BERKELEY – Forty years after Stanford lost to Cal on “The Play,” it lost on “The Fumble.”
Though it won’t go down in history like Cal’s kickoff return in 1982, it was still another devastating defeat for the Cardinal in a season full of them.
With Stanford up by 3, a fumble by freshman option QB Ashton Daniels was picked up by Cal, fumbled again, and then ultimately returned 37 yards for a touchdown by Jackson Sirmon with 10 minutes remaining. The Bears scored another TD in the final minute to win the 125th Big Game 27-20 and retain The Axe for a second straight season.
“Hurt for our seniors,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Wanted this one really bad for them. So many guys really gave their best effort.”
Stanford had won six straight at Memorial Stadium, including the 2020 game when the Cardinal blocked an extra point in the final minute to win by 1.
The Cardinal (3-8, 1-8 Pac-12) looked like it would keep that streak alive in front of a sellout crowd of 51,892. It was ahead 17-6 entering the fourth quarter on Saturday before giving up 21 straight points.
Stanford’s only Pac-12 win this season was by one point at home against Arizona State, and its 1-8 conference record is its worst since 2006.
The Cardinal finishes its fourth straight season without a bowl game next Saturday night against BYU.
“We missed an opportunity to get our seniors The Axe and now we have an opportunity to send them out with a win at Stanford Stadium,” Shaw said. “It’s the least we can do for our seniors is get them one more victory at the Stadium.”
Stanford had only scored five touchdowns in its previous five games, but it reached the end zone on the opening possession Saturday. Daniels ran 43 yards on a keeper, running back Mitch Leigber had a one-handed catch to the 1 and then Leigber ran for a 1-yard score.
That would be the only TD of the first half. Junior safety Alaka’i Gilman had a diving interception late in the second quarter, the first pick of his career, and the Cardinal led 10-6 at halftime.
Elijah Higgins, whose brother Kaleb is a cornerback for the Bears, broke three tackles on a 9-yard TD catch to put Stanford up 17-6 midway through the third quarter.
But Stanford’s turnover issues came back to bite it at the worst time.
Although he’s a QB, Shaw said that Daniels works on ball security with the running backs. But with Stanford nursing a 20-17 lead with 10 minutes left, he was stripped at the Cardinal 40. Daniels forced the original returner to fumble, but Sirmon scooped the ball up and ran it in.
After Daniels’s fumble, Tanner McKee was intercepted forcing a pass to tight end Benjamin Yurosek with three minutes left. The interception was returned to the Stanford 9, leading to Cal’s final score.
Stanford scored touchdowns on its opening possessions of the first and second half, but otherwise didn’t reach the end zone as Cal limited big plays.
“It boils down to playcalling, execution, whatever you want to call it,” Shaw said. “We’re not dynamic enough to go down the field six yards at a time.”
McKee finished 29 of 45 passing for 271 yards. Leigber, who switched over from safety last month due to injuries to Stanford’s running backs, had 22 carries for 83 yards and seven catches for 53 yards.
Kicker Joshua Karty made a 61-yard field goal on the final play, the longest kick in Stanford history and second-longest in Pac-12 history. He has made all 16 of his field goal attempts, providing one of the only bright spots in a rough season that now includes a Big Game loss.