BERKELEY -- “It’s a big game,” California linebacker Jalen Jefferson said following Saturday's 54-24 win over Oregon State, backpack slung over his shoulder, reflexive grin spreading across his face, helmet marks still on his forehead. “We haven’t beaten them in – how long? – it’s a long time.”
Yes, the senior defender may have been a big on-the-nose when it comes to talking about this week's Big Game against Stanford, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, but at no point since 2009 has Big Game truly been Big.
In 2010, the Cardinal crushed the Bears, 48-14. In 2011, a bowl-bound Cal squad (which finished a middling 7-6) couldn't quite muster up enough to derail first-year head coach David Shaw's inaugural Big Game win as the Cardinal commander, losing 31-28 to a No. 4-ranked Stanford team that finished 11-2, with a Fiesta Bowl loss to No. 3 Oklahoma State (41-38).
2012 saw a rare October Big Game, but the timing didn't change the result: Stanford rolled to a 21-3 win over a Cal team that finished 3-9, en route to a 12-2 record, a Pac-12 Championship Game win and a Rose Bowl triumph over Wisconsin.
2013 was the Ty Montgomery show, as the Stanford wide receiver matched a school record with five touchdowns, scoring the fist four times he touched the ball, in a 63-13 blowout.
This time around, though, while Cal is 6-4, and the Cardinal 8-2, the teams are as close as they've been since the last time the Bears touched The Axe. After an early-season Stanford defeat at the hands of Northwestern, and a 5-0 Cal start, the picture looked even rosier. Still, though, the Bears seemed to have gotten their offensive mojo back with a school-record 760 yards of total offense against the Beavers last week, while Oregon dealt the Cardinal a crushing blow in the College Football Playoff race.
"This is definitely going to be a little different, says senior offensive lineman Jordan Rigsbee. "I think, as a team, I think we're a lot more confident than we have been in the past couple years. Our team's finally starting to learn how to win these games, and what it means to be a winning program, and that's really big coming into Big Game."
A win by the Bears could be the nail in the coffin, the boot on the neck, the final twist of the knife.
That's what Mike Mohamed – who was waived last week by the New Orelans Saints, and is now an NFL free agent – did when he picked off Andrew Luck to end a potential game-winning drive by Stanford in the closing moments at Stanford Stadium, setting off a field storming by the Bears fans in attendance in 2009.
“I just remember we had fought so hard the whole game,” Mohamed says. “We knew that we could win it, and it came down to the last drive. We had just missed a big play by Gerhart. It came down towards the goal line, and there was a lot of uncertainty.”
That big play was a 29-yard pass by Luck to current Jacksonville Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart, bringing the Cardinal down to the Cal 13-yard line. Two plays later, Muhammad intercepted a pass by Luck at the Bears’ three-yard line, allowing Cal to kneel out the final 1:36 on the clock, sealing a 34-28 win, in part thanks to a Herculean 193 rushing yards on 42 carries by Shane Vereen.
“Our fans rushed their field, which, I don’t think that happens very often in college football,” Mohamed remembers. “That was definitely one of the most memorable things about it – our fans rushed their field when the game was over. I thought that was awesome.
“I’m not sure a lot of people believed that we could do it. It was one of those smash-mouth football games. We ended up winning, our fans rushed the field, and there were reporters and everything, and going back into the locker room, everybody had a turn to take a picture with The Axe, and lift it over their head. It’s one of those great feelings that you get from beating your rival.”
Current Cal linebacker Hardy Nickerson's father – Hardy, Sr., -- was able to take part in two Big Game wins, in 1983 and 1986, before being drafted in 1987. He’s shared not only his number – 47 – with his son, but his experiences in the annual rivalry.
“I talked to him today,” Nickerson, Jr., said on Sunday. “He coaches for Tampa now, and they won against the Cowboys, so we talked about that, but he was telling me, ‘Hey, man, this is Big Game Week; you’ve got to get ready. Watch a little extra film.’ He tells me stories about when they beat Stanford, and when they got The Axe back. Nothing but great memories of him and his buddies that played on those teams, they talk about that game for years. I think I want to make some of those memories. It’s definitely one you want to get done while you’re at Cal. To beat our archrival, Stanford, in the Big Game, especially over there, too, playing away, that’ll be great.”
Of course, wide receiver Bryce Treggs's father Brian – a newly-minted Cal Hall-of-Famer – made a famed promise to move to Palo Alto if he didn’t win the Big Game his senior year. He didn’t, but it certainly taught his son a lesson.
“I’m not going to make any big promises like that,” he laughs.
Each year, he says it: “This is a big game for the Treggs family.”
As he said last year at this time, there is a “sense of urgency.” Time is running out for Treggs. He’s already accomplished one of his goals – to qualify for a bowl game. Now, it’s about making one more memory for Treggs and the other seniors: Touching The Axe.
“We’re bowl eligible,” says Jefferson, “but we don’t want to stop here.”
In fact, while Nickerson clocked the switch from celebration to preparation at three minutes, one of the first things out of head coach Sonny Dykes's mouth at his postgame press conference was Big Game. It took him less than a minute at the microphone.
"They love playing together, love being on the team with each other, so the good thing is, they're going to get an extra game of doing that, and I think they're excited to win, but I know this: There was a lot of talk about the Big Game in that locker room," Dykes said. "We know it'll be a big challenge, but our guys are going to be excited, our guys will prepare hard, and we're looking forward to it."
Mohamed certainly made more than a few memories the night he came down with the interception back in 2009. It was arguably the biggest play in the rivalry – in its 118th iteration – ranking behind The Play from 1982.
“It feels good,” Mohamed says. “It feels good to go down in Cal history. It definitely does feel good to look back on it, and it’s something I’m always going to remember. My teammates, everybody, is always going to remember. It’s one of those special moments that makes college football so unique and so fun.”
After the game was over, Mohamed -- who calls the memory his greatest college moment, "the one that's going to stick out in my eyes and in Cal history" -- partook in a tailgate thrown by the Cal parents in the Stanford parking lot.
"That night, we were all able to just go home with our parents, so all the parents had a huge tailgate going on, and we just enjoyed good food, enjoyed each other's company, and just tried to enjoy the night."
The festivities lasted well into the night.
The festivities after Saturday's bowl-eligibility-clinching win over Oregon State lasted, by Nickerson's count, only moments.
“I’d say, about three minutes after the game, I was already like, ‘We’re playing Stanford this week; I’m fired up,’” said Nickerson. “It’s Big Game Week. You’ve got to prepare a little extra, watch a little more film, lift a little bit more. Every little bit counts, and I can’t wait to step out there Saturday.
"We’ve obviously gotten back on the right path, becoming bowl-eligible, but a win versus Stanford, our rival, and getting The Axe back, that would be huge. I know our fans would be ecstatic, our student body would be extremely happy, and it would just do wonders for our program and our school, as a whole.”
Rigsbee was on the last Cal team to play in a bowl game, but even as the elder statesman of the offense, he hasn't touched The Axe. His brother, Tyler Rigsbee, though, was on that 2009 team. He knows how much a win against Stanford would mean, especially because, for the first time in years, the Bears look to have a fighting chance.
"It would be huge for me to win that game as a senior," Rigsbee said. "it's something that every player that's played at Cal dreams about. That would be huge. As far as closing the gap, we just try to get better each week, and I think that we're in a better place than we've been the last couple years. I think we're ready to roll."