BERKELEY -- California's losing streak to Stanford has lasted quite some time. The last defeat the Bears dealt the Cardinal was in 2009. What's seemed to have lasted quite a bit longer, though -- and will hurt, for much longer -- is the sting that the current Bears felt two years ago, when the Cardinal hung 63 points on a Cal team that was stumbling its way to a 1-11 season, setting a Big Game record for points scored and margin of victory, with Ty Montgomery scoring a touchdown each of the first five times he touched the football. That was the last time the Bears visited Stanford Stadium, where they will contest the 118th Big Game on Saturday.
After that game in 2013, true freshman Chris Borrayo -- who started his fifth game of the year that day -- gave an impassioned locker room speech. Nobody seems to remember the exact words, but the impression it left -- the sense of fight -- has stuck, on both sides of the ball.
"Honestly, I don't remember exactly, word-for-word, the speech," says senior safety Stefan McClure, "but, it was along the lines of, 'We can't let that happen again. We're better than this. We've got to keep on fighting.' That was the last game of the year, and it was a terrible season for us, 1-11, so it was something, we've got to go back to work."
"I think the reason that everyone's getting amnesia was that it was such a bad moment," says senior offensive guard Jordan Rigsbee. "Everyone's trying to block it out. That was right after the 1-11 season, and it was just a bad time. I just really think that everyone was so pissed, they can't even ... I feel like it was memorable, because I remember something happening. I just don't remember the exact words. It was a big deal, because, at the time, Oso was still a freshman. That was the start of the young guys starting to come up, and start doing stuff."
Borrayo has come to be known by that appropriate nickname: Oso. Spanish for Bear. There is some debate, though, as to how that nickname evolved.
"I actually gave him that nickname, if I recall," Rigsbee says, proudly. "He was a freshman, and we were coming in here, and that was the year where I had to go play center, so we were laughing -- Who can snap the ball? -- because it was very well-known that I just didn't like center. We were laughing, and I said, 'Make him do it, he's a freshman,' and his hands were just so big. He can't snap a ball because his hands are too big. I was just looking at them, and going, 'No. Way. That's why you're such a good wrestler; you're probably out there just mauling people with those big ol' bear paws. So, the next day, I asked him, I said, 'How do you say bear in Spanish?' He doesn't even speak Spanish, really. He doesn't speak it, even though he has an accent, so we give him all kinds of crap about it. So, I looked it up. I said, 'Hey, at least I know how to say it in Spanish!'"
"Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, that's some false information!" Borrayo crows, as Rigsbee slinks away, before muttering. "Of course I know what 'bear' is in Spanish. I'm Mexican."
Before last season, head coach Sonny Dykes wanted to make a mark on the dusty pages of Cal tradition by having the California state flag leading the team out of the tunnel before games -- a flag emblazoned with a bear. Un oso.
"We did it last year, and it just got legs," Dykes said. "People have started to notice it and talk about it. The big thing we wanted to do was to create some state pride. We feel like, we're the flagship university of the state of California, so we felt like it made sense for us to carry the state flag in, just to give our guys a sense of pride. One of the slogans that we've got around here is Fight for California, and that was a unifying logo that our guys could identify with, and get behind. It seems like it's taken on a life of its own, and some people have started to talk about it and notice it, but we've been doing it for a while."
The first time the flag was carried out, Dykes awarded the honor to Borrayo.
"I did it a good amount of time my sophomore season, but Todd Barr carried it at one point, Drake Whitehurst carried it at one point, and I'm not too sure who else, but this year, it's been me," Borrayo says. "I'd like to think I've earned that right, and everyone's cool with me carrying it out."
"Chris has just kind of taken over that duty," Dykes said. "We let the players pick every week who they want to do it, and it seems like everybody's comfortable with Chris doing it, right now."
Borrayo has been trying to pass it off to others, but it keeps coming back to him.
"When we had the California flag brought out," Rigsbee remembers, "originally, it was going to be like, someone new's going to carry it out every game, and Oso carried it out the first game. He's a good lead-by-example kind of guy. He's not always a yelling, rah-rah, how I am sometimes. He's more get-it-done. I think the whole team felt that was a good fit. He's scrappy, he's physical. He's the kind of guy we want to carry the flag out."
He started that ascendance to the role before the state flag idea was even a spark in Dykes's mind. He started it after that 63-13 loss to Stanford in 2013.
"I'm not going to get into names," Rigsbee says, "but we were having trouble with a couple guys who had been talking about leaving for the NFL, early, before the season was over, because we weren't going to go to a bowl game, and obviously, that pissed a lot of people off -- coaches, and other players -- and he got mad at that. It all came to a head at the end of that game. People were yelling, people were mad. It was a low point."
Amidst the commotion, Dykes quelled the noise with a shout. Then, Borrayo began to speak.
