It couldn’t have been a more fitting end on Saturday afternoon, as Stanford players hoisted the Axe in celebration of their Big Game victory over Cal for the third straight season. After all, they had just axed Cal’s offense for the entirety of four quarters.
Playing in the 115th edition of the Big Game, No. 17 Stanford (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12) took down Cal (3-5, 2-3) 21-3 at the newly renovated California Memorial Stadium to pick up its first road win of the season. With the victory, the Cardinal keeps its Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl dreams alive.
“This is a blueprint game,” said head coach David Shaw. “This is what we want to do.”
Stanford’s sheer defensive dominance was the big story on Saturday afternoon. Held to just 3 total rushing yards by the Cardinal’s stifling run defense, Cal’s ground game amassed as many yards as the number of points that they put up on the scoreboard.
It also helped that the Cardinal offense finally found its groove on the road, racking up 475 yards. After failing to score a single offensive touchdown in its last two away games, Stanford reached the end zone three times, all in the first half.
But it was still far from perfect, especially in the early going.
Quarterback Josh Nunes killed the game-opening drive when he fumbled the ball in Bear territory. Chase Thomas’ sack on quarterback Zach Maynard moved Cal back 7 yards during its first possession, but the Cardinal’s next promising drive ended when Jordan Williamson’s 40-yard field goal went just wide left.
Midway through the first quarter, Stanford scored its long-awaited first offensive touchdown on the road. A nifty 37-yard punt return by senior Drew Terrell gave the Cardinal a short field to work with, and a 16-yard reception by tight end Zach Ertz set up Stepfan Taylor’s touchdown run on first-and-goal.
“It felt good to get that first touchdown on the road out of our system,” Nunes said. “It was like, ‘OK, that’s done. Now let’s do what we want to do.’”
Stanford’s defense certainly did what it wanted to do all afternoon by consistently making Maynard uncomfortable in the pocket and completely taking Cal’s top running back C.J. Anderson out of the equation.
Maynard finished the game 19-of-31 for 214 yards but was sacked four times and picked off once. Anderson’s ineffectiveness was even more obvious, as the senior only managed to gain 5 yards on six carries despite coming into the game averaging 7 yards per touch.
Cal’s only points came during the early moments of the second quarter, when Keenan Allen displayed an electric burst of speed on a 29-yard punt return that allowed the Bears to set up shop at the Stanford 25-yard line. But even with a first-and-goal at the Cardinal 2, Cal failed to punch it in on three straights rushes that resulted in lost yardage and was forced to settle for Vincent D’Amato’s 21-yard chip shot.
With its lead trimmed to 7-3, Stanford wasted no time in getting the momentum back.
Nunes started the Cardinal’s first drive of the second quarter by hitting Ertz in stride for a 68-yard completion, all the way down to the Cal 17. The Bears secondary inexplicably left one of the nation’s best tight ends wide open on that play, as there were no blue uniforms within 10 yards of Ertz when he made the grab.
Three plays later, quarterback Kevin Hogan recorded his first career touchdown when he rolled out to his right on second-and-goal and found tight end Levine Toilolo for a 9-yard touchdown pass. The redshirt freshman has been seeing more playing time out of the wildcat formation, or as Shaw calls it, the “Hogan Package.”
“[Hogan] hasn’t done a bunch of this in high school, but he’s got the athletic ability to do it,” said Shaw. “It’s gotten better and better. It will be part of every game going forward.”
Cal’s next two possessions ended in self-destructing turnovers. Thomas, who recovered a fumble in the end zone to score Stanford’s only touchdown against Notre Dame two weekends ago, once again showed his knack for finding the ball by recovering Brendan Bigelow’s fumble at the Stanford 48-yard line.
A few minutes later, it was safety Jordan Richards who forced an Allen fumble that gave the Cardinal prime field position at the Cal 10. Nunes made the Bears pay on the very next play by connecting with a wide-open Ertz once again for a touchdown. Creating all kinds of mismatch problems for Cal’s secondary, Ertz would finish the game with six receptions for 134 yards and a score.
“We needed to make big plays in this game,” said Taylor. “[Cal] brings their best every time we play them. We needed that, and we needed to score on the road, too, to get it off our shoulders. We can always get better and score more. So we’re going to go practice.”
The Cardinal headed into the locker rooms with a 21-3 lead at halftime, not knowing that it wouldn’t score another point in the second half.
As it turned out, Stanford didn’t need to.
The Bears mustered only 10 yards of offense in the third quarter; the front seven made big open-field tackles even when Maynard managed to move out of the pocket, while the secondary went in lockdown mode on Allen, whose offensive output consisted of just four catches for 43 yards.
Thomas, a midseason All-American first-team selection by Sports Illustrated, paved the Cardinal’s brilliant defensive performance with seven tackles, including four tackles for loss and a sack. In addition to his fumble recovery in the second quarter, the senior outside linebacker also forced a fumble and broke up a pass.
Even by its own high standards, the Stanford defense shone all afternoon, recording 11 tackles for loss and forcing three turnovers. As the game progressed, Stanford increasingly forced Cal to become a one-dimensional passing offense. The Bears came into the game ranked third in the conference with an average of almost 175 rushing yards per game, but on Saturday, they couldn’t even reach double, let alone triple, digits.
But Stanford had no trouble with its running game, thanks to Taylor’s relentless efficiency and the offensive line’s consistent blocking. The senior captain took the bulk of the carries in the second half, wearing down Cal’s defense and eating up the clock at the same time. En route to notching his fifth 100-yard rushing game this season, Taylor set a career high by rumbling for 189 yards on 28 carries.
During the third quarter, Taylor passed former Stanford star running back Toby Gerhart to become second on the all-time Stanford career rushing list. He now needs 417 more yards to overtake Darrin Nelson, who amassed 4,033 yards on the ground during his distinguished career at Stanford.
“I can’t say enough about [Taylor] as a person,” said Shaw. “I can’t say enough about him as a football player.”
Nunes, who finished the game 16-of-31 passing for 214 yards and a touchdown, threw an interception right into the hands of Marc Anthony while the Cardinal was driving in the red zone during the fourth quarter. But the Stanford defense stood tall once again on Cal’s next possession when sophomore corner Wayne Lyons picked off Maynard near the goal line on fourth-and-11.
Nine of Cal’s drives ended in either three-and-outs or turnovers. Failing to convert 13 out of 14 third downs was the telltale sign of the Bears’ dismal afternoon.
“You don’t want to be that class that gives the Axe away,” said Taylor. “The seniors made it a point that we want to keep the Axe.”
Point taken. For at least another year, the Axe stays with Stanford.