Nine years ago the Bears crushed Stanford 37-16 to regain the Axe, then won a 34-28 heartbreaker the following year to cap Cal's most successful stretch in Big Game history. They won seven of eight years from 2002-2009, and things were looking up in Berkeley.
Over the next four years the Bears gave scholarships to 86 players, many of them highly-touted, and there was reason to believe that their success might continue. But Saturday's 17-14 Stanford win was the Cardinal's eighth consecutive win in the series, and it meant that none of those Axe-less 86* ever tasted Big Game victory. None of the Axe-less 86* ever laid a hand on the Axe.
Of these current eight straight wins, Saturday's game was the only one that wasn't decided early, but in the early going it looked like it would be. Last weekend I met a fellow alum at a lacrosse tournament here in Southern California, and he had three words to say about the team. "Open the playbook!" said Anton. On the third play of the game, David Shaw did just that. Quarterback K.J. Costello took the snap from under center and appeared to stumble and almost fall as he turned to hand the ball to Bryce Love. Love joined in the deception by going down on all fours, but it was all a ruse. Costello rose back to his full height, turned back towards the field, and fired a strike to his new favorite target, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside for a 33-yard gain to the Cal 29. You've heard of the Fumble-rooski; this was the Stumble-rooski. (Somewhere, Anton was smiling.) It wasn't exactly the same as the play Kevin Hogan used in the Rose Bowl for that touchdown to Michael Rector, but it was a close relative. You see? David Shaw can be tricky.
The drive stalled there, leaving the Cardinal to settle for a 42-yard Jet Toner field goal, but it didn't feel like a lost opportunity as much as it did a glimpse of things to come. There was no reason to believe that the Stanford offense wouldn't find continued success against their punching bags from across the Bay; there was no reason to believe this wouldn't be another comfortable Big Game win.
But then the Cal offense took the field and served notice to all that this would not be one of those games. Quarterback Ross Bowers came out with confidence and picked up 1st downs with his first two throws, a ten-yard pass to Victor Wharton and then a deeper 23-yard strike to Jordan Veasy, and just like that the Bears were on the Stanford side of the field.
On the next play the Stanford defense would be introduced to Cal running back Patrick Laird. Imagine the kid at Trader Joe's who asks if you've brought your own bags or if you'd like help out to your car, and you've got a pretty good image of Laird, a former walk-on who's found success in the Bears' backfield. He only carried the ball eleven times prior to this year, but he's a near lock to top the thousand-yard mark this season. (He needs just 51 yards next week against UCLA's porous run defense.)
Laird ran for nine yards on the third play of the drive, then picked up twenty more on a reception a few plays later, and eventually the Bears were threatening with 2nd and 6 at the Stanford 7. The next two plays were huge losses, though -- a nine-yard stuff of Laird by Joey Alfieri and an eleven-yard sack by Peter Kalambayi, and Cal's promising drive netted only a 44-yard field goal to tie the game at three.
Things went into a bit of a holding pattern at this point, which was troubling. After that first promising drive, the Stanford offense began to sputter a bit. The Cal defense seemed to have studied Washington State's game plan against Bryce Love, and they were sliding into the gaps rather than taking on Stanford's powerful linemen. The result was little running room for Stanford's Heisman candidate, and even though the word from the sidelines was that Love was healthier than he had been in weeks with his ankle at 90%, he clearly wasn't right.
The Cardinal drive died at the Cal 45, so Shaw chose to punt, of course. (Don't worry, it would be Jake Bailey's only punt of the night.) The result was a pin at the 6-yard line, but the Bears dug out of that hole immediately. Bowers handed the ball to Laird, who saw a gap opening on the left side of the line and quickly exploited it. He shot through the line of scrimmage, bounced out to the left around the closing linebackers, and saw nothing but green grass and glory ahead of him. For Stanford fans used to watching Bryce Love, it might've looked like a touchdown, but safety Justin Reid had other ideas. According to Love himself, Reid is one of the four fastest players on the Stanford roster, and he was able to track him down after a 47-yard gain. The drive would eventually reach 4th and 6 at the Stanford 30, forcing a 47-yard field goal attempt from Cal's Matt Anderson. His kick was pure and looked to be good, but it hit the crossbar and bounced harmlessly back into the end zone. Those missed three points would obviously loom large in the end.
