Frankly, Stanford and Cal made college football uncool beyond recognition. As USC went 16 years (until 1991) without losing to Stanford, while UCLA spent an entire generation (1972 to 1989) going unbeaten against Cal, the Cardinal and Bears floundered in mediocrity. It was a scene straight out of Major League: “I didn’t even know they still had a team.”
This year, however, marks the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Big Game, a 38-21 Cardinal victory over 9-1 and sixth-ranked Cal that’s one for Stanford fans to savor forever. The satisfaction of muting the Bears’ incessant trash talk (“Stanford is all the talk now – Cardinal silences Bears” ran the San Jose Mercury News headline) accompanied the joy of an unlikely landmark season.
In a year the 49ers fell short of the playoffs for the first time in eight years, the grunt work of Denny Green and Bruce Snyder paid off: for the first time in the same season, each team went to a bowl game. In a matter of weeks, Cal rocketed from its first national ranking since Chuck Muncie to entrenchment in the Top 10. The Golden Bears started 5-0 before coming within a touchdown (24-17) of taking down eventual national champ Washington.
Green infused Stanford with a previously unseen brand of toughness, with a massive offense line paving the way for Tommy Vardell’s then-school record 1,084 rushing yards. Once redshirt freshman Steve Stenstrom took over at quarterback, the Cardinal struck up a six-game winning streak heading into the game. The Trees had gone from 1-3 (bringing up the Pac-10 rear in early October) to No. 21 in the country.
True to pregame predictions, this game was won at the line of scrimmage. Stanford held Russell White, in his third of three straight 1,000-yard seasons, to 89 yards on 20 carries. Three Cal drives resulted in missed field goals, and the Bears soon abandoned the run in a game they never led.
Though Stenstrom connected on touchdown passes to John Pinkney and Ryan Wetnight, you know who owned this game.
“Vardell the ball carrier,” Stanford Stadium P.A. maestro Ed Macaulay announced 38 times on the afternoon. The senior workhorse powered his way for 182 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those scores came immediately following Cal touchdown drives; Vardell’s second touchdown came on a 13-yard, fourth-quarter sprint for the game’s denouement. The demoralized Bears hadn’t felt this humbled since… well, since the previous Big Game.
“I saw a lot of pain in their eyes,” guard Brian Cassidy said afterward of the vanquished. “There was a lot of grunting and people on the ground in the fourth quarter. You see guys doing that and you’re not tired anymore.”
The Bears expended a lot of energy, both before and during the game, doing the wrong things.
Cal was whistled for 11 penalties, five of the unsportsmanlike variety. At its own 35-yard line, facing a second and 10 late in the third quarter, Stenstrom looked for Pinkney along the Cal sideline. The pass fell incomplete. The Bears had just cut lead to 17-14. Mike Pawlawski had just found Marty Holly on a 32-yard play nearly identical to the one DeAnthony Thomas scored on last week, and the visitors owned all the momentum. “Hey, who’s the home team here?” Brent Musberger wondered aloud on the ABC telecast, with Cal fans erupting in the background after the touchdown.
But, through no effort of their own, Stanford would move the chains when Pawlawski gave Pinkney an earful on the sideline. Twelve plays after the taunting call, Vardell was in the end zone.
“Personal fouls are stupid football,” Bears coach Bruce Snyder said postgame. “I think we were so emotional, so anxious to play hard, that we lost some of our focus on how good football is played.”
Two decades later, the teams are each headed to the postseason once again. David Shaw brings the experience he gained as a player – he caught one pass for 18 yards back in 1991 as a freshman – against Jeff Tedford, now the winningest coach in Cal history. The 1980’s doldrums are history, and high expectations appear here to stay.
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