STANFORD, Calif. -- California may have played the best game of its maddeningly inconsistent season, but the Bears still came up short against No. 9 Stanford, falling 31-28 on Saturday evening on The Farm in the 114th Big Game.
Cal quarterback Zach Maynard threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns on 20-for-30 passing while going toe-to-toe with Cardinal Heisman candidate Andrew Luck, who threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, completing 20 of 30 passes.
In road games -- particularly against high profile opponents this season -- the Bears have had trouble keeping pace, and this game began much like past blowout losses this season.
Just after Cal opened up the game with a Maynard 42-yard strike to brother Keenan Allen, a pitch to Isi Sofele gave the Cardinal the ball. On the play, Maynard turned to Sofele and pitched, but the tailback appeared to be caught off guard as the ball sailed passed him. Stanford recovered and needed only three plays to start the scoring.
It was nearly just two plays for the Cardinal.
After completing his first pass attempt for 14 yards, and getting another 15 yards for a hit out of bounds by safety Sean Cattouse, quarterback Luck rolled out to the right and had an open man -- backup tight end Levine Toilolo -- down field, but his pass was too high, and sailed over the 6-foot-8 target.
On the next play, Stanford hit pay dirt with an end-around to the left end of the offensive line. Receiver Ty Montgomery took the inside handoff while running right to left, and motored around the edge on his way to a 34-yard touchdown run.
Despite the circumstances, the Bears showed their mettle by settling in on offense after the Cardinal score. Maynard led Cal on a 13-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a Giorgio Tavecchio 25-yard field goal to make the score 7-3 with 7:12 remaining in the first quarter.
Cal may have had a few more plays in that drive, but on third-and-three from the Cardinal eight yard line, tailback C.J. Anderson slipped on the wet turf for no gain. The field goal, and the offensive drive nonetheless pumped up the Cal sideline - but not as much as the defense would on Stanford's next possession.
After making it look easy on their first possession, Luck and the Cardinal were stifled by the Bears' defense on downs one and two. Both plays, Luck attempted to pass to receiver Griff Whalen, but on third-and-10, Luck went to his other receiver, Montgomery. The Heisman candidate would probably like to have that one back. Cal corner Steve Williams pulled the ball down and took it to the house for an apparent go-ahead score.
Due to a block in the back on the interception return by senior defensive end Trevor Guyton, and a sideline interference call on the Cal bench, the Bears were held out of the end zone on the pick. The penalties resulted in a Cal possession starting from the Stanford 19-yard line. Maynard's pass to Allen on first down was incomplete, Sofele rushed for two yards on second down and then Maynard threw the most accurate pass of his career.
Allen streaked down the right sideline, and Maynard threw the pass on time -- and on target -- to the front right corner of the end zone. The pass sailed over the trailing defender and into Allen's hands to put the Bears on top, 10-7, with 5:47 still to go in the opening quarter.
The first quarter would end with Cal still holding that lead, and driving down the field for another. After starting their drive from the Bears 17-yard line, Maynard led Cal to the Cardinal two-yard line on 4-for-5 passing for 64 yards -- and two of his completions were worthy of the season highlight reel.
On the first play of the second quarter, Maynard threw to the left sideline to senior wide receiver Marvin Jones, who caught the pass on his way out of bounds. But before going out of bounds, Jones was able to get his right toe on the field less than an inch from the paint. The play was so close, the officials took several minutes reviewing whether or not Jones was able to get his toe in bounds before catching the pass on the Stanford sideline.
Two plays later -- just after a holding penalty on offensive lineman Matt Summers-Gavin -- gave the Bears a first-and-20 from the Stanford 37-yard line, Maynard made the play of his short Cal career. After getting pushed out of the pocket, Maynard ran left towards the home team sideline with Cardinal defenders in hot pursuit. Just before reaching the sideline, the junior transfer began to throw from his left foot. While flying over the sideline, quarterback watched his laser-guided pass land in the soft hands of Anderson for a 19-yard gain.
Maynard's only mistake on the drive was the last play from scrimmage. On third-and-goal from the two-yard line, Maynard erred by throwing over the middle, and had it not been for linebacker A.J. Tarpley's drop of the pass, the Bears would have ended up with no points for their efforts over the 6:45 drive. Instead, Tavecchio came on for his second field goal of the game -- a 19-yard make that gave the Bears a 13-7 lead with 10:32 remaining before the break.
