Stanford is 12-point (ok fine, 12.5) favorites on The Farm Saturday, but Cal has its best opportunity to take the Axe back to Berkeley this decade. Will they?
The once 5-0 Bears are now 6-4 and losers of 4 of their last 5 hoping for that Vegas Bowl bid/late December matchup with Boise State. Stanford at 8-1 was in the hole shot to be the lone Pac-12 hope for postseason CFP play, but sloppy defense and Kevin Hogan put an end to those dreams last week in Palo Alto.
Now, Stanford’s playing to stay out of the Holiday Bowl and Cal is showcasing Jared Goff for the draft. But it’s not about records or relevance or even the present on Big Game Saturday. It’s about a blade mounted on some maple and 123 years of folklore, folly and frankly…nerds loving football on the West Coast.
Here, a look back and 30(.5) reasons Cal can spirit the Axe back to Berkeley via CalTrain and BART tonight.
30) The Axe: In 1899, Stanford yell leader Billy Erb used the Stanford Axe at a baseball game between Cal and Stanford. Shortly after, Cal stole the Axe and put it in a bank vault for three decades. On April 3, 1930, The Immortal Twenty-One, a group of Stanford students whose names nobody can remember, stole the Stanford Axe at Cal’s annual Axe Rally. Three years later, the Big Game’s victor was awarded sole possession of the Axe. Cal is facing its fourth straight year without the Axe.
29) Cal’s only lost more than three Big Games in a row once since 1989. 2015 would be their sixth-straight loss.
28) Chunk went to Cal:
25) Stanford has met or beaten the spread three times at home this year (UCF, Arizona, UCLA) but has failed to cover in the last four games.
24) 1924: Both teams came into the game unbeaten with a berth in the 1925 Rose Bowl on the line. With its star Ernie Nevers sidelined due to injuries, Stanford trailed 20–6 with under five minutes to go, but rallied to score twice to force a 20–20 tie and earn the Rose Bowl bid. Cal is still looking for revenge.
23) Of Stanford’s seven double-digit wins this year, three (Colorado, Washington, UCLA) were by more than 20. But only three at home.
22) Being the Big Game underdog doesn’t have much to do with the outcome for either team: In 1947, at the 50th Big Game, winless (0-8) Stanford led the Pappy Waldorf-led 8–1 Bears with less than three minutes left in the game. Cal scored on an 80-yard Hail Mary from Cal QB Jackie Jensen to Paul Keckley to clinch a 21–18 victory.
21) In March 2007, the National Football League announced that it intended to trademark the phrase “The Big Game” in reference to the Super Bowl, but soon dropped the plan after being faced with opposition from Cal and Stanford. This is the last time either team banded together against anything corporate (both schools signed a contract with Nike four years later sealing the fate of both as a soulless institutions for sale rendering this game, nay, this list, obsolete.)
20) In 1959, Stanford quarterback Dick Norman threw for 401 yards (then an NCAA record, and still a Big Game record), but it was not enough to hold off the Bears, who won 20–17. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan is currently averaging 172.3 passing yards per game (11th in the Pac 12).
19) After three years of no Big Game, (Cal didn’t have a football team) heretofore non-existent Cal won the 1919 re-match 14-10 …this year, Cal similarly hasn’t had a football team, nor shown up for the Big Game the last three seasons.
18) Cal likes showing up for the Big Game at the end of particularly terrible seasons: In 1980, the Bears were 2-8 going into the Big Game. Much like this year their season included having just come off a humiliating loss (60-7) to USC. Stanford at 6-4 was led by sophomore QB John Elway and had also taken down number one Oklahoma (in Norman) and Cal was a 15-point underdog. The game came down to Stanford’s final possession. Cal Safety Kevin Moen (recognize the name? See: Number 8) blitzed John Elway on fourth down late in the fourth quarter and Cal won 28-23.
17) …Then there was 1986, when a 1-9 Cal team defeated a 7-2 Stanford team 17-11 in head coach Joe Kapp’s last game.
