Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tricky Bears run past Stanford in Big Game

Amid the mass of humanity that flooded the Memorial Stadium field Saturday after Cal’s 37-16 victory in the 111th Big Game, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t get to Bears coach Jeff Tedford for the traditional post-game handshake.

So Harbaugh paid Tedford a visit in Cal’s interview room.

After shaking Tedford’s hand and congratulating him on the win, Harbaugh flashed a quick, you-got-me smile.

“Trickery,” Harbaugh said to Tedford. “Trickery out there. It worked.”

Worked to perfection, in fact, against a Stanford defense that kept getting fooled.

Cal’s deception plus superior speed turned out to be a lethal combination. Add a big dose of Stanford self-destruction to the mix, and what appeared to be a battle between two evenly matched teams turned into a Cal rout of the Cardinal, which on its final chance to become bowl eligible.

Tedford reached deep into his bag of trick plays during a 20-0 third-quarter blitz that transformed a tight game into a blowout.

Cal's third-quarter trickery began after Stanford gave Cal a gift.

Trailing just 10-3, Stanford got the ball to open the second half. But on first down, quarterback Tavita Pritchard scrambled to his right and threw back to his left, trying to hit fullback Owen Marecic. Pritchard’s pass sailed high, and Cal linebacker Eddie Young intercepted the pass then returned 17 yards to Stanford’s 28.

Moments later, Cal faced third-and-goal from the 1. Quarterback Kevin Riley rolled o his right while running Jahvid Best angled toward the front right pylon. But with the entire Stanford defense flowing his way, Riley stopped, turned to his left and hit tight end Cameron Morrah, wide open on the other side of the end zone, for a touchdown. No Cardinal was within 10 yards of Morrah.

“When we watched film, we noticed that they over-pursued a lot,” Best said of Stanford’s defense. “We thought if we got them going one way and hit them back the other way, we’d have some room to run.”

Or to pass. Or to do whatever the Bears wanted to do.

Morrah’s score put the Bears ahead 17-3 with 11:58 left in the third quarter. After the Bears’ forced a three-and-out from Stanford, Cal’s offense went to work again.

Best, a former California high school 100-meter champion. gashed Stanford’s defense for 36 of his 201rushing yards to the Cardinal 14.

“We felt like if we could get our athletes and speed in the open field, we had a chance to make some big plays,” Tedford said.

At that point, Cal went Boise State on the Cardinal. The Bears pulled out the old hook-and-lateral (or hook-and-ladder if you prefer) play. Riley fired a short pass to wide receiver Verran Tucker a few yards inside the left sideline. As Cardinal defenders converged on Tucker, he pitched the ball to Best, who raced untouched along the sideline, outrunning linebacker Pat Maynor to the end zone.

The Bears hadn’t even practiced that play until Thursday, two days before the game.

“I don’t think we were anticipating as many trick plays as they did,” Maynor said. “We thought they were just going to run the zone (blocking) at us, the stretch and the tosses. Hook-and-ladder in the red zone, I don’t think anybody can expect that one. They ran a lot of good reverses. They have good athletes, and they were tough to stop.”

Best’s touchdown put the Bears ahead 24-3. And they weren’t done fooling and outrunning the Cardinal.

After Rulon Davis and Zack Follett sacked Pritchard on third-and-9, forcing a punt, Cal took over on Stanford’s 48 with 8:24 left in the third quarter. On first down, Best took a handoff from Riley and headed around left end, but he flipped the ball to wide receiver Jeremy Ross, running 100 mph the other way.

Ross cut back against the over-pursuing Cardinal defense and sprinted 41 yards, with Riley and offensive tackle Donovan Edwards leading the way. That run set up Best’s 4-yard touchdown run, increasing Cal’s lead to 30-3.

“When you mix it up a little bit, do plays that could wind up on SportsCenter, it makes it tremendously fun,” Ross said.

“It got to a point in the third quarter where we just came unraveled,” Harbaugh said. “We couldn’t protect anymore, and that was against a four-man rush. It was nothing exotic. There were too many things that we shouldn’t have been doing.

“Cal got on a roll with their trick plays that were all working, one right after the other. They definitely got some momentum going, and that ended up being the ball game.”

Cal’s devastation of Stanford continued early in the fourth quarter. Best burned the Cardinal on a 45-yard draw play for a touchdown, making it 37-3.

For much of the day, Best did his best work on the outside, using his exceptional speed to outrun Stanford’s defenders.

“I feel like when I’m on the perimeter, I can do whatever I want,” Best said.

After the first half, it was hard to imagine what was to come. Cal led by seven points and was fortunate in many ways to even be ahead.

Let’s count the way.

1. Stanford had a first down at the Bears’ 16 after Pritchard hit backup tight end Colby Fleener on a 32 yard pass along the left sideline in the first quarter. The Cardinal stalled at the 8. Then Aaron Zagory pushed a 25-yard field goal attempt wide right. After marching all the way from its 1, Stanford came away empty.

2. Early in the second quarter, Stanford marched to the Bears’ 11, where it had a first down. On the next play, Cal defensive end Tyson Alualu ripped the ball out of running back Toby Gerhart’s hands, and defensive end Cameron Jordan recovered at the 10.

3. Late in the first half, Stanford went on another long drive, mixing power running with short- and medium-range passes, usually to wide-open receivers. Stanford had first-and-goal at the 9 and moved 8 yards closer on Pritchard’s pass to running back Anthony Kimble. At that point, Stanford stopped being creative and tried to pound into the end zone, but Gerhart was stopped cold on back-to-back running plays. The Cardinal settled for a field goal.

“That game could have gone either way right there,” Tedford said. “They really put together three nice drives. I thought the defense did a really good of stiffening.”

Granted, Cal blew a few good scoring chances of its own in the first half. On the Bears’ first drive, Best slipped Bo McNally’s tackle in the backfield, reversed field and gained 60 yards to the Stanford 26. But Cal came away with just a field goal.

Then early in the second quarter, Cal used a pair of Stanford penalties – facemask and unsportsmanlike conduct – to move all the way to Stanford’s 24. But on first down, Riley failed to spot tight end Tad Smith, wide open deep over the middle. Instead, he underthrew Morrah along the right sideline, and McNally cut in front to intercept in the end zone.

Late in the half, Riley redeemed himself, lofting 59-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to running back Shane Vereen. Give Cal’s coaches an assist on this play. They got Vereen isolated man-to-man against McNally, a strong safety.

This was a definite speed mismatch, with Vereen, a high school sprinter, having the clear advantage. He ran past McNally, caught Riley’s pass in stride at Stanford’s 20 and raced into the end zone.

A little deception. A lot of speed. Touchdown, Cal.

A year ago, Best was injured and on Cal’s sideline when Stanford beat the Bears 20-13 in Harbaugh’s first year as the Cardinal’s coach. He watched as Stanford’s players ran to Cal’s sideline and took possession of The Axe.

“It hurt,” Best said. “There was nothing we could do about it. I was so mad. I said, ‘That’s never going to happen again.’ ”

So far, so good.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Bears senior linebacker Anthony Felder said of the victory. “Having lost it last year, it’s like a dagger through your heart. As a senior, you want your legacy to be you left with The Axe.”

This year, Stanford is feeling the pain of both losing The Axe and missing out on a bowl game. Again.

“It was obviously a tough loss,” Stanford senior center Alex Fletcher said. “We went down the first half and just couldn’t put the ball in. We can’t give it to them like that. We turned the ball over and got penalties. It’s tough. You can’t do that against a good team.”

Especially a good team that’s as fast and deceptive as the Bears.

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