Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck stepped into the cauldron of his first Big Game on Saturday with a chance to enter Bay Area sports lore.
He departed looking like just another befuddled freshman in a stunning 34-28 defeat to rival Cal in front of 50,510 fans at Stanford Stadium.
After playing mistake-free football for much of his first 10 Stanford games, Luck couldn't find the magic touch under the bright lights when he needed it most.
That came with 1:36 left and the Bears clinging to a six-point lead in what turned into a heart-thumping finish. Despite an off night, the redshirt freshman had a chance for a lifetime memory when he stepped into the pocket and saw tight end Coby Fleener in the end zone for a potential game-winning play.
As Luck let go, Cal linebacker Mike Mohammed suddenly appeared at the 3 to steal the pass — Luck's first interception in four games.
"I wish I would have that one back," Luck said. "I just didn't put enough air on it. I thought we had a shot. There was time on the clock left; I could have done a lot of different things."
Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, an NFL quarterback for 15 seasons, tried to shield Luck from the disappointing finish on a day Tiger Woods served as the team's honorary captain.
"You get so used to Andrew painting every throw on the money every time, it's just not realistic," he said. "That's not the game of football."
The game is much more cruel than that.
And as Luck went, so did the Cardinal offensive juggernaut that fell apart with only 345 total yards. Luck, who has the promise to be one of Stanford's best quarterbacks in history, missed open receivers and fumbled three snaps, all recovered by the Cardinal.
And it all happened after he helped direct Stanford to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
"I know we had a chance at the end, but I didn't make the plays when they counted," he said. "It all falls on me."
It seemed surreal watching the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Luck struggle after leading Stanford to punishing back-to-back victories over Oregon and USC.
Still, Cal coach Jeff Tedford was impressed.
"He can throw it, he can run it, he can make them miss," Tedford said.
But the Bears coach praised his secondary for "running with their guys."
Harbaugh said Cal's ability to dominate in the trenches also was a factor in the Cardinal's defeat.
He wouldn't put it all on one play at the end — or one young quarterback.
"There are a lot of should'ves," Harbaugh said. "He should've thrown it higher. We should've given him a better play at the time."
There's always next year.