Stanford vs. Cal: A Look Back At The Battle For The Axe

The beauty of Pac-12’s football rivalries lies in the rich fabric of their histories, woven through time with blood, sweat and tears. What's greater still are the debates from impassioned fan bases that they spark. 

The Bay Area is home to many great local rivalries; they seem to flourish in the Northern California sun. For example: the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics, the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders and of course, Stanford University and the University of California-Berkeley. While the latter is less likely to make headlines for territorial lawsuits or post-game violence, it is passionate and heated in its own right.

The Stanford-Cal football game, known as the Big Game, is the oldest college football rivalry in the West. It is also the ninth-most played college football rivalry game in the United States. While the first game was played on March 19th,1892 in San Francisco, the term “Big Game” wasn’t officially coined until 1900. The iconic Stanford Axe was introduced in 1933 as a trophy for the winner of the Big Game. The standard 15-inch lumberman’s axe made its first appearance at a rally for the Stanford baseball team in 1899 where yell leaders used it to decapitate a straw man dressed in blue and gold ribbons while chanting the Axe yell.

“Give ‘em the axe, the axe, the axe!”

Stanford ended up losing the baseball series against Cal, and students debated whether the axe was jinxed. While they were deliberating, several crafty Cal students stole it, and a chase through the streets of San Francisco ensued. The Axe remained at Cal for more than 30 years before it resurfaced and became a symbol of victory for the Big Game. This symbol of rivalry is so important that both sides have committees that display and guard the coveted Axe. Stanford leads the series 60-46-11. The Cardinal’s 60 wins over the Bears are the most against any opponent.

There have been so many great moments throughout the Big Game’s history: from Stanford quarterback Dick Norman’s 401 yard passing game in 1959, to the 1982 “Play” where Cal beat the Stanford band, this rivalry boasts a rich history of remarkable games. But, in an effort to keep things current, these are the games and players from the past 10 years that stood out to us.

Memorable game for Cal: What’s better than beating your biggest rival in the annual rivalry game? How about securing said victory with a last-minute interception, firmly crushing any chance for your opponent to recover? And in the process, destroying their Rose Bowl dreams? Cal can speak to exactly how sweet that scenario is after their 34-28 victory over Stanford in 2009.

Stanford came into the game with high hopes. They were led by star quarterback Andrew Luck and Heisman-contending running back Toby Gerhart, were ranked No. 9 in the nation, were coming into the game with huge wins over Oregon and USC. The team from Palo Alto jumped out to a 14-0 lead over Cal in the first quarter. But Cal had other plans for the Cardinal. Cal running back Shane Vereen ran for a career-high 193 yards on 42 carries and scored three touchdowns.  But the play that stole the show came with two minutes left and Cal sporting a six-point lead.  Mike Mohamed intercepted Luck’s first down pass to cement the Golden Bear victory and keep the Axe in Berkley.

While Luck blamed himself for the inaccurate throw, the real questionable call came earlier when then-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh decided to go for it on fourth-and-8, even though the Cardinal were only trailing by three points, there was three and a half minutes left and he had three timeouts to burn. Luck missed his receiver, turning the ball over to Cal who converted the turnover into a field goal and eventually, a victory. This win was especially significant for Cal, because star tailback Jahvid Best had been sidelined with a very scary concussion against Oregon State two weeks prior to the Big Game. The Cardinal walked off their own field empty-handed as Cal took the Axe home for the seventh time in eight years under then-head coach Jeff Tedford.

Memorable game for Stanford: Despite the doubt heading into the 2010 Big Game, Stanford remained steadfast in its belief that it would conquer the ghost of 2009’s past and exact revenge on their bitter rivals. And conquer they did to the tune of 48-14; a solid routing to revel in after last year’s dreams of the Axe were stolen from the Cardinal’s outstretched hands.

Luck tasted redemption with 16 of 20 passes completed for 235 yards and 72 yards on the ground; a far cry from the 10-of-30 performance he delivered last year.  Both Stephan Taylor and Richard Sherman turned in solid performances and the overall mentality was on par with the kind of program Harbaugh was trying to create on the Farm: just shut up and play.

In the 2010 Big Game, Luck reached 24 touchdowns in a season, which tied him with John Elway’s 1982 mark for the second-highest single-season total in school history. Stanford’s 48 points scored in this game tied Cal’s 1975 total for the most scored by either team in 113 meetings. This record would later be shattered by Stanford’s 63 points in 2013.

Standout performance for Cal:  With all the notable players Cal has produced in the last decade – Aaron Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, Alex Mack and DeSean Jackson – whom are having stellar NFL careers, the one player that stood out in Big Game performances is Best. A leader both on and off the field, Best was a key member of the Golden Bear program and a significant component in their 37-16 victory over Stanford in 2008. This game was the first in which Best would lift the Axe aloft in victory. Best rushed for 201 yards and scored three second half touchdowns. He was sidelined the year prior, during Tedford’s only loss to Stanford, and had to watch from the wings with a hip injury as the Cardinal beat the Bears 20-13 on the Farm. But Best would remember that feeling of helplessness and use it to fuel his rivalry fire.

"I was so mad last year, seeing a whole bunch of their players taking the Axe when there was nothing I could do about it," Best said after the 2008 victory. "That's never going to happen again. I really looked forward to this time."

Best rushed for 1,580 yards that 2008 season, becoming Cal’s seventh consecutive 1,000-yard rusher under Tedford. He also had 15 touchdowns on the season.

Standout performance for Stanford: It’s hard not to just hand this metaphorical “game ball” to Andrew Luck, for everything he did to put Stanford football on the national map.

But it is also hard to ignore, much less forget the Big Game performance from wide receiver Ty Montgomery in 2013. In a game that saw records broken like tackles through Cal’s defensive line, the most impressive was the amount of points scored by Stanford, 63, which surpassed the previous record (48) for the most scored in a Big Game. Cal’s freshman QB Jared Goff broke the single-season passing yardage record with 3,508 yards for the season, but Cal also surrendered a school-record 551 points during the season, allowing more than 40 points for the ninth time in 12 games.

Montgomery’s performance overshadowed all that; the wily receiver recorded five first-half touchdowns, the first four on his first four touches of the day, matching a Stanford school record. He tied Darrin Nelson's single-game touchdowns record set at Oregon State in 1981. Stanford defeated Cal 63-13 and the win over their cross-bay rival secured them a spot in the Pac-12 championship game.

This year’s 118th edition of the Big Game was more straightforward than the aforementioned matchups, with Stanford jumping out to an early 14-3 lead at the half. The Cardinal continued the domination, eventually rolling over the Golden Bears 35-22. Stanford kept the axe on the Farm and secured the North, earning a berth to the Pac-12 championship game.

Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey broke Glyn Milburn’s Stanford single-game all-purpose mark of 379 from the 1990 Big Game. The sophomore also passed the single-season all-purpose yardage totals of Reggie Bush, Marcus Allen, and Mike Rozier from their Heisman-winning years. McCaffrey now has a national-leading 2,807, which trails only the Division I college football record of 3,250 of Barry Sanders from his 1988 Heisman season. The WildCaff Heisman talk grew a little louder after Saturday’s Bay Area clash.

A moment that embodied the spirit of the rivalry: Stanford Defensive end Brennan Scarlett was able to carry the Axe off the field in his first ever Big Game victory – the fifth year senior is a transfer from Cal, where he only played one full year due to injuries. His smile after the game captured the essence of a Big Game victory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *