Car­di­nal de­fen­sive in de­fense of Axe

Al­ways ‘maybe next year’ for Bears in this ri­valry

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - SPORTING GREEN - BRUCE JENK­INS

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.”

Pho­tos by San­ti­ago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

Stan­ford team­mates swarm fresh­man Paul­son Adebo af­ter one of his two in­ter­cep­tions Satur­day af­ter­noon in Berke­ley.

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