No. 14 Stanford flying high into Big Game vs. Cal |

No. 14 Stanford flying high into Big Game vs. Cal

Josh Dubow, The Associated Press

STANFORD – When Toby Gerhart arrived at Stanford in 2006 there was more talk about whether the Cardinal should field a major college football team than about the farfetched possibility of going to the Rose Bowl.

Stanford went 1-11 in Gerhart’s freshman year under coach Walt Harris, losing eight games by at least 21 points.

“People laughed at us on campus,” Gerhart said. “We were the laughingstock of the sports program. Now the student section is full each week and they’re fighting to get seats. There are a lot of people believing in Stanford football. It’s a complete 180 from where it was. Stanford football is on the rise.”

So much so that even Tiger Woods will even be on the sideline Saturday as an honorary captain for the biggest Big Game in years.

Led by the running of Gerhart and freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, coach Jim Harbaugh’s 14th-ranked Cardinal (7-3, 6-2 Pac-10) are playing for a chance at the conference title when they host California (7-3, 4-3).

This is the first time since 1991 that both teams enter the rivalry game with at least seven wins.

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“You want both opponents to be very high-skilled, highly ranked, you want it to be THE Big Game and I think we’re going to get that this year,” Cal sixth-year offensive lineman Mike Tepper said. “They’re a great opponent so I’m excited.”

Cal struggled for much of the 1990s, as Stanford went to a Rose Bowl following the 1999 season under coach Tyrone Willingham. The tides turned when Willingham left for Notre Dame and Jeff Tedford arrived at Cal.

The Golden Bears have dominated their rivals this decade, winning six of seven since Tedford took over in 2002.

The one loss still haunts the Bears, who lost six of their final seven regular-season games in 2007, including the rivalry game to Stanford in Harbaugh’s first season.

“Losing in ’06 to USC was pretty bad, but losing the Axe in ’07 was the worst feeling I ever had in my life,” Tepper said. “It tears you apart and tears the community apart.”

While Cal is playing for the Axe, Stanford has much more at stake. With a win Saturday and losses down the stretch by Oregon, Arizona and Oregon State, the Cardinal would clinch a Rose Bowl bid.

To get a share of the conference title Stanford just needs to win and hope the Ducks lose one of their final two games to Arizona or Oregon State.

“All I know is that for us to have any chance, we have to beat Cal this week,” Luck said. “That’s all I’m focused on. I haven’t figured everything else out.”

Harbaugh has talked about winning a Pac-10 title and going to a Rose Bowl since the day he arrived on campus, but until the Cardinal beat Oregon and Southern California in back-to-back weeks, there were few believers outside the program.

This week is the third step in what was supposed to be a brutal November stretch that ends with a home game next week against Notre Dame.

“Our mindset has been like an NFL playoff mentality with this game being the championship game,” Harbaugh said. “It’s kind of put up or shut up time. We talked about that last week. It’s that way this week too. If we win, we stay in the hunt for the Pac-10 championship. If we don’t we’re out of it. We haven’t left ourselves any exit strategy.”

Stanford put itself in this position by scoring 106 points in the wins over the Ducks and Trojans. First came a 51-42 victory over then-No. 7 Oregon that put the Cardinal into the Top 25 for the first time in eight years.

They followed that by scoring the most points ever against USC in a 55-21 victory over the then-No. 11 Trojans.

“Those games are no fluke,” Tedford said. “There wasn’t anything fluky about those games. Those were dominating performances. We have our hands full without a doubt.”

One of the biggest problems facing the Cardinal this week seemed unfathomable just a couple years ago: overconfidence.

Harbaugh saw signs of it on Sunday when the players seemed too pleased with themselves after the big win over USC. That started to disappear by the next day and Harbaugh planned to spend the entire week making sure cockiness would not derail Stanford.

For the first time in years, the Cardinal are actually expected to beat the Bears, a welcome change from past years when they could only play spoiler.

“We look forward to that kind of pressure,” Gerhart said. “The season just wouldn’t be a success in a lot of people’s eyes if we don’t win the Big Game. This game is special for the seniors to go out with the Axe and possibly go to the Rose Bowl. This would be big for this program.”