Pac-12: Cal Bears

Spring position breakdowns: TE

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
Our look at position groups in the Pac-12 continues.

Arizona: Terrence Miller was listed on the team's depth chart as a tight end, but he wasn't a traditional tight end. After catching 40 passes for 467 yards in 2013, he's out of eligibility. Former quarterback Josh Kern backed up Miller and is one of four tight ends listed on the roster.

Arizona State: Chris Coyle (29 catches, 423 yards, 4 TD) is a big loss for the Sun Devils and his primary backup, Darwin Rogers, also is out of eligibility. De'Marieya Nelson and Marcus Washington are the most experienced of the four tight ends on the roster, which will grow by one with the addition of recent signee Brendan Landman. Landman is expected to redshirt after playing left tackle during his senior year in high school.

California: There is no tight end position in Cal's offense, which was a factor in Richard Rodgers' early jump to the NFL. Rodgers was switched from tight end to wide receiver last season upon coach Sonny Dykes' arrival.

Colorado: Senior Kyle Slavin is atop the depth chart after catching nine passes in 2013. Sean Irwin played minimally as a freshman, but his role is set to increase. Three other tight ends are on the roster, including Connor Center, who did not play football in high school.

[+] EnlargePharaoh Brown
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesOregon's Pharoah Brown made 10 catches, two for touchdowns, in 2013.
Oregon: The Ducks have a trio of players who gained significant experience in 2013 in Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis. Brown started five games, Mundt had a 121-yard receiving game and Baylis started in the Civil War game against Oregon State. Koa Ka'ai and Davaysia Hagger will provide depth, but they don't appear on track to make much of an impact on the depth chart.

Oregon State: With Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith both returning, the Beavers arguably have the best tight end tandem in the conference. Hamlett had 40 catches for 364 yards and Smith added 25 for 343 yards. Kellen Clute (19 catches, 159 yards) also contributed to the passing game and Tyler Perry, who will be a fifth-year senior, is an important run-blocker.

Stanford: A one-time strength of the Cardinal, tight ends weren't a significant factor in Stanford's offense in 2013, but the staff is hopeful that an influx of new players will change that. Stanford signed No. 1-ranked TE-Y Dalton Schultz, and he'll compete for playing time immediately. Greg Taboada, Eric Cotton and Austin Hooper -- all well-regarded tight end recruits -- are coming off redshirts and will compete with Charlie Hopkins, who started three games last season.

UCLA: There is no traditional tight end at UCLA, but Y receiver Thomas Duarte, who was recruited as a tight end, is coming off an exceptional freshman season. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Orange County native appeared in all 13 games and tied a school freshman record with three touchdown receptions.

USC: Losing Xavier Grimble early to the NFL is a blow and just two other scholarship tight ends remain from last season: Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. One of the nation's top tight ends, Bryce Dixon, signed with USC, but he wasn't among the group of four early enrollees.

Utah: The Utes were the only school in the country to send two tight ends -- Jake Murphy and Anthony Denham -- to the NFL combine, though Utah listed Denham at receiver. Siale Fakailoatonga, a former walk-on, was Murphy's primary backup on the final depth chart, and he caught two passes for 18 yards in 2013. Harrison Handley redshirted last season after enrolling early last spring and is a candidate to compete for playing time.

Washington: John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins' departure for the NFL was expected, and how the Huskies replace him will be an interesting process. Clearly, there's not a one-man solution for what they'll lose with Seferian-Jenkins, but the combination that the returning players provide is a nice mix of different talents. Michael Hartvigson and Josh Perkins have the most experience at tight end, but they should receive a push from Darrell Daniels and David Ajamu. Daniels, a highly-regarded receiver recruit who switched to tight end, was a special-teams standout in 2013 as a freshman, while Ajamu redshirted.

Washington State: Washington State didn't list any tight ends on the roster last season, but early enrollee Nick Begg will start his career listed there. The long-term plan for Begg is likely elsewhere.

Previous positions
Running back
Offensive line

Poll: Best game in October?

October, 2, 2012
For yesterday's looking forward/looking back segment in the blog, we previewed a few storylines to keep an eye on this month.

