Grinding to glory: A gritty Love and efficient Costello lead the Cardinal to a narrow Big Game victory

November 21, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 21, 2017

A valiant effort from an injured Bryce Love and an efficient performance by K.J. Costello led Stanford’s football team to a 17-14 victory over Cal in the 120th Big Game on Saturday evening. The win was the eighth straight for the Cardinal over its traditional archrival, the longest streak by either team since they first met on the gridiron in San Francisco back in the spring of 1892.

Stanford moved to 8-3 overall and 7-2 in the Pac-12, while the Golden Bears dropped to 5-6 and 2-6. But the game was a close thing, despite the disparities in the team’s records.

Both offenses were 6 of 12 on third down, and both generated 5.9 yards per offensive play. While the host squad outgained the Bears on the ground, 193 yards to 155, the dueling quarterbacks were nearly even: Cal’s Ross Bowers threw for 182 yards, while Costello topped him by three yards. (Incidentally, both players are sophomores, and both wear No. 3.)

The Cardinal took a 3-0 lead on Jet Toner’s 42-yard field goal on the first series of the game, which was enabled by a 33-yard throw from Costello to junior wideout J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The Bears answered with a 44-yarder by Matt Anderson on their first possession.

After the white-clad visiting defense forced a Stanford punt after an eight-play, 30-yard drive, the Bears drove 64 yards on a series that saw running back Patrick Laird convert fourth and 1 at the Cardinal 38. But the Bears would advance no further, thank in part to a false start penalty. Cal coach Justin Wilcox sent Anderson out for a 47-yard field-goal attempt that fell just short, doinking off the crossbar and leaving the score knotted at 3-3 early in the second quarter.

Costello followed up with an impressive 10-play, 70-yard drive that opened with him rushing for nine yards and saw him throwing for 37 more with five of seven pass completions. (A 15-yard interference flag nullified another Costello pass attempt.) Costello capped the series by evading an oncoming defender and throwing a dart to sophomore tight end Kaden Smith in the end zone. The 17-yard scoring play put the Cardinal on top, 10-3.

Bowers opened the ensuing series with a 12-yrd completion to Vic Wharton III. Shortly after punter Dylan Klumph ran for three yards on fourth and 2 at the Cal 45-yard line, Laird rushed for 14 yards and caught a short Bowers that wound up gaining 11 yards.

Cal’s drive stalled when Cardinal linemen Harrison Phillips and Dylan Jackson held Laird to a two-yard gain on first down at the Stanford 12-yard line. Two snaps later, sophomore cornerback Malik Antoine tackled Bears receiver Kanawai Noa after a one-yard reception. Anderson was summoned to kick a 26-yarder, which cut the Bears’ deficit to 10-6 with 2:43 remaining in the second quarter.

Costello rallied his unit for a 45-yard drive that stalled after he tried to run on third and 2 at the Cal 41 in the final seconds of the half and the Cardinal having exhausted its timeouts. He got off one more snap but made an errant throw that Cal cornerback Darius Allensworth picked off as the clock hit triple-zeroes.

The Bears got the ball to start the third quarter and advanced into Stanford territory. After Bowers threw incomplete passes on second and third downs with four to go from the Cardinal 44, the Bears offense stayed on the field. But Wilcox wasn’t going for a third time; instead, Bowers booted a short punt that was downed at the 21.

Head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren wanted to run the ball. To that point, Love had been only modestly effective. He’d carried six times for 17 yards and been stopped at the line of scrimmage twice; his only gain longer than three yards had been his first, a nine-yarder.

This drive started rather modestly. Love carried for four yards; then Ryan Burns came in and handed off to Love for a three-yard gain. Costello returned to throw a 15-yard completion to Arcega-Whiteside, who would finish the day with 79 yards on a career-high seven receptions.

Then things gelled for the Cardinal offense in a formation packed with extra lineman. The Cardinal line — from left to right, tight end Scooter Harrington, left guard Nick Wilson, tackle Devery Hamilton, offensive lineman David Bright, center Jesse Burkett, tackle A.T. Hall and tight end Kaden Smith — engaged their defenders as Costello pitched the ball back to Love. Two additional blocks enabled what was to come: Senior fullback Daniel Marx gripped (and possibly held) outside linebacker Alex Funches while sophomore right guard Nate Herbig pulled over to the left to pile on top of cornerback Elijah Hicks.