Stanford's following drive was significant because it showed something some have been clamoring for -- an adjustment in the offensive play calling. With Love relatively ineffective, whether due to his ankle or Cal's scheme, offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren began leaning on K.J. Costello. There were two runs from Love and another from Cameron Scarlett, but aside from that it was all Costello on a variety of throws. His main target remained Arcega-Whiteside, who was targeted five times on the drive, resulting in three completions and a pass interference penalty, and Costello finished the drive 5 of 6 for 47 yards with a nine-yard scramble thrown in just for fun.
The final play of the drive beautifully illustrated why K.J. Costello is the starting quarterback now. He dropped back to pass on 2nd and 8 from the 17 and almost immediately felt some heat from an outside blitz. Instead of panicking, he simply stepped up to avoid the pressure and fired a laser over the middle to tight end Kaden Smith for the touchdown. It was a nice ending to a drive that had showcased Costello's development as a quarterback and given fans a glimpse of what they can expect for the next year or two.
The score was now 10-3, but those plucky Golden Bears kept fighting. They engineered a long drive (14 plays, 66 yards) built with power running from Patrick Laird, timely passing from Ross Bowers, and even a daring fake punt, but the result was only a field goal to cut the lead to 10-6, and that would be the score as the two teams eventually headed off the field at halftime.
After stopping the Bears on the first possession of the second half, the Cardinal took over at its own 21 and eventually earned a 1st down at the 43 -- and then things got fun. Costello took the snap from under center and turned quickly for the direct toss to Love. Love took that pitch and waited patiently before cutting inside a devastating block from fullback Daniel Marx, and then all he had to do was cut around the left side of the line. With the offensive line erasing the defensive front and Cal's safeties cheating close to the line of scrimmage, this play was a touchdown before Love even crossed the line of scrimmage. The only Cal defender with any realistic shot at stopping him was linebacker Gerran Brown, but Love was able to beat him around the corner before streaking down the sidelines for a 57-yard touchdown.
"Streaking" here is a relative term. As the video clip shows, Love is still far from healthy. He limped off the field at several different points during the game, and this run revealed two things about him: one, the injury to his ankle has softened his cuts and diminished his world-class speed; and two, even when limited, he's still the best player on the field. This was Love's eleventh run of fifty-yards or more this season, an NCAA record, and his twelfth consecutive game with a touchdown, the longest active streak in the nation.
Love would limp off the field during Stanford's next possession after aggravating that ankle, and he wouldn't return. The numbers and achievements that Bryce Love has piled up this season will forever be written in the school, conference, and NCAA record books, but none of those marks will tell the true story of what he's done this fall. There's the sheer brilliance of how he's scored, with so many head-shaking runs, so many "I can't believe he's doing it again, of course he's doing it again" moments, but I think the second half of the season is what I'll remember the most. In September he was a character in a video game with all the metrics tuned to 99; he was unstoppable, and everyone on both sides of the field knew it. But in October and November he's been more than the best player on the field, he's been the toughest, routinely limping in and out of the medical tent before racing for another eye-popping touchdown.
It's this toughness that has prompted David Shaw to say again and again, "he deserves all the awards, all of them." I can't imagine anything will happen in the next two weeks that will give him the Heisman Trophy over Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, but if people are comfortable voting for a player who grabs his crotch while cursing out his opponents, maybe that's for the best. Maybe we can find the honor in that runner-up spot that seems reserved for the Stanford candidate, the one who does what no one else in America can do. First it was Andrew Luck calling his own plays and directing an NFL offense, then it was Christian McCaffrey shattering an unbreakable record set by a legend of the game, and now it will be Bryce Love, the most electric runner in America, even on one leg. Some will say that Bryce Love hasn't been good enough to win the Heisman; I'd counter that perhaps the Heisman isn't good enough for him.
But I digress.
Love's touchdown stretched the Stanford lead to 17-6, but the Bears responded immediately, once again riding their running back. Patrick Laird rushed five times for 62 yards on the drive (he'd finish with 153 yards on 20 carries), including a 39-yard ramble to the 1 and the touchdown on the next play. When Ross Bowers ran it in for the two-point conversion, suddenly things were interesting again at 17-14.
