Did anyone say bowl game?
No, but at least there's a consolation prize on the horizon for the formerly downtrodden Bears, who not only downed archrival Stanford, 28-16, in the 106th Big Game before 67,950 on a chilly Saturday at Stanford Stadium but also earned a chance to play in their first bowl game since 1996.
California (7-6 overall, 5-3 in the Pacific 10) won for the fourth time in its last five games after a 1-3 start and is on track for one of two bowl scenarios. The Bears say they are already accepting ticket orders for a spot in the Insight Bowl at Tucson on Dec. 26 against the third-place team from the Big East or in the Wells Fargo Sun Bowl at El Paso on Dec. 31 against the fifth-place Big Ten team.
"A bowl game means everything," California Coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's going to be great not to go home for Christmas."
Meanwhile, Stanford is going nowhere. The Cardinal (4-6, 2-6) needed to beat the Bears and then follow it up with a victory over Notre Dame next weekend to become at least bowl eligible.
Even though the Cardinal was handed a 10-0 lead when the Bears kept dropping the football, Stanford managed only 284 yards total offense and lost the Big Game for the second consecutive year under Coach Buddy Teevens.
"We're going to watch the tapes and move forward," Teevens said. "We're going to keep working."
By contrast, Cal receiver Geoff McArthur earned a rest. He set a school record with 16 receptions and covered 245 yards. McArthur also caught two scoring passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, from 44 yards and 21 yards, to break open the game in the fourth quarter.
"I wasn't thinking about a record," said McArthur. "I was thinking more about the game, a bowl game, that means so much than me right now. The program is just going to take off. I'm just grateful to have the supporting cast like I do."
That cast would surely start with Rodgers, who completed 26 of 37 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns.
California scored on its first possession of the second half, with the 44-yard pass from Rodgers to McArthur to close its deficit to 10-7. The Bears then scored twice in just under five minutes to break it open. Vincent Strang caught a 14-yard scoring pass from Rodgers, and Rodgers' 21-yard touchdown pass to McArthur made it 21-10.
The Bears put together a 70-yard drive that used up 7:20 and put the game out of reach, 28-10, on a 17-yard touchdown run by Adimchinobe Echemandu.
California's mistakes kept the game close early.
"We were a little bit shell-shocked," Rodgers said. "We knew things were going to start going our way sooner or later."
Cal fumbled four times in the first half and lost three of them, leading to 10 points for Stanford. The Cardinal didn't have very far to travel for either score, beginning when Cal's James Bethea fumbled the opening kickoff and kicker Michael Sgroi recovered at the Bears' 16.
That led to a 22-yard field goal by Sgroi and a 3-0 Stanford lead. It was 10-0 two minutes later when Echemandu fumbled at the Bears' 24 and Stanford's Oshiomongho Atogwe came up with the ball.
On first down, Stanford quarterback Chris Lewis found Luke Powell open over the middle and Powell caught the ball without breaking stride for a 24-yard scoring strike.
Stanford was for the most part ineffective on offense until the last play of the game, when Lewis threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Mark Bradford.
That was not true of the Bears, who proved ownership once they stopped fumbling.
After they left the field and gathered in the locker room to celebrate, the California players started singing a song about "Bear country."
For the first time in years, they're in bowl country too.