The Axe is back: Cal beats Stanford for 1st time in decade

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Revenge is a dish best served cold and marinated in rivalry sauce for 10 years.

Cal and arch-nemesis Stanford went tit for tat in a well-matched game on Saturday in Stanford, Calif., but it would be offensive heroics that orchestrated the Bears’ first taste of a Big Game victory since 2009 and punched their ticket to a bowl game for the second year in a row. The 24-20 Cal comeback win not only snapped the Bears’ losing streak but also marks the first time the Cardinal will not make a bowl game since 2008.

“It’s just unbelievable to feel that energy after the game. There’s nothing like it,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox as Bears fans stormed the field of Stanford Stadium. “To be able to put it into words is very difficult. But being able to see everybody — our players, the joy in their faces, and our fans and alumni — it’s a really special moment.”

The game was by no means an effortless victory for Cal, however, even with the absence of Stanford’s starting quarterback KJ Costello, who has been out with injury for two consecutive games and the majority of the season. Stanford came out of the gates firing, waltzing downfield with four quick first downs and notching a touchdown when backup junior quarterback Davis Mills connected with receiver Donald Stewart on a lofty 40-yard pass.

It wouldn’t take long for the Bears to do the same. After steadily chugging down the field with completion after completion from Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, who missed more than half of the game against USC because of injury, running back Christopher Brown Jr. took the rock to the house to tie the game 7-7.

Cal was quick to surrender even more points as Cardinal kicker Ryan Sanborn slipped a 48-yard kick between the posts for a field goal just a few plays later.

But the home team could not pull away.

Garbers, who had arguably his most well-rounded offensive showing of the year, put the Bears right back in it after stringing together long passes to receiver Nikko Remigio and tight end Gavin Reinwald, placing the Cal right on the edge of scoring position. Kicker Greg Thomas then slotted a career-long 49-yard field goal of his own to even things up once more at 10 points apiece.

The Bears’ offense showed a rare form of themselves against the Cardinal by completing a few deep balls and leaning on dink-and-dunk ball movement far less than usual. Garbers plugged Remigio for a total of 157 receiving yards, by far the most yards ever recorded by the sophomore wideout.

But early in the second half, missed opportunities for the Bears started to turn the tides suddenly and convincingly in favor of the Cardinal. Mere moments after Jaylinn Hawkins robbed Stanford of a touchdown with a one-handed interception, a three-and-out drive gave the ball right back to the Cardinal and they wasted no time in returning it all the way to the end zone. Down 17-10 halfway through the fourth quarter, the Bears needed a near miracle to tie it and an even bigger one to win.

The name of those miracles? Garbers and Remigio. A 40-yard deep shot to Remigio helped push the Bears a whole 84 yards up the field and into the red zone. Remigio then grabbed his lone touchdown of the night and the Bears and the Cardinal were deadlocked once again at 17-17.

Unwilling to give up and concede the Axe on home turf, Stanford quarterback Mills pushed the Cardinal far enough downfield to earn a 44-yard field goal with just more than two minutes left in the game, and the home crowd let out a sigh of relief as 20-17 appeared on the scoreboard.

For the Bears, lightning hardly ever strikes twice. After a blocked kick, two dropped picks and failures to do anything with the interceptions they had accumulated, relying on recently injured Garbers’ arm to save the game at a critical juncture was a desperate throw of the dice. But there was no alternative.

A drive that will go down in Cal football history reversed the Bears’ 122nd Big Game fortunes entirely. In the span of 1 minute and 4 seconds, the Bears made it 75 yards downfield, thanks largely to receiver Trevon Clark’s picture-perfect sideline grab on a 37-yard throw from Garbers. Once within striking distance, Garbers took it to the house himself on a 16-yard scramble, giving the Bears their first lead of the game.

“It was a designed pass play turned into a broken play. I found a crease in the defense to make a run, and receiver’s downfield blocking was huge,” Garbers said of the game-winning scheme.

The clock ticked away for Stanford as the Cal football team was greeted by masses of fans storming the field to celebrate not only the Bears’ heart-pounding rally from behind but also their historically momentous 24-20 victory against the Cardinal.

The squad of seniors on the Bears’ team has been hungry for a Big Game win for years and was integral in propelling Cal over Stanford in every facet of the game.

“It’s ecstatic. We worked so hard for this, and to get not just the Axe back but a bowl game bid too is amazing,” said senior inside linebacker Evan Weaver.

When at Stanford, the historic Axe is kept in a case guarded with security cameras, motion sensors and multiple layers of glass to ensure its safekeeping.

Maybe Stanford can reinvest some of the money that went toward this elaborate vault into its football recruiting program now that the Axe doesn’t need surveillance.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.