"I remember after that game, my teammates' heads were down, we got our ass kicked pretty hard by Stanford that day, so I just saw everyone's faces, just scared from what happened," Borrayo remembers. "I took it upon myself to say something."
"This was everybody yelling -- DBs, linebackers, everyone -- and someone yelled, finally, 'Hey!' and it stopped," Rigsbee recalls. "Coach Dykes spearheaded it, and he was the first one to start, 'Hey!' and then it got quiet. Then, Oso stepped up. It was a low point for us, and then, something that we rallied behind, as a team, in the offseason."
“I think he was one of the guys that understood, ‘Hey, this is unacceptable,’ to get beat by 50, by a rival," linebacker Hardy Nickerson says. "It’s terrible. It made everybody work harder in the offseason, try to get better. I think we’ve done that. I think we’re more experienced, and I think guys have stepped up in conditions that we need them to step up."
"He stepped up as a leader, and someone who's going to hold himself accountable, someone who's going to work hard and do everything he can to not let it happen again," McClure says.
When asked about the substance of the speech, Borrayo asks, "Have you ever played football before? You get your ass kicked by your rivals, that's a heavy thing. As a freshman, I came in not understanding too much about the Stanford and Cal rivalry, until I got to Big Game Week. All the events that were happening around the school, I got the gist of how much we hated Stanford, as far as the red, not liking the color red, 'Take off that red shirt!' I remember a couple chants my freshman year. We don't like the color red. That's a staple. I had a lot of good red shirts, too."
It was what Borrayo experienced over the course of that week -- the lead-up to the 116th Big Game -- that fueled his words.
"To know what my teammates had to go through, after an already pretty bad season, and playing the game that we played, we got our ass kicked, and I just knew everyone's spirits were down," Borrayo says. "It wasn't anything bold. It was just words of encouragement."
To have a true freshman do that left an impression.
"I was all about it," Rigsbee says. "I was pissed. I probably should have said something. When I was younger, I wasn't necessarily the leader I needed to be a lot of times, because I care so much about it, that, when we lose, I'm a horrible loser. I'm not a very good loser. I don't do it well, and that's something I constantly need to work on. A lot of those times after those games, I have to hunker down, especially when I was younger. Now that I'm older, I've grown out of that a good amount, but I think it was great. It's great for our team to have those guys, especially on a team like that one, when all of us younger guys were the leaders of the team. I was only a sophomore, and I'm trying to lead a whole team at 20 years old. It's hard when all our older guys aren't the guys leading. They were thinking about leaving. We needed younger guys to step up."
Borrayo believes that the gap between the two programs -- at least up front -- has been closing. Last year, the Bears threw four interceptions -- two each by Jared Goff and Luke Rubenzer -- including one that led to a Stanford touchdown and two more deep in Cardinal territory that cut off potential scoring drives.
"We feel really good about where we are," Borrayo says. "My freshman year, we were all still coming together, and trying to mold what we had. We were also facing a lot of injuries. I'm very confident where we're at right now, more confident than we were last year."
In two of the last three games, Dykes has said the line has performed better than it has in his time at Cal, and the Bears have allowed four sacks over the past three games.
"I think the coaches have finally gotten the groove of what they should do with our team," Borrayo says. "The players we've got, I think we've finally gotten some things to click. The practices before Oregon State, I felt like they were spot on. We're going to keep riding that groove, keep working as hard as we can."
In the 2014 game, the Bears ran for 179 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. Last Saturday, against Oregon State, Cal rushed for 307 yards on 46 attemtps (6.67 ypc). The Cardinal will be different -- and, indeed, more talented than the Beavers -- but Borrayo feels like he and his compatriots can indeed establish the run, despite the fact that both Daniel Lasco (ankle) and Khalfani Muhammad (foot) may play very little. That didn't hamper the Bears last week, when Tre Watson (110 yards) and Vic Enwere (89 yards) both set career highs in their absence.
That said, Stanford is the league's fourth-best rushing defense, allowing 134.3 yards per game on the ground this season, but with 21 sacks, the Cardinal have the second-fewest in the conference, and have gained just 10 turnovers for a -2 turnover margin on the season -- second-worst in the Pac-12 -- and have only recovered three fumbles.
"We have confidence in our run game this week," says Borrayo. "Even though we have a couple guys banged up a little bit, the guys we used in that game are going to be very helpful."
For all that confidence, though, and all the improvement -- going from 1-11 to 5-7 to now 6-4, with two games left -- and carrying the state flag out of the tunnel, the Bears have not yet beaten Stanford, USC or UCLA in the past three seasons.
"I guess we've got to do it now, right?" says Borrayo. "We want to be the kinds of California. Beating Stanford, that's not just another California school. They're Stanford. They're our rival. We want to kick their ass."
"He's just a big bear," says Rigsbee. "That's just who he is."