The past three years have been “a little rough” for California defensive tackle Austin Clark.
After the 2010 season, Clark underwent ankle surgery to repair damaged ligaments. After playing in 12 of 13 games off the bench as a redshirt sophomore in 2011, he broke his foot before fall camp in 2012. “I tried to play on it,” Clark says, “and it kind of cracked, and I had to get two plates and four screws in there.”
Then, he had two peroneal nerve decompressions. After that, he tore his ACL in July of 2013.
In total, he’s had five surgeries in his time at Cal, but he also has one thing that no other player on this team has: He’s won The Axe.
“Any player who’s been at Cal, any season, regardless, you know you’ve got that game at the end of November, and if they haven’t held that Axe, that’s something that I know sticks with them,” says Clark. “The good thing is, just about every senior has had a chance to hold that Axe, that I’ve been here with, except this year. We’ve got these fifth-year seniors, and we can give them The Axe.”
On Sunday, strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington asked the players, during a weight lifting session, who there had ever beaten Stanford.
Freshman linebacker Devante Downs and freshman running back Tre Watson looked around. They didn’t see a single had raised.
But, in the back of the weight room, there was Clark, who raised his hand, “high and proud.”
“There’s no one else,” says Clark. “That’s the weird thing about the sixth-year senior deal. It means something different, and those guys that, this is their senior year, they’re hungry – the Michael Lowe’s – they’re hungry to get it. That’s something they’ve never experienced, and we’re doing everything we can to get them to experience that locker room, in this home stadium, with The Axe. It’ll be something electric.”
Clark didn’t play in that 2009 game – his only Big Game appearance was in 2011 -- but he remembers it like it was yesterday. It comes down to two words for Clark.
“Mike Mohamed,” says the sixth-year senior, remembering the now-NFL linebacker’s game-saving interception. “I remember Toby Gerhart. He was probably the best running back I’ve seen in college, and it was a fight. That team didn’t give up, a lot like this team. It was a tough game. They had all those draft picks, and it turns out, we had some pretty good guys, too. It was just a fight, a fight ‘til the end. The belief that someone was going to make a play, and Mikey Mo did to win us the game. It was just excitement. It was the most fun game I’ve ever been a part of, and I didn’t even play a down.”
Then, he got to party with The Axe. “Nothing better than that,” smiles Clark.
“It’s pretty damn heavy, I’ll tell you that much,” says Clark.
What’s even heavier for Clark, and the rest of the Bears, is the longest Big Game drought since the Cardinal won every game from 1995 to 2001, a drought that didn’t see a game decided by more than 19 points. The last two Big Games have been decided by a total of 68 points. The average margin of factory during Stanford’s latest run is 26.25 points.
“The past two years, they beat the crap out of us. There’s no doubt about that,” says Clark. “They were the better team that day, and last year, we lost by 50. The past two years, I didn’t play in the game, but I was part of the team. It’s just a letdown, a big letdown. Any time you give up that many points, and on your home field to play like that in front of everybody in the Big Game, that’s not good. We realize that.”
The two teams are now on markedly opposite trajectories. Stanford has gone to four straight BCS bowl games, including a Rose Bowl appearance last year. The Bears are going from 1-11 to being on the doorstep of a bowl appearance – their first since 2011.
“There’s a different sense of urgency with this team,” says Clark. “We’re a brand new team, a completely new team. Our record shows that, a little bit. We won’t let that happen again.”
The turning point, Clark says, was the locker room after last year’s 63-13 throttling. After that game, then-true freshman offensive guard Chris Borrayo gave an impassioned speech which kicked the entire team in its collective rear end.
“The mood was serious. That was the worst Cal season in history,” says Clark. “It was just a big letdown. That jumpstarted us into Northwestern. This team has rode it out every week, and we’re getting better every week. You look at everything, statistics, whatever you want, this is a completely even matchup.”
“At the time, we were 1-11, we’d just finished the season, the locker room environment was bad, everything was bad,” says Borrayo. “I felt out of place when I was talking, but then the rest of the team got riled up. From then, it’s been night and day.”
Now, not only does a win mean getting The Axe back, but it means going to the postseason. In 1982 – the game ended by The Play, a game which, on The Axe, has its score changed to a Cardinal win – Cal dashed John Elway and Stanford’s Rose Bowl hopes. Now, the Bears aren’t looking to play spoiler. This is about them.
“It’s just a step in the right direction for this program,” says Clark. “All the stuff that went on last year, it’s the past, and we all know that. It’s a new deal right now, so just to come out and hopefully get that sixth win, to have the opportunity to do that in the Big Game, that’s a big deal, for all of us. The mood’s upbeat. This is a game we expect to win, without a doubt.
"Coach talks about that there’s always one Big Game hero. There are people you remember. I remember Mike Mohamed. I don’t know what else he did, but I know that he had that interception that won us the Big Game, and every person at Cal knows that as the Mikey Mo game, and that’s amazing. To have a chance to be able to play in that game, and for someone on this team, to be that guy, they’ll remember the 2014 Big Game.”