On Feb. 20, 1892, California’s varsity football team had just suffered a disappointing 6-0 loss to the rival San Francisco Olympic Club. Despite the defeat, California was still 4-1 on the season and, until that loss, had dominated its opponents. But these opponents were mostly prep and high school teams, because those were the only teams available to play.

After the loss against the Olympic Club, the University of California, which had been an active ball club since 1880, decided to send a challenge to Stanford University to set up a game. Although Stanford was just in the early process of forming a team, the school from across the bay accepted.

As noted in “California Football History” by Brick Morse and “The Big Game” by John Sullivan, which detail the history of the Big Game, the first-ever rivalry match in history took place on March 20, 1892, in a San Francisco field between Stanyan and Haight streets. During that spring month, both campuses were absorbed in the excitement of being involved in a campus rivalry. Classes and books took a backseat. The talk around both schools was the game.

Students launched parades. Businesses decorated their stores with the colors and logos to support their school. And students made sure to have on either a yellow or a red flower to represent their team.

But when the referee, Jack Sherrard, asked for the ball to be placed for kick-off, both teams realized they had forgotten to bring a football. Kick-off, which had been planned for 3 p.m., would be delayed for an extra hour because a volunteer needed to ride horseback to the nearest sporting goods store, buy a ball and ride back to the field. After slight technical difficulties, California won the toss and elected to kick, and the Big Game was set to go at 4:11 p.m.

California was more experienced and had the reputation as a physical team that featured the three-headed hydra of Loren E. Hunt, George H. Foulks and Ray H. Sherman, all players who weighed nearly 200 pounds. But Stanford’s swiftness and creativity proved to be too much for California’s varsity team to handle. The theme of the match was Stanford’s speed and trick plays against California’s strength. Stanford’s backs moved the ball running outside and tried to get the advantage on the edges, while California tried to use its size to push the ball up the middle.

California was not ready for Stanford’s fast style of play and trailed early, 14-0. And although the team in blue and gold tried to rally in the second half, it could not come up with enough points, as California fell to Stanford, 14-10, in the first of many Big Games.

“It’s one of the great rivalries in college football,” said current Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “What makes this different is there is a respect and an ability to put things in perspective between these two schools.”

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The California Varsity class in the spring of 1892. California decided to challenge the neighboring Stanford to what became the first Big Game. Photo: Brick Morse/Courtesy

A lot has changed in the Big Game since that first contest in 1892. Both schools have since found a mascot, with Cal going with the Bears and Stanford going with the Indians before changing it to the Cardinal in 1972.

“Twenty-five years from now, when we’re all doing our different careers, it’s going to be nice to be able to look back and talk about: ‘Man, remember that Big Game? Our last Big Game?’ We played on the road, and we were together, and just to talk about winning and all the great plays that we had. It’s going to be a great feeling.” — Stefan McClure, current senior safety

Neither team has forgotten to bring a ball since that first Big Game. Instead of playing local varsity clubs, both schools are now in the Pac-12 conference, and college football in the United States has become both a national phenomenon and a large corporate institution.

But despite the changes, many elements of that first game have survived to this day. From the bonfire rallies to the alumni events to the friendly trash talk, the context of the times might look different now, but the campus atmosphere from more than 120 years ago remains unchanged. Each school is trying to one-up the other every year.

“It’s two great academic institutions, and they’ve been playing against each other for over 100-something years,” says Mike Mohamed, Cal linebacker from 2006-10. “It’s one of those things that, through time, it just builds itself up, and it’s definitely a special game.”

And the Big Game has not disappointed.

In 1972, the Bears were at their 38-yard line and trailed late in the fourth, 21-18, with just 1:13 left in the game. Up to this point, freshman quarterback Vince Ferragamo had struggled immensely. Forced to watch Ferragamo throw, 4-18, with four interceptions, fans were fed up and screamed for a substitution. But first-year coach Mike White decided to stick with the freshman.

It paid off.