That left an opportunity for Love, who continues to fight through an injured ankle: If he could turn the corner on the left side of the line and beat his man, he’d basically have a clear path to the end zone. Well, he did and he did. Inside ’backer Gerran Brown never had a chance to catch Stanford’s next Heisman runner-up. Meanwhile, cornerback Camryn Bynum might have been able to prevent a touchdown — although not a long gain — if his own teammate, inside ’backer Jordan Kunaszyk, hadn’t inadvertently blocked him as the defender was trying to cross the middle of the field on his attempt to intercept Love.

In the end, no one touched Love, who continues to lead the nation in ground yards per game at 172.3. The 57-yard rush was Love’s ninth scoring run of 50 or more yards this season, and it gave the Cardinal its biggest lead of the evening, 17-6.

The Bears came back with their most complete possession of the contest. Cal moved the ball 75 yards in 10 plays, highlighted by a 39-yard Laird rush that would have gone for six had not junior free safety Ben Edwards poked the ball out near the end. (It flew forward out of bounds, meaning that Cal automatically retained possession.)

Laird scored from the 1 on the next snap. The redshirt junior running back, who finished the day with 153 yards on 20 carries and 47 yards on four catches, then took the two-point conversion in from the 3-yard line. Laird’s effort cut the Stanford advantage to a perilously thin 17-14 with nearly 19 minutes remaining in the game.

The Cardinal was unable to pad their margin on its ensuing possession, but it did the next best thing: Consumed seven minutes and 40 seconds on a 13-play, 49-yard series before Toner’s 41-yard attempt flew wide right. Two of longest gains came courtesy of Costello, who had a 13-yard completion to Smith and a seven-yarder to Marx; Love also ran four times for 11 yards, including a seven-yard rush.

More than 11 minutes remained in the game, and Cal was playing with a purpose. But on first down at the Cardinal 48-yard line, Bowers tried to force the ball into double coverage. Edwards picked Cal off at the 6 and ran the pigskin back to the 35, thereby preserving Stanford’s lead with 7:25 left in the game.

But the Cardinal weren’t yet out of the woods — and Love, their mainstay running back, would not get another carry in the game. However, running back Cameron Scarlett was finally ready to fill in. The junior carried 11 consecutive times, gaining 49 yards. He had two intermediate runs early, going for first downs on carries of 12 and nine yards, before going for four yards on third and 2 at the Cal 31-yard line.

The Golden Bears used their first timeout just prior to that play, with 3:51 remaining. Their final timeout came three snaps and 45 seconds later, as the Cardinal faced third and 6 at the 23.

Scarlett ran for five yards, setting up a crucial fourth and 1 with a little more than two minutes left. Now Stanford froze the clock at 2:19 to make sure it had exactly the play it wanted. When play resumed, Scarlett ran for two yards, enabling the hosts to kneel out the clock.

Love finished the day with 101 yards on 14 runs, a respectable average of 7.2 yards per carry. Scarlett had his third-best game of the season: 14 carries, 61 yards. (He had 86 yards against a hapless UCLA run defense and ran for 72 yards on 17 carries when Love was sidelined at Oregon State.) Costello completed 17 of 26 passes for 185 yards with a touchdown and what turned out to be a meaningless interception.

In the long run, the most important result from Saturday might involve Shaw, who recorded his 72nd victory. That’s the most ever by a Stanford football coach, surpassing the 71 that the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner notched in nine seasons from 1924 through 1932, when it was unusual to play more than 10 times in a year. Shaw remains undefeated in Big Games and has never lost to UCLA.

Yes, Saturday’s affair was a narrow thing. But if there’s a bad way to win Big Game and keep the Stanford Axe, I’ve yet to see it. Hail, Stanford, hail!


Helpful links

Cal-Stanford team statistics — ESPN
Cal-Stanford box score
Cal-Stanford play-by-play
Cal-Stanford interactive box score —
Cal-Stanford static box score
Stanford 2017–18 football roster
Cal 2017–18 football roster
Game (and some other) tweets — @memomoment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: