[We are ranking the Big Games of the Aughts. So far, we have #10: 2007, #9: 2000, #8: 2001, #7: 2006, #6: 2003, #5: 2005, #4: 2004, #3: 2008, and #2: 2009. Now, SURPRISE! we have the best Big Game of the 2000s, 2002. Deal with it!]
Like some sort of Civil War post-battle tableau, plumed hats were strewn lifelessly across the Memorial Stadium field. Nobody cared. Our high step wasn't quite so high. Nobody cared. Nobody cared, because it was November 16, 2002. Nobody cared, because the date everybody had circled in their calendar, November 23, 2002, was a week away. Nobody cared, because the moment Cal fans had been waiting nearly two presidential terms for was just 7 measly days away.
It wasn't just the marching band that couldn't focus on November 16, 2002. Not even the team itself seemed as focused on November 16, 2002. On that day, the team ended up losing to Arizona 52-41. This was a Cal team that had been ranked earlier in the season after beating Michigan State on the road versus an Arizona team that was 0-7 in the Pac10. At home. 0-7 in the Pac10! An Arizona team so bad that coach John Mackovic nearly lost his job in a player insurrection after, well, you can read it for yourself:
Midway through the 2002 season, Mackovic told tight end Justin Levasseur that he was a disgrace to his family. This and other incidents led 40 players (including future Pro Bowler Lance Briggs) to hold a secret meeting with school president Peter Likins. The players complained about Mackovic's constant verbal abuse, such as an ugly tirade after a loss to Wisconsin.
You have to be either pretty bad or pretty unfocused to lose to a team like this. Considering the talent level and coaching ability of the 2002 team, I think it is pretty obvious that it is the latter. After the jump, let's take a closer look at the reason why nobody ever in the history of anything cared about the Cal v. Arizona game: The 2002 Big Game. GO BEARS!
You don't understand. You don't get it. If you are reading this, you are upset, because you think that 2009 should be the #1 game. Hell, 2004 might even be above 2002 in your book. Well, guess what! If there is one thing we don't care about here at the California Golden Blogs, it is the reader's opinion (just kidding.......sorta, ok, not really). And for us, well we put 2002 at the top. It changed everything, don't you understand. No, you don't.
Most of our readership stems from fans in their early to mid 20s. Far more likely to curse the name J. Ayoob instead of J. Torchio. To them, beating Stanford is a standard Saturday afternoon with a small blip in one year that nobody can barely remember and really did it even count, I mean Kevin Riley never played a single snap, I mean c'mon! For people of my generation and older who have been following Cal at any time before, say, 2004, beating Stanford is a strenuous activity likened generally to climbing Mt. Everest, while carrying Mt. Kilimanjaro in your backpack.
Before the 2002 Big Game victory over Stanford, Cal had lost 7 straight times. 7! Seven! However you pronounce seven in Spanish (potentially seveno)! For all of Cal's Big Game success in the 2000s, we have yet to beat Stanford 7 times in a row. We did 5 in a row, but not 7. So, to you this might just be a boring game where the Standard Stanfraud Beatdown occurred.
To fans who lived through at least 2 of those Big Game losses (especially 2000!), this was as cathartic a victory as you could ever find, outside of, say, the 2004 World Series. Us fans we needed this game, we yearned, oh how we yearned.
What happened in the game itself, you ask, while leafing aimlessly through New To Cal Monthly? WHO CARES!?!?!? What is this, some sort of sports-blog? Man, I dunno, Joey Joe Joe Shabado Igber ran for what seemed like 4,000 yards. Although Stanford scored first on a Teyo Johnson free throw or TD or home run or penalty kick or whatever sport he happened to be playing at that time, Cal was up big by half and never looked back. To an objective observer, it would have been fairly boring. To those of us in the stadium, it was a giant party that lasted for hours. And it wasn't just the fans having fun:
"We didn't want it to be dramatic. We didn't want a close game," Cal cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "Just the fact that we won was drama enough. I've never seen the fans like that in here. The excitement was all over the building. I don't think we've ever had that at home."
Yes, that Joe Igber. That Hawaii 5-0 loving Joe Igber. One of the most underrated backs in the Tedford era. A truly humble gentleman. Check this out:
Igber had the biggest rushing day in Big Game history, repeatedly slicing through Stanford's defense for huge gains on just 26 carries. Igber finished his Cal career with 3,124 yards, passing Chuck Muncie and Paul Jones to finish second in school history behind Russell White.
"People will forget about me in the next couple of months, but I did what I came here to do," Igber said. "We got the win. We got the Axe. That's all that matters."