After a couple of big completions and two crucial penalties called on Stanford, Ferragamo drove Cal down to Stanford’s 8-yard line with just three seconds left. Then the Bears decided to keep the field-goal unit on the sideline for the last play of the game.

“I never thought about going for a tie,” White said to the San Francisco Examiner after the game. “This game means too much.”

With senior star wide receiver Steve Sweeney lining up at tight end, Ferragamo dropped back and fired the pigskin to the corner of the end zone for Sweeney to make the diving catch and give Cal the walk-off 24-21 victory.

1972

Then-Cal football head coach Mike White clutches the Axe in front of eager fans after the Bears’ nail biting comeback 24-21 victory over Stanford. Photo: Russell Kwock/ Daily Californian Archives

But when talking about Big Game history for Cal, 1982 always has to be mentioned. With Stanford leading, 20-19, from a late field goal, the Cardinal bench began to rejoice with four seconds left and was nailed with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, which would prove to be costly.

On the ensuing kick-off, Kevin Moen fielded the ball at the Cal 43. Then he lateraled it to Richard Rogers, who tossed it to Dwight Garner, who lateraled back to Rogers, who would pitch it to Mariet Ford. As this mayhem was unraveling on the field, the Stanford band had already assumed the game was over and marched down the field to begin its celebration routine.

“It’s one of the great rivalries in college football,” said current Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “What makes this different is there is a respect and an ability to put things in perspective between these two schools.”

Back to the play, Ford took the ball 20 yards to the Stanford 25 before tossing the ball behind him and over his head to Moen — the player who started it — to finish the play while running over Stanford trombonist Gary Tyrrell and scoring a game-winning touchdown the country will never forget.

“Every year I’ve been here, you talk about the history of it,” said current Cal senior offensive lineman Jordan Rigsbee. “They show us clips of The Play and all these different things.”

The last time the Bears won the Big Game was at Stanford in 2009. Similar to the first one in 1892, it was a physical contest that featured dynamic running backs. This time, Stanford was the team with the powerback back, while Cal relied on speed and outside runs. Stanford’s Toby Gerhart totaled 136 yards and scored four touchdowns, while Cal’s Shane Vereen ran for 193 yards for three touchdowns. Gerhart had the size, and Vereen had the quickness.

But the deciding factor came down to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck’s arm. Trailing, 34-28, Luck had led the Cardinal to the Cal 13-yard line with less than two minutes left in the game. Cal’s secondary had shut down the redshirt freshman, limiting him to a horrendous completion percentage of 33 percent. On Luck’s 30th and final passing attempt, he hurled a shot at the end zone to his tight end, Coby Fleener. Unfortunately for Luck, Mohamed was right in front of Fleener to pick off the pass and end the game.

“Luckily, the play that they ran worked in our favor,” Mohamed says. “It was definitely one of the most memorable times.”

Moments later, the Cal faithful rushed Stanford’s field as the Cardinal fans dejectedly watched their rivals invade their home turf.

“It’s a moment all the guys in my class and all the guys on that team will remember forever,” Vereen says. “That rivalry will go on long after us, but at least we still have that moment and that time together where we shocked a lot of people.”

Since that dramatic finish, however, Stanford has won five straight Big Games, most of which haven’t been close. Extended winning streaks in this rivalry are common. Cal won five straight from 2002-06, and before that, Stanford won seven straight from 1995-2001. Both programs have gone through highs and lows, but the streaks haven’t quite evened out, as the Cardinal currently leads the all-time series, 60-46-11.

When the Big Game first began in 1892, Cal was seen as the favorite to win. But as the next 123 years have unfolded, the Bears have generally been the underdog.

And this year is no different, as no player on Cal’s 2015 roster has experienced holding the Axe.

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The final play of the 85th Big Game, which consisted of five lateral passes, would become one of the most unforgettable moments in college football history. Photo: Ron Delany/Daily Californian Archives

“I’ve never beat them. No one on our team has ever beat Stanford since I’ve been here, and I know that’s in the back of my mind really heavily,” Rigsbee said. “It’s in the back of everyone else’s mind, so I think we’re going to come out really hungry this year.”

