Ann Killion
Sunday November 21st, 2010

The best player in America.

That's what they said.

Stanford Coach Jim Harbaugh said it. So did Stanford's two-way star Owen Marecic.

Not the best quarterback. Not the best offensive player.

They called Andrew Luck the best player -- period, no need of position qualification -- in the country.

You weren't going to get any argument from any 67,793 fans in attendance at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Or probably from any of the NFL Scouts watching.

And definitely not from any of the Carolina Panthers or Buffalo Bills fans who would love to see Luck in their teams' respective uniforms, should the supremely talented sophomore choose to leave school early.

Luck led No. 7 Stanford to a 48-14 rout of archrival Cal. In the 113th playing of the Big Game, Stanford matched the rivalry's record for the most points scored.

If the Cardinal was concerned their narrow escape against Arizona State a week earlier might hurt them in the eyes of voters -- both human and computer -- Saturday's throttling might have proved that Stanford is the best one-loss team in the country -- falling to only top-ranked Oregon in early October.

Stanford wants, of course, what all deprived Pac-10 teams want: A trip to the Rose Bowl. They're going to need some help -- as in losses from Auburn and LSU and none by Boise State or TCU -- to get to Pasadena. The Cardinal will have to wait patiently for their bowl invitation.

Luck will likely be getting a different invitation. He seems likely to be invited to the Marriott Marquis in mid-December, as a Heisman Trophy short-lister.

Luck completed 16 of 20 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns, including a 19-yard pass to receiver Doug Baldwin that was thrown with pinpoint accuracy.

"He put the ball in the perfect place," Baldwin said. "There was no other place he could have put it. Most of the credit goes to Andrew."

Luck did it all. But his most impressive moment -- one that gave him instant YouTube fame -- came with his legs. Luck -- looking for a first down on third-and-five - took off on a 58-yard sprint across the Bears home field when he came into contact with Cal safety Sean Cattouse. The 215-pound safety took the bad end of the collision, basically run right over by Luck.

"I didn't really get a good look at him before we came together," said 235-pound Luck. "I just hit him and let physics take over."

Before the half had expired, the clip of quarterback-takes-out-safety was getting plenty of hits on YouTube. And unlimited admiration from his coach.

"He has great instincts. He's big and strong and he's got real good speed," Harbaugh said. "It was fun to watch him run. I just like to see him play."

Harbaugh and Luck are an intriguing duo, both peaking at a previously woebegone college program and both perfectly suited for the NFL.

"It's nice to dominate," Harbaugh said unapologetically after the game.

Yes it is. Harbaugh tried to turn the game into a tale of discipline vs. lack of it, citing Cal's trash-talking before the game. But Stanford simply outclassed Cal in every regard. Particularly at quarterback.

A year ago, Luck had struggled in his first Big Game -- a rivalry started in 1892 -- fumbling snaps and throwing a bad interception.

"It did give me some extra motivation," he said.

Even the Cal fans grudgingly had to admit that Luck wasn't half-bad to watch play. There's been precious little quality quarterbacking in the Bay Area as of late, either from the two pro teams or the college teams.

Cal coach Jeff Tedford, once considered a quarterback guru, has fallen on tough times lately. Cal junior Brock Mansion has been subbing for injured starter Kevin Riley, and neither could compete with the likes of Luck. Even with his own struggles, Tedford remains a quarterback connoisseur.

"He's the best quarterback in the country, in my opinion," Tedford said -- notice he did add the position qualifier. "When I saw him at the (pre-game) luncheon, I saw up close how big and strong he is. He's a powerful guy."

Stanford has had some pretty good quarterbacks in its day. One in particular, John Elway, addressed the team before the game. Baldwin said the players felt invincible after listening to "one of the most magnificent quarterbacks" who ever played.

But Elway, for all his greatness, never led the Cardinal to a bowl game. Stanford's current dominance is directly attributable to Luck.

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