In the 110th playing of the Big Game, and the first at the new Stanford Stadium, Stanford University defeated the University of California, Berkeley 20-13, capping off a tumultuous season with a satisfying win. A strong performance through three quarters on a freezing night was on the verge of being wasted as Stanford nearly gave up the tying touchdown in the closing minutes, but an interception, which had to be reviewed by the officials, sealed the win. After the win, the student section promptly emptied onto the field as the Band played and the Axe was held aloft. The Axe will reside at Stanford for the first time since 2001; the Class of 2008 seniors will leave Stanford with a victory they had not experienced before.
Much of the credit for Stanford’s significant improvement from last season (1-11 last year, 4-8 this year) is due to new coach Jim Harbaugh. After a miserable season last year under Walt Harris, his second, Harris was fired rather unceremoniously. University of San Diego coach Harbaugh was hired to replace him. He promised a new, aggressive approach to football compared to the more distant, hands-off Harris, and infamously proclaimed he would approach the job with “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
Stanford’s season was topsy-turvy—after losing to UCLA 45-17 and Arizona State 41-3, among others, they traveled to USC and stunned the nation’s number-one team 24-23, which sparked an impromptu bonfire in the Quad. (The fire was, of course, quickly shut down by the Stanford Police.) USC was a 41-point favorite, the greatest point spread reversal in history. Although the game was much about USC’s struggles on offense as it was about Stanford’s performance, the team played admirably against such a powerhouse football program. The win also sparked a pep rally later in the night at Maples Pavilion as the team returned home.
Despite Stanford’s impressive performance in the game, and its status as “The Biggest Upset Ever,” Stanford went just 2-5 afterward, dropping a game to a 3-9 Notre Dame team that was experiencing its worst season in 40 years. It was clear that the team had potential, and some close games and early leads slipped away as the team reverted to last year’s overly conservative playing style.
Although the team was beset by injuries all year, the team did make significant improvements over last year’s horrendous season. Cal, for its part, was number one itself for a couple of hours in the middle of the season, before dropping five of six entering the Big Game. With the departure of most of Cal’s skill position players that marked the team’s dominance over Stanford in recent years, Stanford’s chance at keeping the Axe next year seems good.
Harbaugh’s attention to the Stanford student population at large as well as his general outspokenness—he criticized Michigan for holding their athletes to a lower standard, for example—contributed to an uptick in support for the football team this season. Offering free season tickets to every Stanford undergraduate must also have helped, obviously, but the Class of 2011’s attitude to the team was not shaped by the humiliation of last season’s horrors. The original ticket policy for Big Game—students had to have attended two previous games to get into the Cal game—caused controversy, but 1400 more seats were opened up to the student population at large to ensure a home-field advantage. Unlike previous years, the Stanford Stadium featured more Stanford than Cal fans.
With a men’s basketball team that has struggled to recover the dominance of the Mike Montgomery era, the football team has received more attention. It is likely the Stanford will be able to contend for a bowl game next year in a Pac-10 that remains divided between the “haves” of USC and Arizona State, and the “have-nots” of everyone else.