Apparently Cal coach Jeff Tedford noticed something while studying film of Stanford before Saturday's Big Game: The Cardinal hardly ever goes for two-point conversions when its offense is standing on the sideline.
Cal made good use of the intelligence. After spotting Stanford a two-touchdown lead, the Bears hogged the ball for the most of the rest of the game, riding a series of inexorable chains-moving, clock-burning drives to a 34-28 victory.
There was much more to the story of a wonderfully chilly, wildly enlivening evening well spent. This was a Big Game worthy of any of its 111 predecessors, and superior to nearly all — or at least those that didn't end in trombone road kill.
Cal fell behind. It staged a comeback that raged across most of three quarters. In the end, the Bears repulsed a furious Stanford rally that came within 13 yards of a last-ditch, game-winning touchdown.
But at the guts of the game was the Bears' grinding dominance that turned a 14-0 deficit into an insurmountable — if only barely — 31-21 lead.
"All week long," Tedford said afterward, with a trace of a smile, "the talk was about how physical they are. Our big motto coming into this week was, we're going to find out who's physical."
True enough. That the game was decided by an irresistible force of an offense came as no surprise. The shocker was that it belonged to Cal.
For one thing, Stanford, led by pile-driving running back Touchdown Toby Gerhart, was coming off a pair of 50-point games against teams — Oregon and USC — against whom Cal had scored a total of two field goals.
For another, Cal has been renowned for its big play offense since the first play of the Tedford era, a 71-yard touchdown off a halfback pass. In fact there have been games where the Bears struggled in the absence of highlight-reel theatrics. So to see them suddenly channeling the 1982 Washington Redskins was quite the revelation.
Their timing was perfect. Their first two drives against Stanford ended in punts. The second was blocked, setting up the second of four Toby Gerhart touchdown runs. It came with 4:46 left in the first quarter.
Cal held the ball for 26:03 of the next 36:32, reeling off six monstrous drives totaling 64 plays, covering 453 yards and generating 31 points. And that included a 13-play, 62-yard effort that resulted in a Kevin Riley interception in the shadow of the Stanford goal line.
It was one of the few missteps by Riley, who was 17-for-31 passing for 235 yards and a touchdown. He wasn't sacked; in fact he scrambled out of trouble to great effect, gaining 28 yards on nine carries.
But Cal's relentless offense traveled mainly by land, and almost exclusively in the hands of tailback Shane Vereen — who gained 193 yards on 42 carries that seemed more like 75.
"I didn't even realize he had 42 carries," Tedford said. Somewhere, Vereen considers rolling his eyes before deciding he doesn't have the energy.
The crushers were the final drive of the first half (85 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown to cut the Stanford lead to 14-10), and the first drive of the second half (92 yards on 11 plays for a touchdown to take a 17-14 lead).
In between, Stanford took four inconsequential snaps to end the first half. Which means Cal held the ball for 25 of 29 plays from scrimmage over a span of 11:31. Turns out Gerhart isn't quite as scary when he's standing next to his coach, shifting anxiously from one foot to the other.
"I thought we had a lot of momentum going into halftime," Tedford said. "We had a lot of confidence."
The dirty half-dozen weren't drives as much as they were statements. Play after play the Bears won the hand-to-hand, belly-to-belly battle at the line of scrimmage. They beat Stanford defenders up, then wore them down. It was quite a departure for an offense that came into the game boasting 59 plays of 20-plus yards for the season.
It was more pugnacious than pretty. It looked mighty good to the victors, though, as they came whooping off the field.
"You know, when we lost those two games (to Oregon and USC), the people we could depend on were ourselves," Tedford said. "The kids in the locker room, the coaches, that's who we really are."
And the Stanford Stadium field has the tire tracks to prove it.
Contact Gary Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.