One of those storylines was separation games. We have a few of those coming up this week and in the weeks ahead there are some great divisional matchups.

So your Tuesday poll question for this week, which game in the month of October are you most looking forward to? (I've got a sneaking suspicion which one is going to win).

Your choices:

USC at Utah, Oct. 4: Once thought to be the pivotal game for the Pac-12 South Division -- and it still might be. Both teams are coming off a bye. The subplot to this game is one of the best defensive tackles in the country squaring off against one of the best centers in the country.

Washington at Oregon, Oct. 6: We've rehashed Oregon's recent domination in this series so much leading up to this game that it doesn't need to be rehashed again. The Huskies have already knocked off one top 10 team. Can they do it again and re-alter the landscape of the Pac-12 North?

Stanford at Cal, Oct. 20: The Big Game is being played in October. And this could be a pivotal contest for both teams. The Cardinal will be coming off a road trip to Notre Dame and Cal's head coaching situation might be in flux -- adding a whole new element to an already bitter rivalry.

UCLA at Arizona State, Oct. 27: The South's two biggest risers square off in one of the most intriguing matchups this season. Both are getting great quarterback play from first-year starters and both have shown they could legitimately challenge USC for the South crown. But before each team faces the Trojans in November, they'll have to get through one another.

Oregon State at Washington, Oct. 27: Both teams are ranked right now. Will they both be at the end of the month? Chalk this one up as another potential separation game in the cloudy Pac-12 North.

Impact game: Pac-12 North

July, 5, 2012
Across the blog network and in conjunction with Blue Ribbon's previews today, we're taking a look at the impact game in each conference. We looked at the South Division earlier this morning, and now we turn our attention to the North.

Impact game: Stanford at Washington, Sept. 27

Significance: This was a much tougher call than the South's impact game of USC at Utah. Oregon is clearly the team to beat in the North, so all of the Ducks' games -- be it Cal, Stanford, Washington and even the unpredictability of Washington State -- are impactful. But only if Oregon loses. On paper and on film, Oregon is superior to all of the above.

So we then look at the mishmash of second-tier teams behind the Ducks -- Washington, Stanford and Cal. Any matchup involving these three would be worthy of this post. But we're going with Stanford at Washington because I think we're going to learn a lot about both of these teams -- and possibly start to see some shape to the division -- by the time this game is done.

For the Cardinal, who start the season with three straight at home, this will be their first road game with a new quarterback. And I don't care if you're going 20 minutes south to San Jose State or a couple of states north to Washington, starting on the road -- especially the first time -- is a lot harder than starting at home.

Both teams will have already faced elite competition by this point in the season -- the Huskies with their Sept. 8 jaunt to Baton Rouge and the Cardinal against USC on Sept. 15. For the Huskies, this kicks off the first of three straight games against the top three teams in our power rankings. They travel to Oregon the next week before hosting USC a week later. A victory for Washington will not only be a major confidence boost heading into the Oregon game, but it also gives us a good idea of who might be able to challenge the Ducks.

The same can be said for Stanford. A road win against a quality opponent can do wonders for the new QB's self-esteem. And for the Cardinal to be successful this year, the new guy is going to have to learn to win away from Palo Alto. Some of Stanford's toughest games are away from The Farm this year -- at Notre Dame, at Cal, at Oregon.

Last year's 65-21 thrashing by Stanford is still, no doubt, fresh in the minds of both teams. After giving up 446 yards on the ground to the Cardinal (among other defensive embarrassments), the Huskies have retooled the defense. This should be a pretty good measuring stick for both teams and will likely clear the North's as-of-now murky landscape.

Impact game: Pac-12 South

July, 5, 2012
Across the blog network and in conjunction with Blue Ribbon's previews today, we're taking a look at the impact game in each conference. We'll start with the South Division and hit the North a little later this morning.

Impact game: USC at Utah, Oct. 4

Significance: This is a game we've written about a few times already and will continue to write about until it's played because the Utes represent the biggest roadblock to USC sweeping through the Pac-12 South. And much of that roadblock has to do with the Utes' average starting weight of 284 pounds across the defensive line.

