Sometime in the third quarter Saturday, with the rain coming down and the fans walking out, Cal and Stanford each decided to examine the soul of the other.

And it quickly became apparent this Big Game featured two teams playing not for their institutions or the paying customers or national TV.

Members of these teams were playing for something more fulfilling than The Axe, which goes to the winner of this game each year.

They were in it for themselves, selling out, committed to individual vanity projects all over Stanford Stadium yet all seeking the collective satisfaction of victory.

Stanford ultimately earned it, but the 31-28 score is proof the eighth-ranked Cardinal was pushed and probed and tested to its absolute limit.

This is why the Big Game doesn't lend itself to a point spread -- Stanford was a three-touchdown favorite -- or any other form of prediction. Though plenty of skill and daring were on the field, on the part of both teams, the outcome ultimately was no less dictated by emotion.

Bigger and certifiably better, and with more at stake, the Cardinal clearly came out for the second half rededicated to finishing off the Golden Bears.

With Indianapolis Colts executive Bill Polian -- who likely will make the call on the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick next April -- looking on from the press box, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck opened the half with back-to-back touchdown drives, hiking a one-point lead (14-13) to 28-13 with 5:42 left in the third quarter.

It was an impressive partial audition, Luck calling smart plays at the line of scrimmage, mixing pitch-perfect air strikes with gashing runs by tailbacks Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. After a relatively ordinary first half, Stanford (10-1, 8-1 in the Pac-12) suddenly looked like the juggernaut it has been for most of this season.

Separation, at last, was about to be achieved. The superior team was making its case.

Except Cal, visibly smaller and faster but also not as talented, became the pest that would not go away.

That 15-point deficit seemed to stir something within the Bears, particularly slender quarterback Zach Maynard. As instinctive as he is athletic, Maynard responded by running and passing the Bears right back into the game.

When Maynard punctuated a six-play, 68-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Spencer Hagan, followed by a two-point conversion that brought Cal back to 28-21 with 10:53 remaining in the game, the scattered onlookers remaining from the sellout crowd (50,360) become ever more engaged in the action.

Cal and Stanford, the athletes, had inspired the damp and cold fans, bringing what was left of the crowd to its feet. The blue-and-gold sections were roaring and chanting, the red-and-white sections growing restless and perhaps a little nervous.

But that's where Luck, conceivably the most impressive leader in college football, came back into the picture.

The leading Heisman Trophy candidate stared down the Cal defense and tugged at his teammates, marching the Cardinal offense downfield for a 57-yard drive that took almost eight minutes off the clock. It resulted in a 35-yard Jordan Williamson field goal that, with 3:05 left, surely would seal the win.

Well, no. This is the Big Game, after all, and rarely does the Big Game lend itself to simple or neat.

Maynard brought the Bears back, using an inspiring mix of fantastic scrambling and clutch passes. By the time C.J. Anderson barged in from the 1, there was just enough time for the futile onside kick.

It was recovered by Stanford, which ran out the clock.

This game will not necessarily stand with the memorable Big Games of the past. It will, however, live long within those who remained in the crowd, braving the elements and being rewarded with enough drama to carry them into the night.

More to the point, it will be remembered by those who slogged through it, muddy characters in a play, expending the best of themselves.

The seniors on both teams did themselves proud. And they set a fine example for those who will be back next year, when the Big Game goes to the new Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.