Saturday afternoon was an unsatisfactory trip for Stanford football (3-8, 1-8 Pac-12), as they faced Cal (4-7, 2-7 Pac-12) for the 125th Big Game. A sold-out crowd witnessed the first defeat of the Cardinal at Memorial Stadium since 2008.
Stanford received the ball to start the game and conducted a successful touchdown drive, capped off by sophomore running back Mitch Leigber’s one-yard rush for the first touchdown of the game. Both teams followed up this drive with three consecutive field goals — two by Cal kicker Dario Longhetto from 54 yards and 38 yards, and one by Cardinal junior kicker Joshua Karty from 42 yards. At the end of the first quarter, Stanford possessed a 10-6 lead.
Neither team put up points in the second quarter. The biggest action came when the Bears completed a 44-yard pass, the largest pass play in the game. But just when Cal was looking to get in the end zone, junior safety Alaka’i Gilman intercepted the ball, forcing a turnover for the Cardinal. Cal’s total yardage for the quarter, 128, almost doubled that of Stanford’s, at 68. Yet, the Cardinal defense came through, keeping the score at 10-6 at halftime.
“Defense gave us a lot of opportunities,” said head coach David Shaw following the game. “Got off the field four interceptions, some big 3rd down conversions.”
Despite Cal receiving the ball coming out of the half, Stanford gathered the momentum. Almost half of the quarter went by without any scoring, until junior quarterback Tanner McKee hit senior receiver Elijah Higgins for a nine-yard touchdown.
Game after game, injuries continue to haunt the Cardinal lineup. Some previously injured fifth-year players — safeties Kendall Williamson and Patrick Fields, and inside linebacker Jacob Mangum-Farrar — made it back onto the field, playing until they felt they couldn’t, according to Stanford head coach David Shaw. Senior receiver John Humphreys was injured on a seven-yard pass completion late in the third quarter, but luckily, he returned to the game for the last play of the quarter, a six-yard pass completion. The Cardinal were up 11 points at the end of the third quarter: 17-6.
The final quarter of the game featured a Cal comeback. It began with a Cal touchdown by receiver Monroe Young, followed by an unsuccessful 2-point conversion attempt, narrowing Stanford’s lead to five points. A disastrous play followed off Stanford’s next drive. Freshman quarterback Ashton Daniels rushed into a fumble forced by Bears safety Daniel Scott. The ball was recovered by cornerback Jeremiah Earby, but another fumble was forced by Daniels on the same play. In the end, the ball was scooped up by inside linebacker Jackson Sirmon for a score into the end zone, followed by a successful 2-point conversion.
For the first time in the game, the Bears had taken the lead from the Cardinal: 20-17. Cal’s scoring didn’t end there, however, as Scott interfered with another Stanford drive, intercepting the ball for a 40-yard return. Running back Jaydn Ott rushed up the middle for a one-yard touchdown, putting Cal up 10 points with a minute left on the clock.
With little time left in the game, the Cardinal’s chance at victory had faded. With five seconds left, Karty kicked an impressive 61-yard field goal. Stanford was only down seven points, but no time was left on the clock, giving Cal the win.
This was the Cardinal’s chance to make a comeback, for the fans and the seniors. Head coach David Shaw was hoping to claim victory for this year’s seniors, so they could have something to celebrate at the close of a difficult season. Stanford fans were looking to the team to repossess the Axe, especially after the difficult loss in last year’s matchup — a 41-11 loss for the Cardinal — and the less-than-promising performance of this past season.
Even though Stanford possessed the ball for eight more minutes than Cal, ran 25 more total plays and had a higher completion percentage, the Cardinal offense couldn’t obtain more points.
“We talked all week about creating explosive plays,” Shaw said. “When we’re able to create those, we score points. When we don’t, we don’t.”
With one final game in the season, the Cardinal are looking to defeat BYU at home to send off their seniors with a victory. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.