The Pac-12 blog believes that Week 3 at Stanford will be a statement game for USC, considering the quality of Stanford's defense and its recent success over the Trojans. But even if USC wins, the rest of the nation probably won't give it much credence because it's an Andrew Luck-less Cardinal squad -- even though it would be a win over a top-20 team on the road. Those who follow the conference closely know what kind of defense Cal will throw at the Trojans in Week 4 -- a formidable one -- but Cal lacks the national reputation, so only people in the know will understand that beating Cal is also a quality win.

Utah, however, is catching some national buzz as a team on the rise because of standout defensive tackle Star Lotulelei -- a potential top-five pick in next year's draft.

From the Utah perspective, this is all about making a splash. It's a Thursday night game on national TV, and if the folks in Park City can't hear the noise from Rice-Eccles, then something is wrong. The Utes can't do much to help their national credibility with wins over Northern Colorado, Utah State, BYU or Arizona State. But I expect them to be 4-0 and a Top 25 team by the time USC comes to town. A victory for the Utes doesn't completely derail USC's national title hopes, but it puts a healthy dent in them. It's a chance for the Utes to not only say they've arrived in the conference, but that they are ready to be a national player.

Or the Trojans can just tear them apart with their passing game, and all of this hype would have been for nothing. But I don't see that happening, and I don't think Lane Kiffin or Kyle Whittingham see that happening either.

The Trojans certainly have it tougher the first four weeks than Utah. So either they'll be beaten up or battle-hardened. If it's the latter, expect this to be one of the best games on the Pac-12 docket this season.

Pac-12 Top 25 for 2011: No. 5

March, 6, 2012
Our countdown of the Pac-12's top 25 players continues.

You can see Ted Miller's preseason top 25 here.

5. Chase Thomas, LB, Stanford

2011 numbers: Finished the season with 52 total tackles, including 33 solo stops. But the real damage was behind the line of scrimmage, where he finished with a conference best 17.5 tackles for a loss (the closest players behind him at 14.5). He was also second in the conference with 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles.

Preseason ranking: No. 19

Making the case for Thomas: No defensive player in the conference created more havoc in the backfield than Thomas, who instantly bolsters Stanford's defense next season with his decision to return for another year. He was one of the top run-stoppers on the conference's best rush defense, which yielded just 84.4 yards per game. What makes the first-team all-conference performer's season all the more impressive is that he still put up monster numbers without inside linebacker Shayne Skov playing next to him most of the season. Without Skov, teams were able to scheme just for Thomas, often committing two linemen or a lineman and a back to slow him down. Sometimes it worked, a lot of times it didn't. Thomas was also named to the Sporting News first-team All-America squad. At 6-4, 240-pounds, he had a chance to crack the second round of the NFL draft with a strong showing at the combine, but instead he headlines a Stanford defense that returns six of seven starters up front next year. ESPN's Mel Kiper ranks Thomas the No. 1 senior outside linebacker returning next season. Insider

6. Mychal Kendricks, LB, Cal

7. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

8. Robert Woods, WR, USC

9. Chris Polk, RB, Washington

10. Jonathan Martin, LT, Stanford

11. Keith Price, QB, Washington

12 (tie). Darron Thomas, QB & De'Anthony Thomas, WR-RB, Oregon

13. Marquess Wilson, WR, Washington State

14. David DeCastro, OL, Stanford

15. Keenan Allen, WR, California

16. Marqise Lee, WR, USC

17. Nick Perry, DE, USC

18. Nick Foles, QB, Arizona

19. T.J. McDonald, S, USC

20. Dion Jordan, DE, Oregon

21. John White IV, RB, Utah

22. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford

23. Nickell Robey, CB, USC

24. Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford

25. David Paulson, TE, Oregon
With the combine completed, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have updated their respective rankings and boards. Kiper also offers his winners from the combine and those leaving us with questions.

Some of the Pac-12 winners include LaMichael James (Oregon, RB), Coby Fleener (Stanford, TE) and Matt Kalil (USC, OT).
If Fleener runs in the 4.5 range at his pro day, he could be in the first round. The Giants make sense. He is now an option as the first tight end off the board.

