Some wake-up call.
Stanford rebounded Saturday night to overwhelm visiting Arizona State 33-14, ending a two-game losing streak in a triumph that puts the Cardinal on the doorstep of its first bowl game in eight years.
The Cardinal remained undefeated in Stanford Stadium this season and improved to 8-1 over two seasons by taking a commanding 24-0 halftime lead in front of an announced crowd of 33,090 that seemed like much fewer.
"This is where we want to be," said Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 125 yards in 27 carries. "The coaches are telling us each week now is like an NFL playoff game. It's do or die."
With five victories, the Cardinal needs to win one of its final four regular-season games next month — against Oregon, USC, Cal or Notre Dame — to become bowl eligible. As it stands, Stanford has its best eight-game start since going 6-2 in 2001.
After two tough Pacific-10 Conference road defeats, the Cardinal (5-3, 4-2 Pac-10) found some comfort at home again. Quarterback Andrew Luck completed 17 of 27 passes for 236 yards, and Cal totaled more than 200 yards rushing for the fourth time this season against the nation's second-ranked rushing defense.
"This is some of our best football we've ever played," coach Jim Harbaugh told his team afterward.
The Cardinal played with purpose after Harbaugh sent a strong message by retooling the lineup, starting some freshmen.
The biggest changes came on defense, where cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Kris Evans were replaced by freshman Quinn Evans and sophomore Johnson Bademosi. Freshman Shayne Skov got his first start at linebacker.
Also, freshman Drew Terrell took over punt-returning duties from Sherman, who had struggled to catch the ball the past few weeks.
It all added up to an impressive performance from a team that had been reeling after blowing a nine-point lead last week in the fourth quarter at Arizona.
"It was a rear-end kicking," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.
Stanford didn't seem to have any residue from that disappointing defeat. The Cardinal struck when freshman Jamal-Rashard Patterson took a reverse untouched 21 yards into the end zone with 8:30 left in the first quarter. Starting at the 48, Stanford ran seven consecutive times against the Sun Devils' vaunted rushing defense.
After Arizona State went nowhere on its next possession, Stanford marched back down the field from its 32 to set up Nate Whitaker's 27-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead with 1:44 left in the quarter.
The drive's pivotal play came after Whitaker missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt that was nullified by an Arizona State personal foul. Luck tried for the end zone, but his third-down pass to Ryan Whalen was caught out of bounds.
Didn't matter. Stanford made it 17-0 with 7:37 left in the half after starting at its 14. Luck immediately found tight end Coby Fleener for a 36-yard pass to the 50. The redshirt freshman then threw to fullback Owen Marecic for 29 yards.
"He's a heck of a player," Erickson said about Luck. "He has a chance to be a great one."
A nine-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness after the play put the ball on the 18.
Luck rolled right on the next play and found receiver Ryan Whalen at the 2. Whalen, a Monte Vista product, had seven catches for 93 yards.
Marecic then got his first touchdown for Stanford by bulling over the right side with 19 seconds left in the half.
Arizona State (4-3, 2-2 Pac-10) opened the second half with a nice drive, helped by a pass interference penalty called on Evans.
Danny Sullivan, a former Los Gatos High star, found wide receiver Chris McGaha deep in the right corner of the end zone for the Sun Devils' first score.
Stanford again looked poised in marching down to the ASU 1 yard line after the kickoff. But Gerhart, who became the first back to gain more than 100 yards against ASU this season and left the game six yards shy of 1,000 for the season, failed to score on fourth down. Gerhart fumbled into the end zone, where teammate Andrew Phillips recovered. But officials ruled that only Gerhart could recover his fumble on a fourth down.
Whitaker added a 39-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter to give Stanford a 27-7 lead.
Luck, who passed for 423 yards last week, completed 17 of 28 passes for 236 yards.
"We're seeing something special unfold with Andrew Luck," Harbaugh said.
ARIZONA STATE 14
vs. Oregon, TBA.
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