The Axe is staying at its rightful home for the sixth straight year.
Stanford football’s class of 2016 will go down as the 13th senior class in school history to have never lost the Stanford Axe. To make it even sweeter for them, in running out to a 35-22 victory over archrival California (6-5, 3-5 Pac-12) in the 118th Big Game behind a school-record 389 all-purpose yards from Christian McCaffrey, No. 15 Stanford (9-2, 8-1) also officially clinched the Pac-12 North for the third time in four seasons.
“Pac-12 North champions? It’s got a pretty good ring to it,” said freshman running back Bryce Love.
“I got the question throughout the week about guys bouncing back [from the Oregon loss], and I’m telling you, it’s Cal week,” said head coach David Shaw. “When it’s Cal week, we don’t worry about anything else. This is a big game, it is the Big Game and our guys were phenomenal in practice all week. They really wanted this game.”
Almost exactly 25 years from the day when Glyn Milburn set Stanford’s old all-purpose yards record of 379 in the legendary 1990 Big Game playing alongside Ed McCaffrey, the younger McCaffrey couldn’t have picked a better time — or opponent — to set yet another Stanford record with a final tally of 389 yards.
“Has anybody seen a football player better than Christian McCaffrey this year? Tell me,” Shaw said. “Show him to me. I haven’t seen anybody.”
McCaffrey took 29 carries for 192 yards, added a highlight-reel 49-yard receiving touchdown and added 148 kickoff return yards — including a 98-yard return touchdown — that allowed Stanford to beat its biggest rival for the sixth straight year despite losing the time-of-possession battle and being outgained by 140 yards.
“I’ll be able to go out 4-0 and be able to say forever that hey, I never lost the Axe,” said senior guard Josh Garnett.
“When you see the seniors going around with the Axe, you can just tell how much it means to be a part of this team and to keep the Axe, keep it home,” Love added.
On the other side, a third consecutive class of Cal seniors will leave Berkeley never having won the Axe, and this time around, it was McCaffrey that made sure that they were going to once again leave The Farm empty-handed.
He first found the end zone on his 49-yard touchdown reception, on which he took a screen pass, broke three tackles and made three cuts while weaving through Cal defenders and Stanford blockers to put Stanford up 14-3 late in the second quarter.
After Cal scored another field goal with a minute to go in the half to cut the lead to 8 points, McCaffrey put any semblance of Cal momentum heading into the break to rest by taking the ensuing kickoff return 98 yards down the right sideline to give Stanford a 21-6 lead at the half.
Even outside of his contributions in the passing game and special teams, McCaffrey’s workmanlike 192 rushing yards gave him a school-record ninth consecutive game of over 100, adding yet another impressive outing to his growing Heisman Trophy candidacy.
“I love that guy to death and I’m trying to go there all-out and give him the recognition he deserves — the recognition he’s earned across the country,” Garnett said.
Fifth-year senior running back Remound Wright added two short-yardage rushing touchdowns to run his total in the last two Big Games up to six, and Love also added a 48-yard scamper into the end zone late in the fourth quarter to put the game on ice.
The efforts of Stanford’s offensive line and running back corps were more than enough to make up for a minimal outing from Kevin Hogan (7-of-12 passing, 96 yards) and a defense that gave up 495 total yards to Cal’s potent offense — the second-most against Stanford’s defense all season. That said, the defense held Cal to three field goals on its first three drives into the red zone, which ultimately kept Stanford just out of reach of the Bears all evening.
“Cal came in and played well,” Shaw said. “We’re not used to losing the time of possession. They kept the ball for a long time. They were very efficient. But give [defensive coordinator Lance] Anderson a lot of credit, keeping the ball in front of us, not giving up touchdowns, giving up field goals in the red zone. That was huge. That was huge.”
Cal quarterback Jared Goff had a solid day in the pocket, completing 37 of his 54 passes, throwing 2 touchdowns and leading Cal to convert 10 of its 18 third downs. However, most of those crucial third-down stops for Stanford came in the red zone, meaning that though Goff was able to move downfield at will, he couldn’t hit paydirt to bring those drives to fulfilling finishes.
He didn’t have much help from his receivers, who had several key drops, or from his running game, which only notched 98 yards on the ground.
In the end, Cal’s inability to keep McCaffrey in check and finish drives and a lack of aggression in its game management were just enough to give Stanford a two-score victory and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship.
A matchup with a top-five Notre Dame squad now looms next week before the Cardinal will meet the winner of the UCLA-USC game with the Pac-12 title on the line. But even though winning the Pac-12 has been the primary goal of the team all season long, it’s still not looking that far ahead.
“It’s a huge honor to establish ourselves as the Pac-12 North champions,” McCaffrey said. “But we’re not satisfied at all. We have a huge game this week, and that’s what our tunnel vision is focused on is Notre Dame.”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.