Stanford quarterback K. J. Costello wasn't sure he would be playing with Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love in the second half of an eventual victory over Washington last Friday.
Love gave every indication he might not be able to walk normally.
Frank Buncom recorded 11 tackles, including a key fourth-down stop, in Stanford's win over Washington.m Photo by Al Chang/isiphotos.com.
Love rushed for 43 yards on 13 carries, his longest an eight-yard gain, and scored a touchdown and limped into the locker room with Stanford trailing, 14-10.
He came out a different man in the second half, rushing for another 123 on 17 carries. He ripped off a crucial 35-yard run in the fourth quarter that allowed Stanford to run out the
clock in Stanford's 30-22 victory over the Huskies.
"I don't know what he's got inside," Costello said, "but it's something crazy."
It's crazy, all right. Crazy enough that despite missing a game and being held to a season-low 69 yards (52 on one play) in a loss to Washington State, Love regained the national lead in total rushing yards and helped boost the Cardinal's chance of winning the North Division and a spot in the Pac-12 Conference championship game.
Stanford (7-3, 6-2) still needs to beat California (5-5, 2-5) in Saturday's 120th annual Big Game at 5 p.m. in Stanford Stadium and have Washington (8-2, 5-2) knock out Washington State (9-2, 6-2) next weekend for that to happen.
The victory over the Huskies was the first step.
"We've learned not to ask him if he's OK," Stanford coach David Shaw said of Love. "He's always OK. He can play through ridiculous pain. He's amazing to watch. Even at 80-90 percent he's still faster than most. It's unbelievable."
Love has rushed for 1,622 yards in nine games, on 181 carries. San Diego State's Rashaad Penny is second with 1,602 in 10 games and 229 carries.
He's first in the nation with an average of 180.2 yards per game. He's had a run of at least 35 yards in every game this season.
This week, there's Love and The Big Game, with the Stanford Axe Trophy up for grabs. It remains a special game to all involved.
Shaw has never lost a Big Game as a coach. He also played in the Big Game.
"It means a lot. It's a rivalry game," Shaw said. "We talk to our guys all the time about having tangible evidence, about having a trophy. It's always great to play for your pride, your family, your teammates and your school. But it's great to have something to hold after the game. The challenge is for the seniors to keep the Axe."
First-time participants may hear stories but there's nothing better than to go through the experience.
"Unless they are from Northern California, you can tell them about it but they won't get it," Shaw said. "We try and let them know they're going to feel it in pre-game warmups," he said. "That's just the way the game is. There's going to be a lot of people here and some of them are going to be wearing blue and some are going to be wearing cardinal. And you'll feel that in the stadium. There's going to be more emotion in this game; there's going to be a lot of passion. So we have to be able to control that and play well."
Costello grew up in southern California but he came to appreciate the value of the Big Game as a college football fanatic growing up.
"Just the title 'Big Game,' it's cool," Costello said. "I was watching Andrew Luck back in the day. I'm entirely aware of what this game holds. It's a dream come true for me to be playing college football. Every game is a big game."
Cardinal safety Frank Buncom IV sensed the importance of the week early on.
"It's huge. It's an honor to be part of a storied tradition," Buncom said. "You can see it all over campus. You never look past a rivalry game. Our focus is on the game and keeping the Ax for the seniors."
Buncom led Stanford with 11 tackles and forced a fumble against Washington. He and Bobby Okereke (10 tackles, a forced fumble, two sacks, four tackles for a loss) have been revelations lately, playing inspired football.
"We recruited him as a corner. He's smart, cerebral," Shaw said of Buncom. "We wanted to take a look at him at safety and the first day back there it was where he was supposed to be. He sees the whole field. We found a safety by accident."
Buncom said it was Defensive Backs coach Duane Akina's idea during spring football.
"A safety got hurt and coach said 'why don't you go out and see how it feels,'" said Buncom, who played one game as a safety in high school.
"Playing the angles is the biggest adjustment," he said. "As a corner you're looking outside in with the running game. As a safety it's inside out. I made my strides there."