Stanford reclaims Axe as special teams sink Cal

Nov. 27, 2020, 9:14 p.m.

When Stanford’s operations team scoped out Memorial Stadium earlier this week, they found that Cal had displayed a card stunt that read “our” with a picture of the Stanford Axe. Head coach David Shaw ’95 received a picture and was asked if he wanted to let the team know. 

“No,” Shaw said. “Let them see it when they come into the stadium.” 

The card stunt was stuck in the back of fifth year inside linebacker Curtis Robinson’s head when he blocked a field goal to keep the game tied heading into halftime. The card stunt was in the front of junior defensive end Thomas Booker’s mind when the team ran over to Cal’s side of the field to take a photo, with the Axe, in front of the cards. 

“They earned it last year, they took it from us,” Robinson said. “But I felt that was disrespect and I was definitely anxious to get that picture in front.”

“Especially when they got the whole thing with ‘our axe’ painted on their sideline, it was very sweet to be able to take it back in such a fashion at Cal and go back to Stanford, holding what rightfully is ours,” Booker added.

“Our guys took a lot of pride in grabbing the Axe and taking a picture in front of that ‘our axe’ sign up there,” Shaw said. “And just to remind everybody, it is called the Stanford Axe.”

With 58 seconds left in the 123rd Big Game, Cal scored on a Christopher Brown Jr. touchdown run from three yards out that was poised to tie the game after the extra point. Two members of the University of California Rally Committee hugged as they set off the cannon at the top of the stadium. The two Cal students that were at the south end zone presiding over the socially distanced stare-off danced. 

Instead, Booker blocked the extra point and Stanford (now 1-2) escaped Berkeley with a 24-23 win.

When Cal (0-3) scored, Booker thought to himself, “I’ve been getting pressure all day on this guy and if there’s one time where I can get a kick blocked, it’s right now.” On the sideline, Shaw heard his players saying, “Hey, we can block it. Go block it. Go block it. We’re gonna block this.”

In the end, Booker got so much penetration that the ball hit his elbow. 

In a special year, Stanford’s special teams were the difference. Coach Pete Alamar’s group blocked a field goal, recovered a muffed punt and blocked the point after attempt to give Stanford its first win in seven tries and 398 days.

“In practice, every single day, we’re like, ‘this is going to be the unit that’s going to change the game,’ and they changed it in a big way today,” said sophomore running back Austin Jones.

For seven seasons from 2003-2009, Alamar was the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach at Cal. When Alamar was hired at Stanford in 2012, it allowed Shaw to make the position dedicated to special teams alone. 

“He’s probably one of the best special teams coordinators in America,” Robinson said. “I’m just honestly blessed to have come in with a coach like that, who cares that much about something that is seen as the second child at a lot of other programs.”

Cal’s special teams has struggled all year and last week had a punt blocked to set up Oregon State’s game-winning touchdown. The weakness gave Stanford confidence it could come up with big plays. 

“We knew that we had an opportunity with their protection unit that we would get a chance in that B and C gap,” Robinson said. “It just came down to us being able to execute better than them.”

The defense added a fumble recovery when sophomore cornerback Salim Turner-Muhammad (making his second career start with junior Ethan Bonner sidelined with an injury) punched the ball out of the hands of running back Marcel Dancy. Seconds later, Booker fell on the ball on the first fumble by a Cal back in two years. Altogether, Stanford scored 14 points off turnovers.

“On defense we preach takeaways and we preach momentum swings,” Robinson said. “For the offense to be able to capitalize on those momentum swings is huge for us.”

“We’ve been struggling to gel together,” Robinson added. “Either the defense was doing well or the offense couldn’t convert … Today it kind of clicked perfectly.”

Stanford finished with 92 fewer total yards than Cal but made plays in the moments that mattered. The running backs were bottled up for most of the day and the team combined for just 95 yards on the ground. Still, Jones managed two touchdowns on 85 yards with a workload of 21 carries.

