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Cal halts Stanford’s Big Game dominance, 24-20

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Cardinal streak snapped at 9

NCAA Football: California at Stanford Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Axe is heading back to Berkeley for the first time this decade. The Golden Bears took their first lead of the game with less than two minutes on the clock, and their defense held on for a 24-20 victory.

For Stanford, this is the rotten cherry on top of a nightmare season. Last month David Shaw lost to UCLA for the first time as a head coach. The Cardinal also suffered defeats in each of the last two contests to defenses among the nation’s worst. Today’s loss not only ended a series-long streak, but officially closed the book on Stanford’s bowl eligibility. For the first time since 2008, they will sit at home in December.

Stanford entered the game without the services of 25 players, and they lost Connor Wedington on the opening kickoff return. Still, the ragtag bunch was strong out of the gate, taking just four plays to turn their first drive into a touchdown. Davis Mills found Donald Stewart streaking down the right sideline and hit him in stride for a 40 yard score. It was Stewart’s first reception since 2017.

Chase Garbers was announced as the Bears’ starting quarterback this morning, which very clearly turned the tide for the visitors. They started the season 4-0 before he went down with an injury, and their offense relies on him for any semblance of competence. “This was Chase Garbers’ game,” said David Shaw. “We couldn’t stop him.”

Cal knotted the game up on a 90 yard drive in the first quarter, and Garbers was the star. The Cardinal nearly sacked up back inside his own ten, but he somehow wriggled out of trouble and scrambled for 19 yards. On a third down later in the drive, he threw a dart to a diving receiver to keep the chains moving.

The teams exchanged long field goals before the half, as the Cardinal used a bomb to Simi Fehoko to set up Sanborn’s 48 yard offering. Cal had a field goal attempt before the horn to go up 13-10, but Jovan Swann muscled his way through the line and got a paw on the kick. It fell harmlessly to the turf.

The third quarter was a back and forth affair that saw miscues aplenty. Davis Mills was nearly picked once, and then actually picked twice. He targeted Fehoko deep, but the safety got over and made a spectacular interception on the Cal 1 yard line. As it turned out, the pick may as well have been a coffin corner punt, as the Bears punted it back three plays later with a 20 yard shank.

Stanford used the short field to march down and take a lead late in the third quarter. Michael Wilson took a reception and fought hard to bring the Cardinal just outside the goal line. On the ensuing play, they brought in a heavy run formation and sent Cameron Scarlett airborne and over the goal line. Scarlett ended up in the arms of teammates and foes alike, celebrating the touchdown before ever making contact with the ground.

A few drives later, Garbers had more heroics in him to bring the game back to all square. He hit Nikko Remigio on a pinpoint 40 yard pass over the arms of Kyu Kelly, before connecting again with Remigio to make it a 17-17 stalemate.

But the Cardinal would answer. Davis Mills faced a critical 3rd and 8 from his own 39, finding Colby Parkinson down the seam for 18 yards. It was a big-time throw, over multiple outstretched Cal defenders and into the expectant hands of the big tight end. Another first down later, and the drive stalled as they ran up the middle on 3rd and 4. Freshman Ryan Sanborn came in for a pressure 44 yard field goal, and his leg was true, giving them a 3 point lead with just 2:23 remaining.

That was when Garbers showed his total importance to Cal. He hit Remigio for completions of 14 and 10, before connecting with Trevon Clark for 37 yards. Two plays later and with the clock ticking towards 1 minute, he once again found running room ahead of him, as he rolled to the left and scrambled 16 yards to paydirt and a 24-20 advantage. The Cardinal offense would fail to record a first down, and the streak was over.

Garbers’ legs were more of a story than his arm. He ran the ball 10 times for 84 yards and that touchdown, escaping numerous near sacks for timely yardage. “That’s one of the things we talked about is he makes a difference in games he plays in with his legs,” said Shaw. “That’s the reason why they’ve only lost one game when he plays.” He also went 20-30 for 285 yards and a score, and most importantly 0 interceptions to the 2 of Mills.

With a decade of pent up aggression free to come out, the Cal fans rushed the field. It might have been the first time in history a 4 win team has had an opponent storm their turf.

Davis Mills was 26-35 for 283 yards, a touchdown, and two picks. Michael Wilson led all Cardinal receivers with 6 catches for 63 yards, and Scarlett was the top rusher despite gaining just 31 yards on 12 carries.

“I’m hurting for our seniors,” said Shaw. “I feel like the rest of us let our seniors down, didn’t allow them to finish their careers here with the Axe.”