With No. 15 Stanford coming in with an 8-2 record and Cal at 6-4, the Cardinal — like in the past five years — will be seen as the heavy favorite.

Still, 2015 is a season in which Cal has assembled one of its best teams in recent memory.

“It’s my last one as a senior, so it’s the last opportunity to try to get the Axe back for this program. I feel like we have a solid team — a veteran group of guys with a lot of seniors,” says safety Stefan McClure. “It’s going to mean a lot to them to go out, get a win and just compete in their last Big Game. There’s so much history and so much on the line for that game.”

“It’s two great academic institutions, and they’ve been playing against each other for over 100-something years. It’s one of those things that, through time, it just builds itself up, and it’s definitely a special game.” — Mike Mohamed, Cal linebacker from 2006-10

With 22 seniors and a handful of juniors who might leave early for the NFL, Cal’s 2015 roster features many key contributors who will be playing one of their last games donning blue and gold.

“If we come out, have a huge game and beat Stanford for the first time in however many years, that’s going to be the thing that Cal remembers us for and puts us in the history books,” Rigsbee says.

For these older players, 2015 has been a year of growth. The Bears have struggled, especially in the past three years transitioning under a new coach in Dykes, who has had to establish a new system and culture. During this rebuilding period, one of the team’s greatest lows happened in the 2013 Big Game, when Stanford blew out Cal, 63-13.

“It’s in the past,” says Cal senior wide receiver Maurice Harris. “This is a new game. We just got to continue to move forward and work to put ourselves in a position to win.”

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Stephen Anderson (left), Jordan Rigsbee (center) and Stefan McClure (right) are hoping to hold the Axe for the first time when they face Stanford on Saturday. Photo: Kore Chan/Senior Staff

But those young players are now veterans who are familiar with Dykes’ schemes, have improved individually and are comfortable with the game plan. If there’s any time to give the Cardinal a run for its money, 2015 is the year.

“This year, we’re bigger and stronger. We’ve got more depth,” McClure says about the defense. “We’re just more experienced in the whole coach (Art) Kaufman system. We’re just a resilient group of guys that are just going to fight all the way till the end and just try to give it everything we got.”

And on the offensive side, junior quarterback Jared Goff is coming off a six-touchdown performance in his team’s 54-24 win against Oregon State. Although he entered the season as a Heisman candidate and a potential first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Goff has run into some adversity, throwing eight of his 13 interceptions this season during Cal’s four-game losing streak.

“It’s a moment all the guys in my class and all the guys on that team will remember forever. That rivalry will go on long after us, but at least we still have that moment and that time together where we shocked a lot of people.” — Shane Vereen, New York Giants running back

Despite the midseason woes, Goff’s arm gives the Bears something they haven’t had during their current Big Game skid — a quarterback capable of throwing a touchdown any time the ball’s in his hand.

“It’s really special,” says senior tight end Stephen Anderson. “I’m going to cherish this last game.”

As evidenced by history, the unexpected should be expected.

Dramatic victories such as Sweeney diving for the game-winning catch in 1972, Moen running through Stanford’s band for the upset victory and Mohamed intercepting Luck are just a few in an extensive, complicated and strange collection of Big Games.

The rivalry between Cal and Stanford is history that is still being made today. With all the added media coverage and the spectacle that college football has become, it is easy to forget how everything started. It began in 1892 with a simple exchange between California’s manager, Roy Gallagher, and Stanford’s manager, Carl Clemans, who both decided to organize a simple game between the two schools. And as times have changed, the rivalry has continued.

“Twenty-five years from now, when we’re all doing our different careers, it’s going to be nice to be able to look back and talk about: ‘Man, remember that Big Game? Our last Big Game?’ ” McClure says. “We played on the road, and we were together, and just to talk about winning and all the great plays that we had.”

“It’s going to be a great feeling.”

Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected].

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  • grumpalum

    it’s long past due to return the Axe to Berkeley. Let’s get it done