“Once we get number 20 running, you see what kind of back he can be,” Shaw said, referencing Jones’ jersey number.

The offensive line did just enough to make creases for Jones and fellow sophomore running back Nathaniel Peat. The group is led by senior captain and center Drew Dalman, whose father Chris ’92 played at Stanford with Shaw. Dalman grew up around Big Game, which made the moment even more special.

“He was fired up all day today,” Shaw said.

It was an unusual game for the full 60 minutes, beginning when Stanford head coach David Shaw ’95 elected to defer for the first time as a head coach. A week ago, he hinted that a change was coming before Stanford’s canceled game against Washington State. 

Initially, the change did not appear to have worked. Cal scored on the first drive of the game (as Stanford did a year ago), and Shaw’s team went three and out to start the second half. Momentum turned moments later when senior fullback Houston Heimuli recovered a muffed punt. Three plays later, Jones scored.

Cal answered, each team punted and eventually Jones dragged half of the Cal team into the end zone for what would prove to be the game-winning score. For the first time this season, Stanford won the third quarter, 14-7.

“They’re not gonna stop me going in there,” Jones said. 

After last year’s game, Jones received texts, emails and calls from friends and family where he grew up in the East Bay joking about his decision to go to Stanford rather than Cal. 

“Every single run I just knew I was going to pound it and they were going to feel me all game,” Jones said. “I had a chip on my shoulder from last year.”

The sophomore does not plan to reply to any of those messages now, and will let the hardware do the talking. 

“I’m just going to let them see the Axe,” Jones said. 

Stanford’s defense bent, but came up with four sacks, seven tackles for loss and held Cal to 5-for-14 on third down. Fifth year free safety Malik Antoine had a career-high-tying seven tackles, including a sack. Booker added a sack and fifth year defensive end Thomas Schaffer added two. 

“I think this is a coming out party for [Schaffer],” Booker said. “He played fantastic football and without his performance I don’t think we win that game.”

“You can excuse a lot of other mistakes if you can get off the field on third down,” Booker added. 

Still, Cal quarterback Chase Garbers completed his first seven passes and finished 19-for-29 for 151 yards and two scores. On the ground, he made it to 51 rushing yards on 13 carries.

Cal has now come into a Big Game five times as a winless team and has lost all five times. For the first time, Stanford was winless as well.

Senior quarterback Davis Mills completed a personal best 75% of his passes (24-for-32) for 205 yards. His two favorite targets, junior wide receiver Michael Wilson and senior wide receiver Connor Wedington, each made big plays. Wilson caught seven of his eight targets for 88 yards. Working through traffic all day, one of his easier catches was on a shoulder throw from Mills for a touchdown.

“He’s just one of those fighters,” Shaw said.

“He’s a go-to guy for me,” Mills said. 

On the other side, Wedington continues to be Mills’ safety valve. The roommates connected for six completions totaling 71 yards.

The specialists also contributed to the overall strong performance in the game’s third phase. Sophomore punter Ryan Sanborn was called on eight times and pinned Cal inside its own 20 yard line four times. Fifth year kicker Jet Toner made his lone field goal attempt, and with three extra points, has made all 107 for his career (behind only Conrad Ukropina’s ’16 108 straight) and has 260 career points (fifth most in Stanford history). 

With the win, Stanford improves to 65-47-11 in the series and 9-1 in Big Game under Shaw. The win reclaimed the Axe after Cal cut short Stanford’s historic nine-game winning streak. 

“They came into our house last year and beat us and took the Axe,” Mills said. “We did the same to them this year. The Axe is back with [its] rightful owners.”

Stanford will meet the Huskies in Washington next Saturday. 

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Daniel Martinez-Krams '22 is a staff writer in the sports section. He is a Biology major from Berkeley, California. Please contact him with tips or feedback at dmartinezkrams ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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