Our long Cal nightmare is over. The Bears have won the Big Game. The Axe is finally ours again.
The recapturing of The Axe was far from certain for most of the 122nd Big Game. With 2:23 remaining, Stanford’s Ryan Sanborn kicked a 44-yard field goal to give the Cardinal a 20-17 lead, leaving many a Cal fan with the harsh reality that a 10th straight Big Game loss was in the offing. But a funny thing happened on the way to doom.
Garbers. Chase Garbers.
Cal’s redshirt sophomore quarterback led the Bears’ offense onto the field at the Cal 25-yard line with 2:23 left, needing a field goal to tie or a touchdown to take the lead and perhaps break Stanford’s 9-year uninterrupted possession of The Axe. Garbers rose to the occasion and forever solidified his place in Big Game lore, leading the Bears on a 75-yard touchdown drive. Garbers even finished the drive himself, scrambling for a 16-yard touchdown that will forever be etched into the minds of Cal fans everywhere.
CHASE GARBERS CANNOT BE CONTAINED!!!!! pic.twitter.com/JFHHjDp4Tl— Cal Football (@CalFootball) November 24, 2019
The game-winning drive was a thing of beauty. After two passes to Nikko Remigio (9 rec, 157 yds, 1 TD) took Cal to midfield, the drive appeared that it might be stalled after Jovan Swann sacked Garbers to force a 2nd down and long. But Garbers came through with a big play, finding Traveon Clark on the right sideline for a 37-yard gain to the Stanford 16 yard line. Two plays later, Garbers scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:19 left in the game.
“It was a designed pass play. It turned into a broken play,” said Garbers. “I found a crease in the defense to make a run, the receivers downfield blocked, and it was huge.”
“The play [Clark] made on the sideline was massive,” said Cal Coach Justin Wilcox about the Clark reception that set up Garbers’ go-ahead touchdown. “It was a massive play. Chase put it in a great spot, and he got his feet in and controlled it all the way to the ground.”
“I think people are going to be talking about that drive for awhile,” added Wilcox.
After Cal’s massive touchdown, it was up to the Cal defense to determine whether the Axe would return to Berkeley. And just as Garbers rose to the occasion, the Cal defense did as well. With Stanford facing 4th and 1 at its 34-yard line, needing a conversion to stay in the game, the Cardinal turned to its power running game. But the Bears stoned Cameron Scarlett for no gain, clinching Cal’s first Big Game victory since 2009.
“We just knew we needed to step up big in that drive,” said Cal linebacker Evan Weaver. “We like it that way, with the game on our back. And they (Stanford) made a few checks that they made the whole game, that they were going to run there. I yelled at Cam Goode right there and he ended up playing it perfectly and I slid up and slid right off him and it was perfect. Nice little mesh in the backfield to stop him.”
Until the game-clinching stop, even the most ardent Cal supporter had to harbor doubts as to whether Cal would be able to rescue the Axe from nine years of Palo Alto exile. Stanford took a 7-0 lead just two minutes into the game on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Davis Mills to Donald Stewart. And until Garbers go-ahead score in the final two minutes, the Bears never had the lead.
Stanford stayed tied or ahead for much of the game due in large part to Cal’s own mistakes and its inability to capitalize on the Cardinal’s mistakes. Late in the first half, Cal appeared to seize momentum, driving to the Stanford 13 yard line with one minute left in the half. With Cal slated to receive the second half kickoff, the Bears had a chance to take the lead and then pad it after halftime. But a holding penalty on Eric Nisich hampered the drive, which ended with Greg Thomas’ 38-yard field goal attempt being blocked. Cal’s promising drive — which included a 39-yard completion to Remigio and a 14-yard completion to Jordan Duncan to convert 3rd-and-long situations — came up empty.
The third quarter was also frustrating to the Bears. Stanford quarterback Davis Mills (26 of 35, 283 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) gave the ball to the Bears twice in the period, throwing interceptions to Daniel Scott and Jaylinn Hawkins in Cal territory. But Cal could capitalize on neither turnover, going three-and-out on its first three possessions of the second half. To make matters worse, Stanford capitalized on a poor punt by Steven Coutts and drove 30 yards for a touchdown by Cameron Scarlett to take a 17-10 lead with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
Cal eventually tied the game on a five-play, 84-yard drive midway through the fourth quarter. Set up by a 40-yard pass play from Garbers to Remigio, Garber found Remigio again on an 18-yard touchdown strike on a crucial 3rd-and-5 to tie the 122nd Big Game at 17 with 7:44 remaining.
Stanford took the lead on the ensuing drive on Sanborn’s 44-yard FG, but that only set the stage for Garbers’ heroics, with will surely live forever in the memories of Old Blues everywhere.
As if regaining The Axe were not enough of a prize for this victory, Cal (6-5 overall, 3-5 Pac-12) became bowl eligible and also eliminated Stanford (4-7, 3-6 Pac-12) from bowl eligibility.
“To be able to get the win, to get The Axe back, what that means for our players and for our institution, it’s a big deal,” said Wilcox. “And to get bowl eligible...that’s huge for our program.”
Cal will try for win number 7 next week at UC Los Angeles. But that’s days away. Cal fans, for now, savor this victory. It’s been 9 years since The Axe was home in Berkeley. Celebrate the return of The Axe to its rightful place.
- Garbers completed 20 of 30 passes for 288 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT. 157 of those yards were to Remigio, who became the first Cal receiver to have a 100-yard receiving game this season.
- Garbers was Cal’s leading rusher with 72 yards on 13 carries. Christopher Brown Jr., whose status for the Big Game was questionable during the week, rushed for 55 yards on 18 carries.
- Daniel Scott picked off a Mills pass in the third quarter for his first career interception. On Stanford’s next series, Jaylinn Hawkins intercepted a Mills deep ball at Cal 1-yard line. It was Hawkins’ second interception of the season and the ninth of his Cal career.
- Cal safety Ashtyn Davis, who had started the Bears’ previous 10 games, did not play due to injury.
- Evan Weaver made 13 tackles. Weaver moved to second on Cal’s single-season tackles list, now with 164 stops. Hardy Nickerson owns the school record with 167 tackles from 1985.
- The win was Cal’s first in the Big Game since 2009, when Cal defeated Stanford 34-28 on the road.
- Cal’s 90-yard first-quarter touchdown drive was its longest of the year in terms of time (6:02).
- Greg Thomas kicked a career-long 49-yard field goal in the second quarter. His previous long was 47 yards against both UC Davis and Arizona State earlier this year. Thomas also had a 38-yard attempt blocked.