Question mark players include Vontaze Burfict (ASU, LB), Cliff Harris (Oregon, DB) and Marc Tyler (USC, RB).
(On Burfict) He already carries attitude questions, and Burfict needed to turn heads with workouts. Heads were turned, but for the wrong reason. He looked sluggish, to put it mildly. Once a first-round guy, he could be in the middle rounds if he doesn't recover.


Kiper also updated his top five players by position. The conference is well represented with Andrew Luck (Stanford, QB), James, Rhett Ellison (USC, FB), Fleener, Kalil, Jonathan Martin (Stanford, OT), David DeCastro (Stanford, OG), Burfict and Bryan Anger (Cal, P) and appearing in the top three of their respective position groups.

Finally, the rankings. No shock that Kiper and McShay both have Luck as the No. 1 overall pick. Here's McShay's take:
Luck's combine workout showed he is more athletic than most thought, and combined with his once-in-a-generation skill set he appears to be a lock as the No. 1 overall pick to the Colts.

Other conference players appearing in McShay's top 32 are Kalil, DeCastro, Martin and Brock Osweiler (ASU, QB).

While McShay ranks Robert Griffin III second, Kiper has Kalil in the No. 2 spot.
Kalil confirmed that he is a good athlete for his position. The tape is great, and it's hard to see him falling outside the top five. The plus for him is he might not need time to develop at right tackle, a common break-in spot for many left tackles.

Pac-12 lunch links

January, 26, 2012
Thursday, I don't care about you.

Pac-12 lunch links

January, 24, 2012
Happy Tuesday.
Taking a look back at some of the best and worst moments from the Pac-12's bowl season.

Best overall performance (team): We're a field goal away from flipping a coin between Stanford and Oregon. But the Ducks won, and to the victor go the spoils. Say what you want about Wisconsin being overrated; Oregon beat a very good team with one of the most productive college running backs in history, and the Ducks did it on a major stage.

Best offensive performance (individual): Keith Price outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, passing for 438 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for three more scores. And the Huskies lost! Someone on the Washington defense better be carrying his books around campus until the start of next season.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireWashington's Keith Price passed for 438 yards and four touchdowns and also ran for another three touchdowns in a losing effort against Baylor.
Best offensive performance (team): As good as Washington's offensive show was against Baylor, Oregon did it against a tougher opponent and under a brighter spotlight. LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas both went for more than 100 yards, Lavasier Tuinei turned in season highs in catches (eight) and yards (158) to go with two touchdowns and the offensive line had its way with Wisconsin.

Best defensive performance (individual): In the conference's five losses, teams gave up an average of 41 points. Still, Cal first-team all-conference linebacker Mychal Kendricks did all he could to limit Texas to 21, notching nine solo tackles (10 total) and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Best defensive performance (team): Pass.

Best offensive performance in a losing effort: Andrew Luck's one interception was the lone stain on an otherwise fantastic performance, in which he completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards and two touchdowns. He was 15-of-15 on all of Stanford's scoring drives and 4-for-4 on the final drive that set up the almost-game-winning field goal.

Worst offensive performance: Both Cal and UCLA faced fairly tough defenses in Texas and Illinois, respectively, and their 24 points combined reflected that. (For the record, Washington had 35 by halftime and Oregon had 28 at the half.) But the nod goes to Cal for 7 rushing yards on 36 attempts. That's 0.2 yards per carry. ASU was actually worse with minus-11 rushing yards, but at least it put up 24 points (well, 17 if you take away Rashad Ross' 98-yard kick return).

Worst defensive performance: As a conference, Pac-12 teams gave up an average of 455 yards in their bowl games. Washington was the worst offender with 777 yards yielded.

Best bang for buck: Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. Two carries, two touchdowns, 155 yards and a 77.5 yards-per-carry average.

Best supporting cast: While Price was fantastic, lest we forget that Chris Polk ran for 147 yards, Jermaine Kearse caught five balls for 198 yards and a score and Devin Aguilar added two receiving touchdowns.

Best holiday spirit: Cal certainly got into the season, giving the ball away five times to Texas.

Best "Oh jeez" moment: Stanford running back Jeremy Stewart taking out teammate Ty Montgomery after he tried to run a kickoff out of the end zone. Stewart, a fifth-year senior, stopped the true freshman right at the line and dropped him, much to the chagrin of 69,927 at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Worst "Oh jeez" moment: Watching Dennis Erickson try to call a timeout when ASU had fourth-and-goal at the Boise 1-yard line. Then watching his face as Jamar Taylor picked off Brock Osweiler and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown.