With a team like Stanford, it's difficult to keep them out of the end zone for long. Luck and the Cardinal offense proved that on their next possession after getting down by six to Cal. Stanford went on to put together a 10-play, 78-yard drive, but they did it with little help from their star quarterback. On the drive, the Cardinal rushed seven times for 60 yards and capped the drive with a six-yard run by tailback Tyler Gaffney to put Stanford on top 14-13, at the 7:05 mark of the second quarter.
The Cardinal appeared to be ready to make matters worse for California on their next drive. Much like a week ago, the Bears defense bent without breaking, and forced Stanford to bring out their kicker on fourth-and-four from the Cal 15-yard line. Placekicker Jordan Williamson hooked his 33-yard try wide with just 50 seconds left in the half -- leaving the Cardinal with just a one-point lead at the break.
Stanford made adjustments during the break so they wouldn't need Williamson in the final half. The Cardinal would score touchdowns on two consecutive drives to put the game out of reach early in the third quarter, 28-13.
Stanford used eight plays and the first 4:48 of the third quarter to move 69 yards down field and put another touchdown on the board with a four-yard touchdown pass from Luck to Toilolo -- who was being covered by linebacker Dan Camporeale on the scoring play.
On Stanford's second series of the final half, the Bears put the Cardinal had a down and distance of third-and-14 from their own 18-yard line. Luck dropped back, and all four Cal rushers appeared to have a shot at the sack, but the star quarterback dropped the ball over their heads to tailback Stepfan Taylor, who darted down the field for a 23-yard pickup and a first down. Two plays later, Luck would find second-string tight end Toilolo for a 41-yard gain, followed by a 10-yard touchdown pass to fullback Ryan Hewitt.
Down by 15 points with plenty of time left against a top team in the conference usually spells disaster for the Bears this season, but this game was too big for Cal, and the team's grit and determination showed by not allowing a blowout to occur. It just took too long to get back into the game.
On the Bears' first possession of the fourth quarter, Maynard threw to Anderson on the right flat for what turned out to be a 39-yard completion to put Cal on the Stanford nine-yard line. On third-and-goal, Maynard again rolled to his left out of harm's way and found backup tight end Spencer Hagan in the middle-left of the end zone for the score.
Down 28-19, head coach Jeff Tedford chose to go for two, and Maynard again delivered with a pass to Jones on the sideline of the end zone to cut the Stanford lead to seven, 28-21, with 10:47 left in the game.
In the end, the Cardinal offense was too much on the day. Over the next 7:45, Stanford methodically moved the ball down the field to the Bears' 17-yard line and gave their kicker an opportunity at redemption -- which he made good on from 35 yards. The score, with just 3:02 to go, made the deficit too much for Cal to erase, but it didn't stop them from trying.
Aided by two pass interference penalties on the Stanford defense, and Maynard's 50 yards passing on five completions of eight attempts, the Bears took the next 2:50 of the game to score on a one-yard run by Anderson.
The game ended when Tavecchio's onside kick was recovered by Stanford with seconds remaining in the game.
-- Allen's six receptions for 97 yards makes him Cal's second all-time receiving yards leader in a season. For the year, he now has 1,200 yards and is 304 yards shy of breaking Geoff McArthur's 1,504 mark set in 2003.
-- Williams' interception was his third of his career and second of the season. It was also the first time he had a return greater than zero yards.
-- Jones now has a string of 36 games with at least one catch -- one each game over the last three years.
-- Tavecchio has made 15 of 18 of his field goals this season. It's the most by a Cal kicker since Tom Schneider made 15 in 2006. He also made all three of his PAT's on the evening, keeping his season miss total down to six.
-- Senior fullback Will Kapp left the game early after injuring his ankle on a kickoff in the first quarter.
-- Senior receiver Michael Calvin left the game in the fourth quarter with a right knee injury.
-- With Calvin out of the game, sophomore receiver Jackson Bouza came in for Cal's last scoring drive and made his time on the field count. He caught two passes for 28 yards and drew a critical pass interference penalty.
Stay tuned for more extensive Big Game coverage.