Big Game: Plenty at stake, including the Axe


By Rick Eymer

Palo Alto Online

It is an honor and a privilege to present some Big Game facts and figures, degrees of separation and other useful trivia surrounding Big Game Week. After all, what's hype without the hype?

This is the biggest Big Game since at least last year, with bowl bids waiting for both the winner and loser. Seniors from both schools want to walk away with the Stanford Axe for one last time. The halftime battle of the bands will be fierce and competitive.

There's such a great build up to the actual game itself, the week needs its own team captain and I nominate Tyrone Willingham, who should be invited to every Big Game Week activity, if just to see some of his Big Game magic rub off.

In his 10 years as an assistant coach and head football coach at Stanford, his record against California was spotless: 10-0. That includes six victories by a touchdown or less, once in overtime, and the 100th Big Game.

Willingham was there in 2001 and 1991. He will likely be around this year as well. Is it too late to name him an honorary captain to the honorary captain?

"I think what happens in this football game, because of the emotions involved, is that its often hard not to come in and have emotions," Willingham said after beating Cal, 35-28, in 2001. "Our guys were probably a little out of sync in having too much emotion and not enough ability to execute the way we wanted to. So it was an indication that we were a little more emotional than "surgical" in terms of our play."

Stanford was 24-point favorites against a winless Bears' team that season.

"We know that in 104 years that we've played, all the games are basically close against California," Stanford quarterback Chris Lewis said. "You throw everything out when you play the Big Game because you know they will bring everything they have."

Also, this from receiver Teyo Johnson: "We knew what they were capable of and its been that way throughout the history of the Big Game. We would have liked to put the game out of reach early, but that's just not the nature of this game. It's a great rivalry and we knew that they would come out here with their guns blazing."

Current coach David Shaw was around in the Willingham years as a player. When Denny Green moved on to the Minnesota Vikings following the 1991 season, Willingham joined him.

Current KNBR 1050-AM analyst Todd Husak was Willingham's quarterback for the Rose Bowl season of 1999.

Maybe, just maybe, a bit of that Willingham magic remains stuck somewhere on Shaw and Husak and, perhaps, it can be transferred from both the sidelines and press box during the 114th Big Game, the much-anticipated gridiron contest between Stanford and California, which follows the much-anticipated contest of last week, kicks off at 7:15 p.m. Saturday.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck will get much of the attention, seeing that he has been named one of five finalists for the 2011 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which is presented to the top quarterback in the nation that best exemplifies outstanding character, citizenship, scholastic achievement, leadership qualities, and athletic accomplishments.

Luck was also the runner-up to Cam Newton in last year's Heisman Trophy voting and entered the year as the odds-on favorite to win the award this time around. He's also projected as the NFL's overall No. 1 draft pick.

"My vote still goes to Andrew Luck," ESPN talk show host Dan Patrick said. "He exemplifies everything good about the award. Andrew Luck wants to be a role model."

Luck joins Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Oklahoma's Landry Jones, Boise State's Kellen Moore and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden as this year's Golden Arm finalists.

Luck, who has led Stanford to a 9-1 record this season and a No. 8 ranking in this week's AP Top 25 poll, has completed 221 of 313 passes for 2,695 yards and 29 touchdowns.

His 29 touchdown passes are tied for first in the Pac-12 Conference and rank second on Stanford's all-time single-season list, just three shy of his own mark set last season.

Luck enters Saturday's game against California with 74 career touchdown passes and needs just three more to tie John Elway for first place on Stanford's all-time career list.

If you missed Monday's Bearial, Tuesday's Big Sail (won by Stanford) and Big Sing, Wednesday's Guardsmen Big Game Luncheon and the 100th anniversary of the Big Game Gaieties, Thursday's Big Chill, Big Jeopardy and Big Game Rally, there's still time to climb aboard Big Game activities.

The Big Splash takes place Saturday, beginning at 5:15 p.m., at Avery Aquatic Center. Every year this contest gets the blood pumping. It's even better than tailgating. Oh, wait. Maybe not.

So, now that the actual football game is upon us, it's time to turn the attention to the players, who will ultimately decide the outcome anyway.

At stake is any number of bowl possibilities, including a BCS game. Oregon could go to the national championship game, hosted by the Sugar Bowl this year. In that case, Stanford (7-1, 9-1) could be in line for one of the other BCS games.

Even if Oregon gets snubbed for the national title game, the Fiesta Bowl may be an attractive alternative. In that case, the Cardinal could play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 11 years.

Other bowl possibilities for Stanford include the Alamo, Holiday and Las Vegas games depending on which bowl game takes which team.

The first thing, of course, is to win the game. And just as Willingham talked about emotions 10 years, Shaw talked about them this week.

"This game is going to be emotional," he said. "You have to gear up for that and control the emotions so they don't sneak up on you. We have to make sure not to create any extracurricular activities but at the same time we have to match the intensity of the game."

Since the only Pac-12 team Luck has been on the losing side of the past two years is Oregon, he might still be shaking his head over lost opportunities. It's more likely he'll be even more focused.

"It's impressive how he bounces back, like most things he does," Shaw said. "He's out there rousing everybody. Sunday was hard, but we still have the opportunity to put our mark on the season over the next two weeks."

It's not just Luck, but all the older players who will have a say in the team's preparation. Stanford's leading receiver Griff Whalen will be as ready as anyone.

"He's always made plays the last three years when called upon," Shaw said. "He came into this training camp and had his camp ever. Every single time we need something he's the guy who has come through. Over the last month we've leaned on him even more."

The Cardinal will be without offensive threats Chris Owusu and Zach Ertz again, and could be without kicker Jordan Williamson and strong safety Delano Howell.

But then, sometimes the unlikeliest of players become the hero of the Big Game. Casey Moore, a horse of a fullback, owns the Big Game record for longest run from scrimmage at 94 yards in the 1999 season.

That next unlikely hero is waiting to be discovered on Saturday.

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