STANFORD (CBS / AP) — The Big Game rivalry is a little bigger for Andrew Luck this year.
Stanford’s standout quarterback is coming off his worst performance of the season in a crushing loss to Oregon. His Heisman Trophy campaign is no longer a runaway and questions are starting to emerge about his abilities.
So when Luck leads the No. 8 Cardinal against California for perhaps the final time in his career Saturday night, leaving a lasting memory in the 114th edition of one of college football’s oldest rivalries could be paramount.
“There’s no time to feel sorry for yourself or lack motivation,” Luck said. “I don’t think anybody will lack any motivation for a Big Game against Cal. I know I won’t.”
More than the coveted Axe is at stake this time around.
For only the second time in the last 20 years, Stanford and Cal are already bowl-eligible ahead of the annual matchup. That gives the meeting between the Bay Area rivals more substance than spectacle this season under the lights at Stanford Stadium.
The Cardinal (9-1, 7-1) still have a chance to make a BCS bowl and keep alive their faint hopes for a Pac-12 title, and the Golden Bears (6-4, 3-4) could wreck Stanford’s season and move into a more marquee postseason game by claiming a signature upset each side has had so often in this series.
“Winning a Big Game makes for a successful season,” Cal defensive end Trevor Guyton said. “That’s the biggest game of each season. When you go there and win, that puts a bright spot on your season regardless.”
Nobody could use a bright spot more than Luck right now.
The redshirt junior threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in a 53-30 loss to the Ducks last week. Since he turned down a chance to be the NFL’s top pick this year and return to school, everything for the program and its star quarterback had been aimed at toppling Oregon—the only team to beat the Cardinal the last two years— and claiming a conference crown and possible BCS championship.
Now those dreams are likely shattered.
The only way a league title can happen now is if Stanford beats Cal and No. 4 Oregon loses to Southern California and Oregon State. Winning a Heisman—and lifting Stanford to a BCS berth—are the only goals still within reach.
“We’re trying to win games, and Andrew knows that and wants that,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “You can’t sacrifice the team for one guy. As much as it’s tempting because of his skills, I don’t think it’s right.”
Luck’s sizeable lead in the Heisman race has vanished.
He still holds a slim cushion atop the weekly straw poll of 13 voters conducted by HeismanPundit.com, one of the most accurate Heisman trackers. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Alabama’s Trent Richardson, Oregon’s LaMichael James and Houston’s Case Keenum appear to be his closest threats.
How he plays against Cal this weekend and Notre Dame next Saturday will likely determine whether he becomes the first Stanford player since Jim Plunkett in 1970 to win college football’s most prestigious award. While the Oregon loss still stings, Luck has only dropped back-to-back games once in his career, coming in 2009 during his first season as the starter.
“He’s just like everybody else. He’s down,” Stanford left tackle Jonathan Martin said. “But he’s good at putting things behind him and moving on to the next task at hand and that’s how he’s been so far this week.”
While nine of the last 11 Heisman winners have played in the BCS championship game, Luck still has a chance to break the trend with a performance in a rivalry game that will bring added attention.
The disparity between the two teams was quite evident a year ago in Berkeley, when Luck and the Cardinal beat the Bears 48-14 in the most lopsided Big Game in 80 years. The Bears left Stanford with a 34-28 victory in 2009.
Luck made all the difference in both.
He completed 10 of 30 passes for 157 yards in a losing effort two years ago. Last season, he threw for 235 yards on 16 of 20 passes and the 48 points were the most Stanford had ever scored in the series.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford knows an otherwise average year in Berkeley could change in an instant.
The Bears are already assured of heading to a lower-profile game, with the Sun Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl and Fight Hunger Bowl strong possibilities. Getting a chance to turn back Stanford—and Luck’s Heisman bid in the process—is easily bigger than them all.
“It’s part of the big thrill about being at Cal and playing Stanford,” Tedford said. “That’s part of the excitement.”
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