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When Four Seconds Mattered

Terence P. Jeffrey on

We sat high in the south end zone. To our left was San Francisco Bay; to our right, the Berkeley hills; and straight ahead, the field of play.

It was there that we saw Cal make a classic mistake in the closing minutes of the game -- and Stanford's John Elway take advantage of it.

As summarized in Tyler Bridges' book, "Five Laterals and a Trombone: Cal, Stanford, and the Wildest Ending in College Football History," Cal was leading 19-17 with less than three minutes to go when Elway fumbled the ball and Cal recovered it.

"The Bears took over on their own 37 with 2:32 left in the game," wrote Bridges. "Stanford had all three of its timeouts. The Bears needed one first down to win the 85th Big Game, deny Stanford a bowl game invitation, and send Elway back to Palo Alto with a loss in his final collegiate game. It was going to be just a matter of time before the Bears ran out the clock and celebrated a sweet victory."

Or so it seemed.

What did the Bears do? They ran the ball three times, worrying more about the clock itself than getting a first down. Stanford called timeouts after the second and third downs and, as Bridges reports in "Five Laterals and a Trombone," Cal ended up facing a fourth and 2 on their own 45 with 1:43 on the clock.

 

Cal then punted, giving Stanford and John Elway a chance to win the game.

One short pass in that series might have given Cal a first down and, thus, four more downs and the ability to kill the clock and win the game without giving the ball back to Stanford. But Cal's approach was too conservative for that.

Three downs later, however, the Cardinal was in a dire situation. "Stanford faced fourth and 17 on its own 13-yard line, trailing 19-17. Only 53 seconds remained," wrote Bridges.

Elway evaded Cal's pass rushers and completed a pass to receiver Emile Harry. "It was a 29-yard gain and a first down!" Bridges wrote. Elway then completed another pass to receiver Mike Tolliver, and Stanford had the ball at Cal's 39-yard line.

...continued

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