Not a great bowl season for Pac-12

January, 11, 2012
With the exception of Oregon and Utah, the bowl season was not a pleasant one for the Pac-12, which went 2-5 overall in its seven bowl games.

Let's take a looksee, shall we?
  • Arizona State, crushed.
  • Cal, fumbling it all away.
  • Washington, 67 points! Yikes.
  • UCLA, spark-less.
  • Stanford, coulda, woulda, shoulda.

The good news for the conference is that Oregon finally won the big one. After building a reputation as a team that couldn't get it done out of conference and after conference, the Ducks came out smelling like roses while the majority of the conference smelled, well, ya know.

Oregon's victory paves the way for future success in BCS bowl games -- because the Ducks aren't done -- and with USC back in the postseason mix next season, it's likely the Trojans will bolster conference numbers. Consider that USC would have gone to one of the higher-rated bowl games, thus dropping each team down one peg.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom. Aside from the fantastic Oregon win, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck got a chance to shine one last time in the spotlight and put together one of his greatest gems in an overtime loss to Oklahoma State. As underrated underdogs, it was pretty clear to anyone who watched knows Stanford probably came away looking better from that game than Oklahoma State did. And Washington quarterback Keith Price showed the rest of the world what we have been watching for the past few months. And let's not forget a pretty gutty comeback win for Utah.

Despite how things ended, the conference appears to be trending up. Oregon and USC will be preseason top-10 teams -- and Stanford probably checks in as a top-15/20 squad. Conference recruiting appears to be going well with some big-name players committing to several programs in the past few weeks and four new coaches add an air of mystery and excitement to the futures of Arizona, Washington State, Arizona State and UCLA.

But it's still tough to rinse that sour taste after watching ASU give up the opening kickoff for a touchdown to Boise -- which rolled and never stopped rolling in a 32-point victory. Or watching Cal cough up the ball five times to Texas. Or watching Baylor churn out 777 yards of offense. Or watching Illinois use UCLA to snap a six-game losing streak. Or watching a dead-center field goal hook to the left as the University of Phoenix Stadium scoreboard read 0:00.

Next year will be better. With a new television deal/network, an infusion of big-name coaches and some of the top players in the country coming back, it has to get better. Because after all ... oh wait, hold on, Baylor just scored again...

Stanford 2012 schedule set

January, 4, 2012
Here's a look at Stanford's schedule in 2012 (all games on a Saturday unless otherwise noted). Let the win-loss debate begin.
  • Sept. 1 San Jose State at Stanford
  • Sept. 8 Duke at Stanford
  • Sept. 15 USC at Stanford
  • Sept. 22 Bye
  • (Thursday) Sept. 27 Stanford at Washington
  • Oct. 6 Arizona at Stanford
  • Oct. 13 Stanford at Notre Dame
  • Oct. 20 Stanford at Cal
  • Oct. 27 Washington State at Stanford
  • Nov. 3 Stanford at Colorado
  • Nov. 10 Oregon State at Stanford
  • Nov. 17 Stanford at Oregon
  • Nov. 24 Stanford at UCLA
  • Nov. 30: Pac-12 Football Championship Game (just for those of you with extra high hopes).

First thoughts:
  • Nice to open up with three straight at home, but a big challenge early against USC. The bye week right afterward helps getting whoever is at quarterback ready for his first trip as a starter to Washington.
  • Traveling to Notre Dame is always tough -- no matter who is playing quarterback. Takes away the sting of back-to-back road games when you don't have to leave the region to play Cal.
  • About the Big Game being played so early, Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby said this through a release from the school: “The October 20 date for Big Game is 2012 is certainly not our first choice but the conference is governed by the will of the majority and we have a duty to respect the outcome of the vote. We will work with California and the Pac-12 office to advocate for the Big Game and all rivalry games to be scheduled toward the end of the season in future years.”
  • By my count, Stanford should have bowl eligibility by, at the very least, the end of the Colorado game -- though the Notre Dame-Cal stretch will be critical. Winning both would be outstanding, splitting would be passable, but dropping both could be a momentum killer because the Cardinal have three very winnable games (home to WSU, at Colorado, home to OSU) heading into Oregon.
  • Would rather face UCLA with new coach Jim Mora early in the season while things are still getting sorted out. By the final week, the Bruins will know what they are doing (for better or worse). Plus, depending on how things play out, it's not out of the realm of possibility that UCLA might need that final game to clinch bowl eligibility.
  • The extra time to study in between Washington and Arizona will be helpful for prepping against the new-look, Rich Rodriguez-led Wildcats.
  • Having five of the final seven games on the road is going to be rough. But better to have it that way than five of the first seven on the road with a new quarterback.

