The wave of upsets across college football this weekend did not engulf the 114th Big Game, but it came close.
Stanford fell behind early, dominated the second and third quarters and held off Cal in the final minutes for a 31-28 victory Saturday in a steady rain at Stanford Stadium.
"It was tough sledding," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "We didn't make some plays, and they took advantage. But our kids fought back."
Quarterback Andrew Luck epitomized Stanford's performance, recovering from an early interception to direct three consecutive touchdown drives that turned a six-point deficit into a 28-13 lead.
The Bears pulled within a touchdown with 10 minutes remaining. But Stanford responded with a drive that lasted nearly eight minutes, focused on fullback/tight end Ryan Hewitt and culminated in a 35-yard field goal by Jordan Williamson.
Cal's touchdown in the final seconds made it interesting, but the Cardinal recovered the onside kick to seal its third Big Game victory in the past five years.
"Our goal was to get The Axe back, and we fell short," Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. "But the players have nothing to be ashamed of. They played their hearts out."
The victory, combined with Oregon's loss to USC, enabled No. 8 Stanford to stay alive in the North division race and continue its quest for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series.
If Oregon loses to Oregon State next weekend, Stanford (10-1, 8-1 Pac-12) will win the division and host the conference championship game.
Meanwhile, the loss relegated the Bears (6-5, 3-5) to a second-tier bowl and guaranteed a second consecutive sub-.500 season in conference play.
"It's hard," said Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, who, like Luck, completed 20 of 30 passes.
"We played a good game on both sides of the ball. Stanford's a great team, and we couldn't afford to make the mistakes we made."
The Bears fumbled twice, committed seven penalties and couldn't score touchdowns on two first-half possessions inside Stanford's 10-yard line.
They also failed to generate a consistent running game, placing more pressure on Maynard to make plays in long-yardage situations.
After jumping to a 13-7 lead early in the second quarter, the Bears were held scoreless until early in the fourth.
"When they start scoring, you have to match them, and we weren't able to do that," Tedford said.
The first play from scrimmage -- a 42-yard pass from Maynard to receiver Keenan Allen down the left sideline -- set the tone for a wild first half.
But the Bears failed to capitalize, with a miscommunication on the ensuing pitch between Maynard and tailback Isi Sofele resulting in a fumble.
"That was just a boneheaded play by me," Maynard said.
Stanford pounced on the opportunity, taking a 7-0 lead on a 34-yard run by receiver Ty Montgomery.
Cal went 67 yards on its next possession and had third-and-three inside the Cardinal 10-yard line, but tailback C.J. Anderson slipped while making a cut, and the Bears settled for a field goal.
Less than a minute later, Luck was intercepted for the fourth consecutive game. The turnover came when Cal cornerback Steve Williams stepped in front of Montgomery, who had fallen down. Williams raced for a touchdown, but it was negated by two penalties on the Bears.
Cal retained possession and quickly got the touchdown back, as Maynard connected with Allen in the end zone to give the Bears a 10-7 lead.
"(Interceptions are) a part of football," said Luck, who threw for 257 yards and two touchdowns. "Is it a big issue? I don't think it is."
After a Stanford punt, the Bears moved right back down the field. But Cal failed to convert on first-and-goal from the seven and walked away with another field goal.
Then Stanford turned to its running game and found its rhythm. Anthony Wilkerson got a 78-yard drive started and Tyler Gaffney finished it with a 6-yard touchdown run.
The Cardinal picked up in the third quarter where it left off in the second -- collecting yards in chunks against the Bears' reeling defense. Luck hit Levine Toilolo for a touchdown on the first possession and Hewitt for a score a few minutes later.
What had been a one-point game was now a 28-13 Stanford lead.
"We made some stops in short-yardage situations," Tedford said. "But they made some plays on the run game and the play-action pass. That's how the second half went."