The Axe Effect
Reveling in Rivalry


December 3, 2009

This past Saturday the California Golden Bears faced their first major test of the year Ė a road game at the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The game was full of factors that had been stumbling blocks for the Bears in recent seasons. Cal had not played well on the road, winning only one of its last 9 road games. Cal had failed to show up in the first 3 quarters of its past two road games against major conference teams, Tennessee in 2006 and Maryland in 2008. Cal had also struggled to win while ranked last season and while ranked highly in the last few seasons. They took all of this into a 9 AM PST (11 AM Minnesota time) kickoff in a sold out TCF Bank Stadium, a brand new facility hosting its second ever Golden Gopher game.


Hope. Belief. Disaster. Disillusion. Jubilation. This, to date, has been the unlikely path of the 2009 Cal football season.


Cal began the season with high hopes built upon a solid yet unspectacular 2008 campaign and the return of the vast majority of the key contributors from that 2008 team. Early in the season the two teams viewed as Calís primary foils in the PAC10ís race for Roses, Oregon and USC, each suffered an embarrassing loss leaving Cal alone as the conferenceís prohibitive favorite. The Bears were undefeated and ranked 6th in the nation.


Then conference play began, only someone forgot to alert Cal. The Bears were thoroughly inept in all phases in a shockingly bad loss in Eugene, easily the worst loss of the Tedford era, and then only marginally better in a home loss to USC. By the time the final whistle mercifully blew (though nowhere near as hard as the Bears did) Cal had lost by a combined total of 72-6. Panic, depression, and anger set in amongst the fan base. The natives were restless, the pitchforks sharpened, the torches lit, the tar and feathers were at the ready.


The most optimistic fans still held out hope for a 10-2 season and a BCS at large berth. The Rose Bowl was, for the 51st straight season, a fleeting dream. Cal responded by winning at UCLA, the Bearsí first win in Los Angeles against either UCLA or USC this millennium. That was followed by a blowout of the toothless Cougars of Washington State and a last minute win at offensively challenged Arizona State.


Cal returned to the national rankings and faced rising nemesis Oregon State at home. Once again Cal was outclassed on its own field. Oregon State dominated in all phases and literally knocked out Calís star player, running back Jahvid Best, who laid motionless on the turf for 15 minutes before being immobilized and taken off the field on a stretcher.


Cal followed that up with a home upset of Arizona, surprisingly keyed by the first inspired defensive performance of the season. Still, Cal was, for the first time in the Tedford era, a significant underdog entering the Big Game. Stanfurd had just steamrolled USC and Oregon and was the hottest team in the country not ranked in the top 5. While early losses had assured that the Cardinal (for those unfamiliar, this refers to the color and not to the bird and has no discernable link to their mascot which is an inebriated cartoon tree) were not in contention for a national championship they were still in contention for an unlikely Rose Bowl berth and had quickly ascended as high as 14th in the various national rankings.


As a Cal fan I have a healthy dislike of Stanfurd. I enjoy the rivalry and hope that all 4 remaining Stanfurd fans do as well. But Calís dominance in the rivalry this millennium, coupled with the perennially sub par teams put forth by the Junior U across the Bay, has dulled the impact of winning. Itís still more fun and enjoyable than most wins but the emotional focus is on not losing the Axe rather than on winning. Itís the game on the schedule every year that would feel the worst to lose but has been supplanted by USC (due to their usual status as conference king of the hill) as the opponent who fans most want to beat. The distinction is subtle but real.


The rise of the red menace rekindled the fire in the belly of the Bear. The ultimate judgment of the success of the season rode on the Big Game. This is as it should be in any good rivalry Ė you know itís special when beating your rival makes any season at least a somewhat successful one.


The Big Game is a special, unique rivalry game. It dates back to the 1800s and is the only rivalry game played by BCS conference teams who are also globally recognized as elite academic institutions. The Golden Bears and the geeky bores from Shallow Alto compete not only on the field but also in the classroom, the boardroom, and the Nobel selection room (it should be noted that supremacy in the first two is highly disputable but the Bears easily win the third category). There is an interesting mix of mutual respect and disdain.


When Big Game week comes along the battle lines are clearly drawn. That was especially true this year. Stanfurd, coming off their wins against USC and Oregon, was the national flavor of the week. Cal was looking to regain some luster and remind everyone that it still is the preeminent program in Northern California. Stanford fans, assured of having their team in a bowl game for the first time since George W Bush was the most popular president of all time, magically regained their trademark arrogance. Cal fans wanted nothing more than to see their Bears smack the snooty smile off the treesí faces.


The game began poorly for Cal. Stanfurd running back Toby Gerhart ran 60+ yards untouched for a touchdown on the gameís first possession. Not long thereafter Cal had a punt blocked and Gerhart scored from closer range. Cal was in a 14-0 hole early on the road. You could almost hear the home alumni collectively calling their secretaries to start booking travel for Pasadena.


From there Cal took over as they hadnít done all year. The offensive line was suddenly blowing open holes with some regularity. The defense was stout against a potent and Cardinal-red-hot offense, even managing to yield no points when forced to start at their own 27. Kevin Riley found receivers and running back Shane Vereen, filling in for Best, ran, contorted, and willed himself to nearly 200 yards rushing on an unbelievable 42 carries. Behind all these collective efforts the Cal offense sustained long time consuming and opponent deflating drives in a manner not seen all year. The Bears scored 24 straight points and later led 31-21 in the 4th quarter. Stanfurd then scored a touchdown, forced a Cal punt, and gained possession down only three points. Calís defense held on 1st down, held on 2nd down, and held on 3rd. Stanfurd, facing 4th and 8 inside itís own 30 and holding all of its timeouts made the bizarre decision to go for it. Again the Bear defenders proved too sturdy and Cal took possession.


Craziness in the crowd. A chance for the Bears to seal the deal. Shane Vereen runs right, has space, gets the first down and then smartly falls down in bounds to keep the clock running. In the stands we can taste victory. Then Cal forces Stanfurd to take all 3 timeouts and kicks a field goal and, worst of all, forces itself to kick off. Stanfurd starts on the Cal 42 down by 6 with over two and a half minutes left.


Bear fans made up about 40% of the attendance at Stanfurd Stadium that night, a shockingly high number in any other rivalry game that isnít played on a neutral field. But we managed to top that by accounting for 90% of the noise. Stanfurd made a few big plays and got inside the Cal 15. We grew hysterical to get our voices down onto that field, to help our defense hold one more time. And then it happened. Stanfurd quarterback Andrew Luck finally made a mental mistake and Cal linebacker Mike Mohamed cradled the intercepted pass as he, his teammates, and his gloriously overjoyed fans celebrated.


Three kneel downs later thousands of Bear fans joined our team down on the field Ė at Stanfurd Stadium no less - to continue the celebration. There is no feeling in sports quite like winning your rivalry game as an underdog on the road and then topping it off by conquesting your rivalís field. Singing Bear Territory had never felt so satisfying.


The win changed the outlook on the season. Cal was heading to a minor bowl game anyway and the win may have upgraded that bowl some, but with the PAC10ís bowl agreements there isnít a huge difference in the bowls the non-champions get. Yet after the win everything seemed so much better. Suddenly Cal was looking at the possibility of a 10 win season which is pretty good. The Axe was staying in Berkeley and we got to revel in the misery of our rivals who had accomplished so much in such a short time span and yet will have no Axe nor a major bowl to show for it. The Axe is ours! Gloriously, joyfully ours!



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