclaimed the axe.And it wasn't just that. During the critical last few minutes of the 4th quarter, when we were on defense after Stewart's fumble, the whole stadium was rocking. It wasn't just the student section (an achievement in itself) and the people on our side of the stadium, but the "old people" on the far side too. I had never experienced such noise from our own fans. I think Albert sometimes wishes that he had gone to a football school in the SCC, but for one game, one critical juncture, we were a football school. The atmosphere was electrifying. As the fans and players celebrated on the field, I saw the joy on players' faces and felt especially happy for the seniors like TC, Bradford, Evan and the list goes on, who underwent 3 coaches, 5 losing seasons and futility against Cal. I can't even being to imagine what having this as the last game of their college careers means to them. I'm glad they did.

Thank you seniors and Jim Harbaugh's coaching staff. Harbaugh has definitely grown with the team, improving alongside them. He's far from perfect but I really feel that the program is about to take off under the Harbaugh era. At the beginning of our odyssey, I wrote: "In Harbaugh I trust". In my wildest dreams, I never imagined wins against USC and Cal. 4-8 never felt this good.
~ Zhihao

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