16) …Or how about 1970? Jim Plunkett led the Cardinal to an 8-2 season (6-0 in the Pac-8), an Stanford outscored its opponents 302-167 with a Rose Bowl berth already in the bag. The 5-5 Bears facing #11 ranked Stanford got a lucky pass interference call in the fourth and took the Axe 19-14. Plunkett ended his Stanford career without ever winning the Axe.
15) …And who can forget 1941? Against common opponents, the Indians had gone 5-2, the Bears 2-5. Cal played masterfully on defense and was pitching a 9-0 shutout. Late in the fourth, Stanford, punting out of its end zone, was blocked by Jack Herrero resulting in a Cal touchdown. The final: Cal 16, Stanford 0.
14) A Cal victory in 2013 would have been the biggest upset of all: Cal was last in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, last in scoring defense, last in total defense, last in pass defense and last in red zone offense. Nationally, Cal is last in pass defense and 123rd (out of 125) in scoring defense. And yet, they even covered then.
13) The last time the Big Game was played in ’15, it was a rugby match (no, that’s not a metaphor). Even then, heavily favored Stanford only won by five.
12) Also in 2013, NCAA data revealed Cal’s football team, at 44 percent, has the lowest graduation rates among 72 major-conference schools, which means most Bears starters probably skipped statistics, ostensibly rendering the spread obsolete.
11) The Big Game has ended in a tie 11 times. That won’t happen this year even if the competition was about something Stanford/Cal students really care about: Minecraft.
10) The biggest margin of victory in a Big Game ever was in 2010: #6 Stanford, in a 48-14 victory, tied Cal’s 1975 record for most points scored in a Big Game. Though technically that would beat the spread this year, Stanford no longer has Andrew Luck under center. More importantly, Cal no longer has Kevin Riley.
9) In 2009, the last time Cal had the Axe, the Bears’ Michael Mohamed intercepted a pass at the Cal three with 1:36 left to preserve a Cal win over #14 Stanford, 34–28. Stanford was a three-touchdown favorite. Heisman favorite Andrew Luck’s stat line: 10 for 30, 157 yards, 0 TDs.
8) Eight seconds. 1982: The Play-—Cal, six-point underdogs, was leading 10-0 at halftime, but the Bears’ took the backseat in the second half on three Elway-orchestrated drives. Then, with :08 left, Stanford coaches called a time out and got the field goal unit on. The kick was good, and Stanford led 20-19 with :04 left. This is what happened during the ensuing kick-off (you know, in case you need a reminder…)
7) More than 40 percent of Big Games (48) have been decided by a touchdown or less.
6) More than 20 percent of Big Games (25) have been decided by a field goal or less.
5) 2013 was the last year of Big Games hosted in odd-numbered years by Stanford as they’ll play the new home of the 49ers (Levi’s Stadium) next year giving the Tree back-to-back home games. Consequently, Cal has its majority Big Game wins in odd-numbered years, which really, like most stats, means absolutely nothing …but 32 reasons is a lot.
4) Stanford leads the series 54-39-11 but the combination to the safe that holds the Axe is actually 54-40-11, thereby ensuring victory for Cal this year.
3) Regardless of what happens, Saturday’s match-up shouldn’t be as big a disaster as the inaugural (as in first time they called it the Big Game) Big Game in 1900. The game was played on Thanksgiving Day at Richmond Field in San Francisco (before the “new” Kezar was built in 1925). During the game, a group of fans watching from atop the nearby S.F. and Pacific Glass Works fell into the building when the roof collapsed. Thirteen people died and 78 were injured. To this day the Big Game’s Thanksgiving Day Disaster remains the deadliest accident at a sporting event in U.S. history.
2) Cal has never
lost won a Big Game since the release of Google Glass.
1) Stanford won the Nobel Prize in Medicine AND the Big Game in the same year only once. The year was 2013 when Stanford professor Thomas Südhof won the 2013 Nobel prize in Medicine. Neither school took home a Nobel Prize this year, which means its anyone’s game.
.5) *Cal only doesn’t cover at home.