As previously mentioned in the mailbag, I see eight wins -- though I wouldn't be shocked at seven. Anything over eight would be a bonus and anything under seven would be a disappointment. I think the schedule works out nicely for a team with a new quarterback and one that will certainly be under the spotlight once again next season, albeit for different reasons than this year.

Big Game rivalry lives up to billing

November, 20, 2011

STANFORD, Calif. -- David Shaw was having flashbacks. In seconds, the Stanford head coach and former Cardinal wide receiver was re-running every funky play and freaky scenario and wacky finish that have been historic staples of the Big Game.

Here’s the scene on a rainy Saturday night at Stanford Stadium: Cal scores a touchdown with 14 seconds left to cut Stanford’s lead to 31-28. Here comes the onside kick. Anything can happen, right? A Cal recovery and Hail Mary? The ball bounces off of seven Stanford players and Cal converts a 65-yard field goal? It’s the Big Game. Seems plausible. At least at the time.

“I got The Play going through my head. I got the 1990 crazy game with the onside kicks going through my head,” Shaw said. “We just supported our defense. Even if they went down and scored, we made them take so much time off the clock. We knew if we got the onside kick the game was over.”

And it was. The onside kick went right to tight end Coby Fleener, who caught the ball on the one hop, cradled and dropped. No crazy bounces. No students or trombones appeared on the field until the clock read 0:00. Game over. Stanford wins the 114th Big Game. The Axe stays in Palo Alto for at least another year.

“There is still with 14 seconds – you’re thinking about The Play – you never know what can happen – ‘The band is on the field,’” said defensive end Ben Gardner, recalling Joe Starkey’s famous call from the 1982 game. “Luckily, the band stayed in their seats and Coby was able to recover the onside kick. He saved us.”

Aside from the late-game Cal heroics, it was standard Stanford. A slow start on offense before the Cardinal picked it up in the second half and – seemingly— pulled away behind two touchdown passes from Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck shook off an unproductive first half to throw two second-half touchdown passes.
The Cardinal were coming off their first loss of the season – a 53-30 schooling by the Oregon Ducks – that dashed (maybe?) their national title hopes. Luck in particular didn’t have that great of a game. Like his teammates, he was anxious to get back on the field.

“The best medicine, I guess is football when you’ve lost a game,” said Luck, who finished 20-of-30 for 257 yards, an interception (which came when Ty Montgomery slipped and fell on his route) and two touchdowns. “It was good to get out and play a quality opponent in a rivalry game.”

And despite the rain and the cold, the rivalry game proved to be as advertised. The Cardinal struck first. Following a Cal fumble, Montgomery scored on a 34-yard end-around. But after a Giorgio Tavecchio field goal and Luck’s interception – his fifth in four games – Cal took a 10-7 lead.

“It was tough sledding,” Shaw said. “We didn’t make some plays early in the game that I thought we should have and they took advantage of it and came storming back … It wasn’t pretty. But doggone it we fought to the end and got the win.”

The Cardinal returned to their ground game in the second quarter, rushing for 85 yards, which included a 6-yard Tyler Gaffney touchdown run.

Then Luck took off in the third quarter, completing 8 of 10 passes for 135 yards and tossing touchdowns to Levine Toilolo and Ryan Hewitt.

But Cal quarterback Zach Maynard wouldn’t let the Axe go that easily. He orchestrated a touchdown drive early in the fourth and the final-minute dramatics that ended with the onside kick.

