Cardinal defensive in defense of Axe
Always ‘maybe next year’ for Bears in this rivalry
There are times when a habit never grows old. Stanford’s football program knows the feeling. No matter how often the Cardinal beat Cal — and that’s nine straight wins after Saturday’s 23-13 victory — there’s an exhilarating freshness to carrying the Axe around the field.
And it’s all the sweeter if it happens in Strawberry Canyon.
There wasn’t much to say about the game, not with the Bears simply refusing to accept the golden opportunities coming their way. There were no trombone players on the field, no mud-soaked miracles or fond farewells to a beloved coach, none of the vivid developments that have characterized the Big Game’s history. And it’s not such a crushing develop-
ment for the Bears (7-5), who will feel better about things when their bowl game (to be determined Sunday) comes around later this month.
Still, nothing disgusts Cal’s sporting community like the sight of Stanford winning this game. With the student section baked in sunlight, people were in no rush to leave — not even after Paulson Adebo’s 43-yard interception return set up Stanford’s final score in the waning minutes. This had been a terrific day for attendance, to the point where the announced figure of 57,858 actually seemed a few thousand short, marking a pleasant contrast to the desolate Levi’s Stadium for Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game.
Oddly, the only disappointing attendance issue was on Stanford’s end. Of the six sections set aside for the red-clad visitors in the stadium’s southeast corner, some were notable for their vacancy. But the voices were loud and proud, backed by the ever-nutty Stanford band, and those people got a mighty reward at game’s end.
Heading their way, trotting joyously across the field, were seniors Jake Bailey, JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Ryan Beecher, toting the weighty, impressive Axe as so many Stanford players have done before. In a rivalry carrying this much tradition, you’d like to think they’d trade the thing off on occasion. But this trophy has become strictly Farm property. It’s always “maybe next year” for Cal, always a sense of envy and regret.
Nobody expected the Bears’ passing game to even approach Stanford’s high-powered attack led by quarterback K.J. Costello and Arcega-Whiteside, who entered the game with 14 touchdown catches. And yet, the chances were there — and roundly blown.
In the second quarter, with Stanford leading 10-3, quarterback Chase Garbers had Jordan Duncan open in the end zone on a 3rd-and-5 pass from the 7-yard line but overshot him, Duncan barely getting a fingertip on the ball. The Bears settled for another Greg Thomas field goal.
Wide receiver Jeremiah Hawkins had a couple of nice catches on the day, but he’ll mostly remember dropping a perfect pass along the right sideline in the third quarter, costing the Bears about a 20-yard play and killing a drive. Then there was Adebo’s spectacular end-zone interception early in the fourth quarter, notable by the fact that the intended receiver, Moe Ways, was nowhere near the ball. When Garbers finally connected on a touchdown throw, an 11-yarder to Duncan, there were just 10 seconds left in the game.
“He’s a young player, and he’s got to continue to improve,” coach Justin Wilcox said of Garbers. “I thought he took a step forward (197 yards passing to Costello’s 237), even though there were some opportunities he would love to have back. You’re gonna have a tough time beating Stanford if you’re not scoring touchdowns.”
In describing the mood of his postgame locker room, Wilcox said, “Everybody’s kicked in the gut.” And as the regular season ends, that could apply in large part to the entire Pac-12.
Aside from the lamentable TV contract and ever-dubious officiating, the championship game is an ongoing disaster at Levi’s Stadium, with a contract running through next season and an option for 2020. Beyond that, it’s likely to find a more lively neutral-site home in Las Vegas. But if anyone’s thinking clearly, that game should be returned to the home fields of top-seeded teams, as it was in 2013, when Stanford overcame a hostile setting to win at Arizona State.
Then again, it’s tough for anyone to think clearly when Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott seems so consistently misguided. Even the Washington and Utah fans were booing Scott during Friday night’s postgame ceremony, but why? So many reasons. I’d start with the fact that college football, and especially the Pac-12, needs an eight-team playoff, while Scott preposterously insists that four is “absolutely the right number.”
As for the lingering mood after Saturday’s Big Game, it was a time for Stanford’s victorious chants and Cal’s second thoughts. “There’s nothing you can tell our guys right now that will make them feel better,” said Wilcox. There was deep appreciation, however, for a home crowd that finally resembled a big-time collegiate atmosphere.
Gazing into the jam-packed eastern stands, “I just stood there and enjoyed the moment,” said senior Malik McMorris, the rumblin’, stumblin’ fullback who provided a few choice moments during the game. “You see videos all the time of how the place used to be rockin’. That left a smile on my face.”
Stanford teammates swarm freshman Paulson Adebo after one of his two interceptions Saturday afternoon in Berkeley.