For the first time in 10 years, the Axe will head to Berkeley. 6,282 students showed up to the Red Zone for the Big Game, but were forced to watch as Cal fans stormed the field, wielding the Stanford Axe.
Cal quarterback Chase Garbers strolled untouched into the endzone on a 16-yard rush to give Cal its first lead of the game with 79 ticks on the clock. Stanford’s offense was not up for heroics in its final possession, trailing 24-20.
Stanford (4-7, 3-6 Pac-12) was ensured its first losing season since 2008 with Saturday’s loss to Cal (6-5, 3-5 Pac-12). The snapped nine-year win streak was the longest in the 122-year history of the series.
“I’m hurting for our seniors,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94, who lost to the crossbay rival for the first time in his ten seasons at the helm. “I feel like the rest of us let our seniors down, didn’t allow them to finish their careers here with the Axe.”
“That’s something we’ll have to live with for 364 days,” Shaw added.
“We let down nine senior classes that have won this before and 10 including this one,” said senior inside linebacker Curtis Robinson.
“After nine years, to lose the axe is a tough pill to swallow,” said junior tight end Colby Parkinson. “Definitely going to let this one hurt for a while.”
Junior quarterback Davis Mills, in his fifth career start and first in a Big Game, completed his first seven passes, but it was Cal’s Garbers who outshone him. Despite his start being a game day decision due to injury concerns, Garbers finished 20-of-30 for 285 yards and one touchdown each through the air and on the ground. Mills did not add a touchdown after the first series and threw two second-half interceptions.
“This was Chase Garber’s game,” Shaw said. “We couldn’t stop him.”
Cal improved to 11-2 when Garbers plays more than half of the game. He targeted Nikko Remigio 14 times for nine completions, 157 yards and an 18-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“Chase Garbers was making a lot of really good plays, important plays for that team,” Robinson said. “So, hats off to him. But I think it comes down to our lack of execution.”
Freshman kicker Ryan Sanborn connected on both of his field goals, one from 48 yards in the first half to set a new career long and the second from 44 yards to give Stanford a brief 20-17 lead with just over two minutes remaining.
Two plays before the field goal attempt, Mills took a shot into the end zone attempting to find Parkinson, but the pass was out of reach.
“Didn’t do enough in the end of the game to get it done,” Robinson said. “We had them where we wanted; we just didn’t finish.”
Heading into the fourth quarter, Stanford held a 17-10 lead it secured on the 23rd rushing touchdown of fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett’s career. The drive started on the Cal 30 yard line and ended with Scarlett leaping into the end zone from a yard away. During the celebration, Scarlett was held in the air by the offensive line that has now started the past five games together, despite the presence of three true freshmen due to injury attrition.
Adding to Stanford’s list of injured players, junior wide receiver Connor Wedington was carted off the field after returning the opening kickoff to the 40-yard line. In his stead, Elijah Higgins became the eighth true freshman to start this season and senior Donald Stewart hauled in his first catch since 2017 on a 39-yard touchdown.
“As the people who are healthy and able to play, you have to not make that excuse,” Robinson said. “We have never at any point in the season made an excuse and we won’t for the rest of the season.”
Stewart’s first career touchdown reception capped an impressive and uncharacteristic opening drive for the Cardinal that was not replicated for the remainder of the game. All three of Mills’ passes were caught and the only rush came on an end around designed for junior receiver Osiris St. Brown, who finished with a career-high five receptions.
Although the Cardinal recorded three sacks, including one from Robinson on a delayed rush, Garbers also escaped the Stanford pass rush on numerous occasions. The quarterback scrambled for a game-high 72 rushing yards, including the game-winning touchdown run.
“The athletic quarterbacks have been a difficult thing for us all year,” Shaw said. “We missed about three more sacks today. Let him escape on quarterback runs multiple times.”
Stanford’s first four drives crossed midfield, but at halftime the team had just 10 points to show for it. Twice Sanborn punted in plus territory, and Cal responded with a field goal attempt both times. On the second, senior defensive end Jovan Swann tallied the fourth blocked kick of the season to hold Berkeley to 10 first-half points.
“A lot of the tale of the tape this season has been opportunities: opportunities missed, opportunities made,” Parkinson said. “We had a lot of chances this game that we didn’t take advantage of.”
With the game knotted at 10 at halftime, Cal had converted 5-of-8 third downs while Stanford was 0-of-4. The Cardinal ran the ball just five times for 19 yards but picked up 187 yards through the air on 19 plays.
The nation’s leading tackler, Cal linebacker Evan Weaver, added 13 more to his season tally. Senior inside linebacker Andrew Pryts led Stanford with 10 tackles, a new career high.
“We’ve had the Axe the whole time I’ve been at Stanford; we would have liked to keep it here,” Mills said. “We’ll come back and get it next year.”
“I spoke to the team and told them we have one week left,” Robinson said. “We have a big game. This should be our biggest game because it’s the game that’s next. And to me it’s a rivalry game, too. It’s a game with a trophy on the line, a way to end the season strong going into the offseason.”
The final game of a 2019 season Stanford fans will hope to forget will be against Notre Dame (9-2) on Saturday.
“We keep churning,” Shaw said. “We’ll find a way to get back and come back seven days from now and try to end the season on a high note.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.