Memorial Stadium had a streaker. Stanford has the Axe.
With the Cal football team trailing by 18 points at the half on Saturday, a streaker drew cheers from a crowd that had little else to celebrate in the 115th Big Game. With more than twice as many offensive yards as their counterparts, the No. 22 Cardinal routed the Bears, 21-3, for a third consecutive Big Game victory.
Cal (3-5, 2-3 in the Pac-12) now needs to win three of its remaining four games just to qualify for postseason play.
“Their defense is as good as any defense that we’ve played in this conference for years,” said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. “It was a really poor showing offensively. Really disappointed about it.”
For the first time since 1998, the Bears failed to score a Big Game touchdown, a direct result of their lack of production on the ground. Cal finished the game with three net yards rushing. It didn’t matter which of the Bears’ three running backs had the ball — none could amass a run longer than four yards.
“We knew that we needed to stay patient with the run game,” Tedford said. “But we really couldn’t get in a lot of manageable situations, and when we did, we couldn’t convert first downs.”
Offensively, Stanford (5-2, 3-1) did not need a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback to provide an onslaught. Cal gave the Cardinal all the luck they needed — fumbles, blown coverages and, most of all, an anemic offense that led to superb field position and easy scores for Stanford.
It began with faulty special teams play that allowed Drew Terrell to return a punt 37 yards to Cal’s 34-yard line. Minutes later, Stepfan Taylor broke two tackles for a seven-yard touchdown run.
Late in the first quarter, the Bears responded with a 29-yard punt return from Keenan Allen and 31-yard reception by Brendan Bigelow.
But at the two-yard line, Cal actually moved backwards on its three plays and was forced to kick a field goal for its only score of the game.
“We couldn’t block them, there was too much pressure on the passer and we couldn’t convert third downs,” Tedford said. “This team is very stout to run the ball against.”
The Bears’ next two drives both ended in fumbles, the latter by Allen at Cal’s 20-yard line. Quarterback Josh Nunes needed only one play to find tight end Zach Ertz in the end zone for the 21-3 halftime edge.
Even though the 6-foot-6 Ertz is Nunes’ favorite target, there was no defensive back within eye view of Ertz on the previous drive. He slipped past a Cal defense befuddled by a simple play action pass for a 68-yard grab that set up another touchdown.
“It was just a miscommunication defensively,” said safety Josh Hill of Ertz’s long reception. “A lack of communication on our part. I just saw him and had to go catch him.”
It is not as if Stanford is the BCS juggernaut of prior seasons. Its top-25 ranking belies an often mediocre offense — a unit that did not score a touchdown in its previous game.
The Cardinal, losers of two of their previous three tilts, entered Saturday’s game under much different circumstances than those of the Bears. The momentum and confidence Cal gained from its two-game winning streak did not translate to on-field success.
Cal tallied a season-low 217 yards of offense. Meanwhile, Taylor alone finished with 189 rushing yards. But the senior running back and the Cardinal took their collective foot off the gas in a scoreless second half with few big plays on either side. Stanford was comfortably ahead, while Cal could not string together enough positive plays to complete a productive drive.
“Stanford’s defense did a great job filling the gaps,” said quarterback Zach Maynard. “It’s very disappointing, more disappointing than other games because it’s the Big Game.”
Maynard and Nunes had nearly identical stat lines, both throwing for 214 yards on 31 attempts.
The difference: Nunes had a run game and a defense to go with his passing.
Barring a Bears upset of a top-10 team in the season’s final two weeks, only Nunes, not Maynard, will be playing in a bowl game come December.