STANFORD, Calif. — Bryce Love walked slowly out of Stanford’s locker room and paused just long enough to grab a box of chicken and shake a few hands before heading home to rest his sore ankles.
Whether the nation’s leading running back plays next week against No. 9 Notre Dame remains to be seen, but this much is certain: There are few players with Love’s breakaway speed and even fewer who can reach that level while injured.
Love rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown despite missing most of the fourth quarter after aggravating an ankle injury, and No. 20 Stanford held off California 17-14 on Saturday to keep its Pac-12 title hopes alive.
“I’m sure we’ll be scoreboard watching to a certain degree,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We can’t worry about what happens on somebody else’s field. Either we go to the Pac-12 championship game or we don’t.”
Stanford can earn a spot in the Pac-12 championship game against USC but needs some help.
The Cardinal can get there if No. 15 Washington State loses to No. 16 Washington next week. If the Cougars — who beat Stanford 24-21 on Nov. 4 — beat the Huskies, they get the nod because of the tiebreaker.
Love hopes to play against Notre Dame on the same day Washington State plays Washington but may have to sit out. Shaw nearly pulled Love out against Cal before the running back’s long touchdown run briefly gave Stanford some breathing room.
The nation’s leading rusher going into the game, Love was held in check most of the game by Cal’s defense and sat out the final 11:43 after re-injuring his ankle that has bothered him for the past month. He did stay on the field long enough to score a 57-yard touchdown — his 11th run of 50 yards or longer this season.
“He was in a lot of pain but he got that crease and then I saw that little 20 squirt out the backside,” Shaw said. “Injured or not, there’s nobody catching Bryce once he gets up to full speed.”
Stanford wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside wasn’t shocked even though Love had come out earlier in the game after hurting his left ankle.
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s like, ‘There he goes again, let’s go meet him in the end zone,'” Arcega-Whiteside said.
K.J. Costello completed 17 of 26 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, Ben Edwards made a key interception in the fourth quarter and Cameron Scarlett rushed for 49 yards on the final drive in place of Love to help the Cardinal (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12) milk the clock and win its eighth straight Big Game.
Scarlett, Love’s primary backup all season, also came up big for Stanford. Scarlett rushed for 61 yards, the majority coming on the Cardinal’s last drive that took the final 7:25. Scarlett’s 2-yard gain on 4th-and-1 kept the drive going.
Patrick Laird ran for 153 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries while Ross Bowers passed for 182 yards and a touchdown for California. The Golden Bears (5-6, 2-6) need a win in their final game to become bowl eligible in coach Justin Wilcox’s first season.
“We just needed another play here or there,” Wilcox said. “We didn’t quite have it.”
With No. 19 Michigan falling to No. 5 Wisconsin earlier in the day, Stanford is certain to move up at least one spot. A loss likely would have knocked the Cardinal out of the Top 25 entirely.
NEAR MISS DOESN’T MATTER
Cal kicker Matt Anderson made a pair of field goals to match Doug Brien’s school-record of 56 but it didn’t come easily. Early in the game Anderson missed a 47-yard attempt that hit the crossbar and bounced back into the end zone.
California: The Bears made the Cardinal sweat and kept the game a lot closer than many thought possible. Wilcox’s defense did a good job bottling up Love most of the game but couldn’t stop Scarlett on the final drive which was huge. Still, there are plenty of positives for Cal to take out of this one.
Stanford: It wasn’t the best game for Shaw’s team but the Cardinal gritted it out and held off a pesky Cal team that had plenty to play for. The conference title can still happen but before that Stanford has a pretty big game coming up against Notre Dame.
California: Ends the regular season at UCLA on Saturday.
Stanford: The Cardinal stay home and will host No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday. Stanford has won the last two and six of last eight against the Irish.