By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Stanford football players pass by the empty case where the Axe Trophy would be prominently displayed every day. It's been missing in action since 2008, when Cal claimed the trophy in Berkeley.
"That's motivation enough," Cardinal senior nose tackle Sione Fua said of Saturday's chance to regain the prized possession.
The Axe has not been seen on campus much since 2002, after a seven-year reign with the trophy ended. It made a visit for a year when the Cardinal won the 2007 Big Game at home, 20-13. Otherwise the trophy's existence has been nothing more than a rumor on The Farm.
Kickoff for Saturday's 113th Big Game in Berkeley is 12:30 p.m.
California (3-4, 5-5) needs a win to become bowl eligible, and spoiling Stanford's season (6-1, 9-1) would be an added bonus. The Bears are particularly tough inside Memorial Coliseum, where they have won four games this season by a margin of 189-34.
They lost at home Saturday to top-ranked Oregon, 15-13, and had a chance to win it toward the end.
"It truly is a big game for both teams," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It's our most important game of the season. We know we have a challenge."
Cal has a lopsided home win over UCLA, and a one-point loss at Arizona. Stanford routed both teams.
"You never know what is going to happen," Fua said. "The records don't matter. Whoever plays the best will come home with the Axe."
The Bears lost starting quarterback Kevin Riley to a season-ending injury early in the Oct. 30 loss at Oregon State. Junior Brock Mansion played most of that game and started two others since.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck has played in 22 regular-season games entering the Big Game, and is soften reminded of his fourth-quarter interception in last year's game that sealed the win for Cal.
"It would be nice, personally, to avenge some of the mistakes I made in last year's game," he said.
Big Game lore resonates throughout the Bay Area, with names like Jackie Jensen, Ken Margerum, Aaron Rodgers, Jim Plunkett, Chuck Muncie, Toby Gerhart, Jahvid Best and Gene Washington sprinkled among the lesser known, yet still heroic, players like Casey Moore, Dick Norman, Glyn Milburn, Lindsey Chapman, Kevin Scott and Tom Schneider named amid Big Game records.
And, of course, the ever popular Nov. 20, 1982 'The Play' in which Cal miraculously used a five-lateral, 57-yard crisscrossing kickoff return to stun Stanford, which had just scored the go-ahead field goal after a brilliant drive led by John Elway. There was one trombone bruised among the many egos.
Stanford has never scored more than 42 points in a Big Game, while Cal has never surpassed 48.
The last shutout in the series was Stanford's 14-0 victory on Nov. 20, 1971. Cal last whitewashed the Cardinal on Nov. 22, 1952.
"Stanford-Cal; there have been great games through the years and it's awesome to be part of it," Harbaugh said. "It raises the level of play."
Both teams are coming off tough games, as Stanford needed a late touchdown to beat host Arizona State, 17-13, last weekend. Owen Marecic scored both touchdowns and Nate Whitaker added a field goal.
Cal also had a chance to beat the Ducks late. Giorgio Tavecchio lined up for, and made, a 24-yard field goal. He was called for illegal motion and the extra five yards on the penalty proved fatal.
Whitaker also missed a field goal in Stanford's win over the Sun Devils that would have the Cardinal into halftime with a lead.
"I thought they dominated Oregon," Harbaugh said of Cal. "They were lights out physically and are a tremendous defense. They rank sixth in the country in sacks and 10th defensively overall, and they are fast."
Luck, who studies game films like Narcissus studied his own reflection, was equally impressed.
"They are tough, physical and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback," he said. "Cal has a good team."
The Stanford offensive line, which allowed just its fourth sack of the year against ASU, will be tested. Left guard Andrew Phillips will be starting in his team-high 34th game, While Jonathan Martin, center Chase Beeler, and David DeCastro are also returning starters. Fifth-year senior Derek Hall starts at right tackle.
Phillips overcame personal tragedy to continue playing this year. His father died in a plane crash at the beginning of training camp.
"He's done a great job. Physically he has not shown how he's been affected," Luck said. "I think he's more concerned that his teammates aren't affected. That shows what kind of character he has. I love the fact he's blocking for me."
Luck did commit a fashion faux pas at the annual Big Game luncheon in San Francisco earlier in the week. He wore a dark blue suit with a light blue shirt and a blue-and-gold tie.
"I thought of that when I got here," he laughed. "I only have two dress shirts and the other one is in the wash. This is my only tie."
Better a fashion mistake than a costly one in the Big Game.