This past Saturday, Stanford football (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) hoisted the Axe and claimed its ninth straight Big Game victory over the California Golden Bears (7-5, 4-5 Pac-12) in a 23-13 decision. Coming off of a two-game win streak and sporting a Pac-12 leading defense, Cal may have had its best chance in years to surprise the Cardinal and snap a nearly decade-long streak of Big Game dominance but came up short in a defensive standoff.
The game was originally scheduled for Nov. 17 but was postponed due to poor air quality caused by wildfires in Northern California.
Despite not getting into the end zone, team captain JJ Arcega-Whiteside caught five balls for 109 yards, leading the team in receptions and receiving yards in the contest. Fifth-year senior and team captain Bobby Okereke led the defense Saturday from the middle linebacker spot and had one of the most productive games of his career with 13 tackles and half a sack.
Stanford marched to an early lead in the first quarter, moving steadily up the field against a Cal defense that had played lights-out all season. Junior quarterback K.J. Costello continued to be the engine driving the Stanford offense to a 10-0 run to start the game, racking up 122 passing yards on seven of nine attempts in the first quarter.
While just about everything was clicking for the Cardinal offense, the Golden Bears seemed nearly immobile in the face of the Stanford’s defense. Junior nose tackle Michael Williams sacked Cal’s Chase Garbers to help hold the quarterback to just two of five passing in the first quarter.
The Bears started to show their teeth in the second quarter with field goals on their next two offensive drives. Garbers repeatedly found 290-pound fullback Malik McMorris in the flats to move the chains, bringing the offense close enough for field goals that put the Bears on the board, still down 10-6.
Stanford was forced to punt on its next three consecutive drives. The deafening uproar of the Cal Memorial Stadium threw off the Cardinal offensive linemen, resulting in multiple false start penalties in the first half.
“We knew it was going to be a fight,” said head coach David Shaw. “Cal’s defense really stepped up. They’re really physical, and they made it hard to run the ball, and they had some difficult pass protection on us. They got after us a couple times, and we had some self-inflicted wounds. We haven’t had that many false starts in a game in a while.”
After another Jet Toner field goal on the Cardinal’s final drive of the first half extended Stanford’s lead to 13-6, the teams headed to the locker room with only a seven-point difference on the scoreboard.
The third was not a fan-friendly quarter as six straight offensive drives ended in punts to open the second half. The defense for both teams was stifling; palpable anticipation hung in the air as once-uproarious attendees anxiously awaited to see which of the battling teams would strike first.
As the game reached the final quarter, Garbers was growing visibly frantic. After driving the field and reaching the red zone, the sophomore quarterback stepped up on a play to avoid the pass-rush and hurled the ball to the end zone. Sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo dove for the ball, stretched out with one arm and picked off the pass in a jaw-dropping feat of athleticism and acrobatics that made highlight reels nationwide all weekend long.
The sophomore downplayed his phenomenal performance when asked about his stunning one-handed pick. “I was just trying to make a play,” Adebo said after the game.
On the very next play, Cal middle linebacker and team captain Jordan Kunaszyk ripped the ball from Bryce Love’s arms, resulting in the first lost fumble of Love’s career. After being set up perfectly by the defense at Stanford 23-yard line, the Cal offense gained a meager four yards before missing a 36-yard field goal in an embarrassing four-play encapsulation of Cal’s entire season.
Costello drove the team down the field 77 yards on the next attack and burned over seven minutes of clock before Jet Toner’s third field goal of the day, extending Stanford’s lead to a comfortable 16-6. The score gave Toner the school record for single-season field goal percentage, with 92.9 percent, and for career field goal percentage, with 85.0 percent.
Garbers and the Cal offense rushed down the field in panic mode with less than three minutes to play, clinging onto hope before Adebo ripped it away with a second interception returned for 43 yards to the Cal three-yard-line. With the pick, Adebo set a new school record for interceptions and pass-breakups in a single season with 19, passing Vaughn Bryant’s 1993 season total of 18. Adebo would end the game with 23, a total that led the nation this season.
“We needed our defense to pick us up, which they did,” said Shaw. “We got two red zone stops and forced them to kick two field goals early on. The second half was all about the defense. We got a lot of stops and really stifled their running game. Paulson Adebo made two unbelievable interceptions. That one-handed interception in the end zone was just phenomenal. You won’t find a better one in football.”
“It’s just who he is,” said Shaw when asked further about Adebo. “He works so hard; he’s so diligent. He’s very single-minded in a positive way. If he wants to work on something, he’ll ask questions… He makes a big play, and he doesn’t celebrate; he just wants to get back in the huddle. He’s got length, he’s got speed, he’s got athleticism, and he’s very, very coachable.”
Adebo and Toner were not the only Cardinal players to break school records Saturday. Senior punter Jake Bailey rocketed the longest punt in Stanford history straight down the middle of the field late in the third for 84 yards. The punt was the longest by any player in college football this year.
“We needed those big momentum swings,” said Shaw. “We talked about it this morning. Which team is going to make the most of momentum swings? Today it was us.”
Senior running back Cameron Scarlett punched it in from three yards out after the fourth-quarter turnover, putting the Cardinal up 23-6. The Cal offense played its best in the final moments of the game as Garbers drove the Bears down the field 75 yards in just over two minutes, picking up Cal’s only touchdown of the game on an 11-yard pass to junior wideout Jordan Duncan. The impressive but nonetheless futile drive left Bears fans wondering where that sense of urgency had been all game long.
Costello took a knee at the Cal 49 for the final play of the game, finishing the game off 23-13 in victory formation at midfield.
“First of all, congratulations to our seniors,” said Shaw after the game. “I’m so proud of those guys. So many of them have battled through a lot over the years — this year in particular with so many guys getting banged up here and there and having to step up. Guys that maybe weren’t starters had to step up and play bigger roles, and guys had to fight through injury to get back on the field. I’m very proud of that group of guys and our entire team today.”
“It means a lot just because knowing how much this game mean to both schools, the alumni and our seniors — sending them out having never having lost to California was big,” said Adebo. “Everybody talked about how highly emotional it is, but you can’t understand until you are actually in that situation, but having played in that game now, I really understand how much it means to both schools, both teams, both players and everybody invested in it.”
The win extends Stanford’s historic Big Game streak to nine consecutive victories and caps off a sweep of California rivals UCLA, USC and Cal for a fourth “California championship” in five years.
Stanford’s football season will end with the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 at 11 a.m. PT as the Cardinal take on the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Contact Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu and Stephen Ren at rensteph ‘at’ stanford.edu.