Stanford takes back Axe trophy, beats Cal 24-23 in Big Game

AP

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Stanford players danced, hooted and hollered on California's home turf in Memorial Stadium. The Cardinal came together and posed for a group photo in front of card stunts in the bleachers above featuring a message “Our axe” that came from the opposing side.

They cradled the actual axe trophy that was now theirs again.

“It was awesome,” quarterback Davis Mills said. “There's been emotions this whole week.”

Austin Jones ran for a pair of short touchdowns, Mills threw for 205 yards and a TD, and Stanford blocked a would-be tying extra point in the final minute to take back The Axe by beating Bay Area rival Cal 24-23 in the Big Game on Friday.

Stanford special teams did a little bit of everything — capitalizing on a muffed punt, blocking a field goal moments before halftime, then Thomas Booker getting an elbow on Dario Longhetto’s PAT attempt at the end for an impressive showing by a unit that has been a focal point during this strange season.

“We have the talent to influence games on special teams," coach David Shaw said. “It was great to see it happen today."

Christopher Brown Jr. had run for a 3-yard touchdown with 58 seconds remaining and Cal opted to try for a PAT rather than a two-point conversion.

“We felt good about going to overtime. Obviously it was the wrong decision, and I own that 100%,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “There’s a lot of pain and frustration that we didn’t play better. We had multiple opportunities to win the game and we didn’t get it done.”

The Cardinal spoiled Cal’s long-awaited home opener — it had been scheduled for Nov. 7 against Washington but that game got canceled because of a positive coronavirus test on the Bears.

This marked the first time both Cal and Stanford were winless coming into the game, and they also had never previously faced off on a Friday.

Michael Wilson had 88 yards on seven catches with a touchdown for Stanford (1-2), playing for the first time in nearly two weeks after last week's scheduled home game against Washington State got canceled because of a positive COVID-19 test among the Cougars.

This marked just the second game for Mills, held out of the season-opening loss at Oregon on Nov. 7 for what wound up to be a testing protocol mistake later acknowledged by the Pac-12.

The Cardinal had a nine-game Big Game winning streak snapped last season with a 24-20 home loss. They are now 9-1 in the rivalry under 10th-year coach Shaw. Once the clock expired, the celebrating began in earnest.

“They earned it last year. They took it from us,” Stanford linebacker Curtis Robinson said. “Anxious to get that photo.”

Jones ran for a 2-yard touchdown that put Stanford ahead early in the third but the Golden Bears (0-3) answered right back to tie it on Nikko Remigio's 3-yard TD reception from Chase Garbers set up by Damien Moore’s 54-yard burst.

Garbers led Cal to the end zone on its opening drive, capped by a 7-yard touchdown throw to Kekoa Crawford, but the Bears couldn't quite pull off back-to-back Big Game victories.

“Unacceptable. Special teams is literally a simple technique that we have to execute with great effort and we are having issues there,” Wilcox said.

Brown kept things interesting, rushing 15 yards on third-and-10 from the 19 in the final two minutes that made it first-and-goal before his scoring run three plays later. He is still limited by an injury.

Garbers completed his initial seven passes while Mills began 8 for 10 and hit Wilson on an 11-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter that sent the teams into halftime notched at 10-all.

“It’s definitely difficult to get off to an 0-3 start,” Garbers said. “We have nothing to lose now.”

TONER'S LEG

After missing all four of his field-goal tries in the defeat at Oregon, Jet Toner has been a perfect 4 of 4 since. He kicked a 27-yard field goal on the first play of second quarter.

STEALING A GLIMPSE

More than 50 people hiked up Tightwad Hill for a view of the game despite school officials urging fans not to be on the hill given the pandemic.

Cal announced the popular viewing spot for those without a ticket because you can see down into Memorial Stadium from Charter Hill would be off limits.

THE TAKEAWAY

Stanford: The Cardinal committed to being better on special teams and more effective in the third quarter after a 35-32 home loss to Colorado on Nov. 14. They delivered a stellar performance, highlighted by Booker's late block. “I felt like the entire day we were getting pretty good pressure,” Booker said. Salim Turner-Muhammad forced a fumble by Marcel Dancy that Booker recovered. Then Mills' 33-yard completion to Wilson set up the go-ahead score by Jones early in the third. ... Stanford improved to 23-12 under Shaw following a loss. The Cardinal deferred for the first time under Shaw after winning the toss.

Cal: Redshirt sophomore defensive end JH Tevis had his first two career sacks in the first half. The Cal defense limited the Cardinal to 19 yards rushing in the opening two quarters after coming into the game allowing 5.3 yards per carry. ... Moore's 54-yard run was the team's longest play from scrimmage this year and since Brown ran the same distance in Cal's 35-20 win over Illinois in the Redbox bowl last Dec. 30. ... Crawford scored his second touchdown of the season and fourth of his career.

UP NEXT

Stanford: At Washington next Saturday.

Cal: Hosts Oregon next Saturday.

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