After a long Stanford drive ended with a missed 41-yard field goal, I commented that the Stanford defense needed a big turnover to stem the rising Golden Bear tide. That play came when it was needed most. The Bears had earned a 1st down at the Stanford 48, and Bowers dropped back to pass. He felt some pressure from the Stanford front, but he launched a deep ball anyway. His receiver appeared to be open near the goal line, but Bowers couldn't get enough on the ball, and safety Ben Edwards was able to close on it and make the running interception, then turn the ball upfield for a 29-yard return to the Stanford 35.
It was exactly what the Cardinal needed, but there was still an eternity left to play. There was 7:25 on the clock, the Bears had all three of their timeouts, and Bryce Love was on the sidelines. What followed was the most beautiful possession of the game. When the Stanford offense has been at its best, these are the drives that have defined the unit and demoralized opponents, and so it was here.
Football programs across America have begun calling plays by holding up giant posters with cryptic combinations of obscure images, but nothing could have been more clear at this point. Shaw might as well have held up a sign that said, "We're going to run the ball over and over, and you're not going to stop us." There was no mystery, only manhandling.
Cameron Scarlett was in the game for Love, and he carried the ball ten consecutive times, earning three critical 1st downs and forcing the Bears to burn all three of their timeouts. Along the way the surging Tunnel Workers Union battered the beleaguered Cal defense, opening massive holes and clearing the way for a 12-yard gain on 2nd and 8, then a nine-yard run on 2nd and 7. It was a slow and steady death for the Bears, but there was a glimmer of hope when Scarlett's tenth carry came up a yard short of the sticks, forcing a 4th and 1 decision at the Cal 18 with 2:19 to play.
After a Stanford timeout, the cameras caught a rare sight -- a giddy David Shaw smiled and bounced around a bit as his offense came off the field. He wasn't whispering into his headset to consult with his coaching staff, he wasn't studying his play sheet, he wasn't glancing nervously at the clock. After the game he made one thing absolutely clear -- there was no decision to make. "There was no dialogue. There was no decision-making process. There was no decision-making tree. We had a 4th and 1 with the guys we have up front, with the game on the line, on plus-side territory? No question at all, we're going for it. I told 'em, too. I said, 'Everybody in the stadium knows we're going for it, everybody in the stadium probably knows what run we're going to run. We don't care. We're gonna run, we're gonna get it.' That's the mentality... those guys had earned that, and they had big smiles on their faces because that's what they wanted."
And that's what they got. Costello handed the ball to Scarlett for his eleventh and final carry of the drive, and the Tunnel Workers Union cleared the way one more time. The initial push moved the defensive line beyond the marker, so Scarlett needed just a step and a dive for two yards and his first down. Costello took a knee three times, and the Axe was secured. Stanford 17, Cal 14.
Stanford's win gives the Cardinal a 7-2 conference record and keeps the Pac-12 North in play. If Washington can beat Washington State in the Apple Cup on Saturday, Stanford would win the division and advance to the Pac-12 Championship game for a rematch with USC and a shot at a fourth conference title under David Shaw.
While all parties involved would rightly say that the team ramifications are the most important, there are two other important notes. This was David Shaw's 72nd win as head coach, the most in school history. When I first met Coach Shaw in the spring of 2011, he had zero career wins, but you never would've known it. Even though most national analysts were convinced the Stanford program would fall back into mediocrity with the departure of Jim Harbaugh, Shaw was as confident then as he is now, and within minutes he was able to convince all in earshot that he was the right man for the job.
I can't say that I thought he'd become Stanford's all-time winningest coach within just seven seasons, but I knew even then that he would be great. He's been nothing less than that, and we've been lucky to have him as the leader of this football team and the most visible face connected with Stanford University.
As Shaw spoke about his accomplishments, he thanked his family and the numerous coaches who have influenced him, and he spoke about the players past and present who have earned those victories on the field. This Big Game win means that Stanford's six fifth-year seniors (Ryan Burns, Mike Tyler, Peter Kalambayi, Kevin Palma, David Bright, and Eric Cotton) will leave the Farm without losing the Axe, the fourth consecutive class of recruits to hold the Axe for their entire tenure. Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen to twenty players will move on from the program after this season, some to the NFL, but most to graduate school or into the Real World along with the rest of their Stanford classmates, but each one of them will be able to look back at this game forever and be proud of what was won -- tangible evidence of a job well done.
* Brennan Scarlett signed with Cal in 2011, but took advantage of the NCAA's graduate transfer policy and famously jumped to Stanford for the 2015 season. He shared a roster with his younger brother Cameron and hoisted the Axe in celebration that November.