The suddenness with which the Big Game--as they still call the California-Stanford football rivalry in these parts--turned around on the final play Saturday was not quite as dramatic as The Play of 6 years ago, but the impact was no less stunning.
The Play was California’s multi-lateral kickoff return through the Stanford band as well as the Stanford football team with 4 seconds remaining to give Cal a 25-20 win over the prematurely-celebrating Cardinal.
There were 4 seconds left this year, too, with the score tied, 19-19, and California lined up on the Stanford 3-yard line waiting for Robbie Keen--called “the Cadillac of kickers in college football” by Bear Coach Bruce Snyder--waiting to kick the game-winning field goal.
Keen had kicked 17 of 19 field goals before Saturday’s game and added another 4 during a tense duel of 3-pointers with Stanford’s John Hopkins.
California rooters in the capacity crowd of 75,662 in Memorial Stadium were already celebrating--much as the red-clad Cardinal contingent had done here in 1982.
It was just a chip shot, no longer than a point after touchdown. Keen hadn’t missed a PAT all season--23 for 23.
Keen swung his foot soccer-style, just as he’s been doing all season, but this time the ball never had a chance.
Cornerback Tuan Van Le, a redshirt freshman from Vietnam by way of nearby Lafayatte, came flying through from the left side and smothered Keen’s kick before it took off.
Stanford 19, California 19 was the final score.
It was the first tie in a Big Game since the 21-21 ending in 1953.
“It was weird,” said Le, who came to this country when he was 7. “Before the field goal, I just had a feeling I could do it. So many times this year I came so close.
“I lined up on the left side, and the only way I could do it was to jump the ball. I took a big chance and jumped. I was just hoping I could block it. It feels good that they didn’t beat us.”
Keen said he never saw the 6-foot, 165-pound Le.
“I have no idea who or how the kick was blocked. I just kept my head down so I couldn’t see what else was going on. It was a real sharp angle, so it was easier to block the ball. I hit it perfectly, so it was unfortunate.”
Le’s defensive gem and a record-setting 95-yard kickoff return by Kevin Scott enabled Stanford to thwart a California team that appeared determined to erase the memory of last week’s 28-27 collapse at Washington with a season-ending victory.
Troy Taylor, who was playing in his first game against Stanford even though he has been Cal’s No. 1 quarterback for 3 seasons, directed the Bear attack for 415 yards--almost double the Cardinal’s 208. Taylor, who missed the 1986 and 1987 Big Games with injuries, passed for 226 yards (18 of 32 with no interceptions and 1 touchdown) and ran for several key first downs.
After engineering first-half drives of 63, 51, 24 and 59 yards, however, Taylor couldn’t get the football in the end zone and had to settle for Keen’s four field goals of 36, 44, 39 and 21 yards.
Meanwhile, the left-footed Hopkins was matching Keen, field goal for field goal, making his from 44, 46, 21 and 21 yards.
The only difference until late in the fourth period was Scott’s kickoff return, which he took on his 5, raced into the heart of the onrushing Bears and suddenly broke lose around midfield and outran a lone Bear pursuer to the end zone.
It was the longest kickoff return in Stanford history.
“It was a middle return,” Scott explained. “The wedge took off to the middle, and they blocked everyone. I was able to break outside. The only guy there was the kicker, and I hope I can beat the kicker.”
After Hopkins’ fourth field goal, Stanford led, 19-12, but after the ensuing kickoff, Taylor drove the Bears 80 yards in 4 plays to tie the game. Taylor started things himself with an 18-yard sweep around left end and ended them with a 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Ford.
With more than 9 minutes remaining, Snyder elected to go for a game-tying extra point. The strategy looked good when the Bears pressured freshman quarterback Jason Palumbis into a wild throw that was intercepted by linebacker David Ortega and returned to the Stanford 29.
Three minutes were left.
Staying with ground plays, Taylor drove the Bears to a 3rd-and-3 situation from the 3-yard line when they ran out of time. Keen came running in for the apparent game winner, but it was Le’s day, not Keen’s, to be the hero.
“It’s worse than kissing your sister,” a dejected Ortega declared. “They made a great play, but kicking was something that has worked for us all season. They’re just happy to get a tie.”
Stanford Coach Jack Elway pretty much agreed.
“I guess I am relieved temporarily,” he said. “When they lined up for that last play, obviously, it entered my mind that we were going to have another three-point loss. It was simply a great play by Tuan.”
It also left California in the basement of the Pacific 10 with a 1-5-1 record despite finishing at 5-5-1 overall, their best record since 1983. Stanford finished 1-5-2 in conference play, 3-6-2 overall.