That quote always strikes me as truly awesome and humble. This quote will bring a smile to even the oldest of the Old Blues:
Johnson caught five passes for 61 yards for Stanford, which ended its worst season since 1983 with a five-game losing streak that left the Cardinal in last place in the Pac-10. It was Stanford's worst offensive output in the Big Game since 1967.
Look, I could go through the stats and the play by play and show some interesting stuff. Or I could just to my favorite part, perhaps my favorite memory ever as a Cal fan. Spoiler Alert: We had a lot of yards, they had a few. We ran well (like Joe Igber for 226 yards on the day!), they did not. Ok, favorite memory time! A few years ago (it's insane to me that we can count the amount of time on CGB and also on SBN in multiple years now), I did a post on the 2002 Big Game from a slightly different angle. It was that favorite Big Game memory. I will now quote liberally from that post:
With a few minutes left in the game, the fans started to sort of rush the field. They rushed the ground around the field, as it were. Slowly, but surely, the fans came out of the stands to surround the gamefield in anticipation of rushing the field, itself. As the time slowly clicked down towards zero, the field became illuminated in humanity. This great mass of drunken energy just thrashing about the sidelines, chomping at the bit to rush the field. Those of us in the band did become briefly concerned that we might have to forfeit if they rushed too early.
With about 7 seconds left in the game, Cal recovered a fumble, essentially sealing the game. I have the clearest memory of a shirtless man becoming incredibly agitated, if not also inebriated, at that point and just started running around the field of play as the Cal offense ran onto the field for 1 last down. But for the Cal offense, it was, ultimately, too late. The genie (i.e. shirtless drunken fool) was already out of the toothpaste bottle (uh, ok, keep metaphor separate in the future). That mass of drunken humanity streamed onto the field with a stunning alacrity. They paraded the axe, other fans, and even football players like Kyle Boller, Ravens backup QB of the future around the field on their shoulders.
A phlanx of yellow shirted guards took their positions at the goal post. In the past 7 years, when Cal lost, there had been occasions of Cal fans rushing the field and rioting. One year, they attacked the Stanford Tree and tore it to bits. Another year, they tore the *Stanford* goalposts up. Another year, they attempted to rush the field, but were met by a veritable SWAT team of police, who held the angry Cal students at bay.
This time, WE WERE NOT TO BE DENIED! We had waited so many years for this sweet nectar. It was OUR time. We were going to get those goalposts. Sorta! Cal fans managed to get to the North goal post. One student, who later got busted in this, because he was a student government senator, climbed atop the middle-bar of the goal post. When the students managed to pull the goal post over, he all of a sudden found himself dozens of feet in the air. A hushed grasp fell over the conglomeration of students as they feared he might fall and hurt himself. However, he slid down from the suddenly high middle post to the suddenly low side post to safety! And with that, a might cheer went up from the heroes of Shelbyville. They had banished the awful lemon tree forever, because it was haunted. Now, let's all celebrate with a cool glass of turnip juice.
As for the South goal post, the army of yellow shirts stood strong. Now, maybe another school might have given up. Perchance USC students would have merely called in one of their butlers to handle the situation. But not the always resourceful Cal students. They carried the North goal post down to the South goal post, using it as a potential battering ram against the guards there. The guards, realizing who wanted it more, scattered and soon the South goal post was down, too! We're such problem solvers! Go us!
One of the goal posts was left in the stadium. The other was carried down Bancroft to Sproul Plaza, scratching innumerable cars along the way. Sure, destruction of private property is never great, but tell that to the fans, who RODE THE GOAL POST DOWN THE STREET. Which wasn't me, unfortunately. But, fortunately, in the Band, we marched the entire band all throughout the City of Berkeley stopping at innumerable places to play fight songs and cheer on the inevitable drunken rabbling rousing occuring nearby.
It was definitely a unique game at Cal and one that is unlikely to be repeated (mostly, because I hope we never, yknow, lose 7 years to Stanford again). It was for all the years of students who never saw the Axe in Berkeley. It was for all the fans, who had suffered through the 2000 Big Game, a really rough OT loss to Stanford. Sure, to the objective observer it was probably just a boring 30-7 victory of one mediocre team over another mediocre team. But that day in November 2002, there were no objective observers in Memorial Stadium.
Cal has had "bigger" victories in Memorial since then, beating teams like USC and Tennessee at home. But none of those carry the emotional panache and epic catharsis of Big Game 2002. It will remain in the pantheon of Cal victories, one of the finest games ever played. Go Bears!