Safety Delano Howell called it a character victory for the Cardinal.

“We understood that how we responded to the loss last week was a challenge to our character,” said Howell, who finished with seven tackles and a fumble recovery. “Grown men, they respond in a positive way. They don’t reflect on the past or use that in a negative manner or in an adverse way. In order to prove who we were as a team, we had to come out and make a statement tonight.”

And there were, of course, the standard missed tackles in the open field. Wouldn’t be a Stanford game without them. But it’s a win – and that’s exactly what this team needed in the wake of last week’s crippling loss to the Ducks.

“I think we were looser as a team,” Gardner said. “The nature of last week’s game, the national implications. Now we’re playing like a team with nothing to lose, because we don’t. We’re a team fighting for a BCS bowl and we know that. But we knew we had to come out and play looser than we did last week because we made too many mistakes last week and that’s partly because we were tight. At the same time, it’s Cal. We knew they’d try to punch us in the mouth. We had to play our game. It wasn’t always pretty. But we got the win and the Axe is staying here.”

For Luck, it caps a conference career that ends with back-to-back wins over Stanford’s oldest rival.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It will mean more once the season is over when you get to reminisce. But I feel very grateful and blessed to have won two games in a row against them and retain the Axe for at least another year.”

Final: Stanford 31, Cal 28

November, 20, 2011

STANFORD, Calif. – The Cardinal overcame a sluggish first half to top Cal 31-28 in the 114th Big Game. And, per usual for this gathering, it came down to the final minute.

Cal made a game of it in the fourth quarter, cutting a 28-13 deficit to 28-21 with 10:53 remaining. Zach Maynard connected with Spencer Hagan for a 3-yard touchdown pass, then converted the 2-point conversion to Marvin Jones.

But the Cardinal went on a 14-play drive, eating up 57 yards and 7 minutes, 40 seconds that ended in a 35-yard Jordan Williamson field goal – making it a two-possession game with three minutes remaining.

The Bears drove to the Stanford 1-yard line with 18 seconds left and C.J. Anderson scored to cut Stanford’s lead to 31-28. But the Bears were unable to recover the onside kick. It went right to Cardinal tight end Coby Fleener, who made the catch in the air and then fell to the ground to secure the win.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck shook off a bumpy first half to finish 20-of-30 for 257 yards and two second-half touchdowns. He also threw an interception for the fourth consecutive game – though it came when his receiver slipped on the wet grass.

Tyler Gaffney and Ty Montgomery each had rushing touchdowns and fullback Ryan Hewitt and tight end Levine Toilolo had touchdown receptions.

Maynard finished 20-of-29 with 279 yards and two touchdowns.

Cal running back Isi Sofele rushed for 85 yards on 22 carries.

3Q: Stanford 28, Cal 13

November, 20, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- After an unsteady first half, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is finding his stride in the third quarter.

After overthrowing his receivers several times in the first half, finishing just 8-of-15 for 81 yards with no touchdowns and interception, Luck has blown up, going 8-of-10 for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the third quarter.

The first was a 4-yard jump ball to 6-foot-8 tight end Levine Toilolo, who redeemed himself after dropping a ball when he was wide open just a couple of plays earlier.

The second was a 9-yard touchdown pass to fullback Ryan Hewitt.

The Stanford defense has also picked up its game, holding the Bears to just 49 yards of total offense in the third quarter.

Halftime: Stanford 14, Cal 13

November, 19, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. -- Observations from the first half of the Big Game.

Turning point: Stanford finally got its running game going in the second quarter. After rushing for just 27 yards in the first quarter (they average 64.3 in the first for the season), Tyler Gaffney plowed ahead for a 6-yard touchdown run to help the Cardinal regain the lead at 14-13. The Cardinal rushed for 85 yards in the second quarter and have 112 in the first half. Stanford is now averaging 7.5 yards per rush attempt.

Stat of the half: 58-of-59. Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson missed a 33-yard field goal in the closing minute of the first half -- marking the first time this season Stanford has failed to score in the red zone.

Best player in the half: Cal wide receiver Keenan Allen has sucked up everything thrown his way. He has six catches for 97 yards and a touchdown. Stanford hasn’t been able to slow him down.