BERKELEY, Calif. — Scoring three touchdowns felt good. Keeping Stanford out of a bowl game felt better.
And for California tailback Jahvid Best, lifting the Axe for the first time was the biggest moment of his burgeoning career.
Best rushed for 201 yards and scored three times in the second half, and Cal ensured Stanford’s seventh straight losing season with a 37-16 victory Saturday in the 111th Big Game.
Kevin Riley threw three touchdown passes for the Golden Bears (7-4, 5-3 Pac-10), who scored 27 consecutive points after halftime to beat the Cardinal for the sixth time in seven meetings under coach Jeff Tedford.
Best, who had scoring runs of 45 and 3 yards, was a spectator at Tedford’s only Big Game loss last season, sidelined by a serious hip injury while the Cardinal beat Cal 20-13 across the Bay. Best finally is fully healthy, and he showed it with the uncanny speed that crushed the Cardinal on plays ranging from a fancy hook-and-lateral to straight-ahead rushing.
“I was so mad last year, seeing a whole bunch of their players taking the Axe when there was nothing I could do about it,” Best said of Stanford’s 20-13 win last season. “That’s never going to happen again. I really looked forward to this time.”
Best became Cal’s seventh consecutive 1,000-yard rusher under Tedford, who has beaten Stanford more times than any Cal coach except Pappy Waldorf. Cal’s student section enveloped the field after the final whistle, and the Bears paraded the Axe around the turf.
Neither school is shy about celebrating the other’s misfortune, which explains the Cal players’ extra pleasure in a win that clinched another early winter for Stanford (5-7, 4-5).
“I’m not one to be big-headed or anything like that, but we don’t belong on the same field as those guys,” Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said. “We have way more athletes than those guys, and we’re more fundamentally sound than those guys. We’re better than those guys. … When we go out and play our game, they can’t compete with us, and it showed today.”
Despite Tavita Pritchard’s 306 yards passing, the Cardinal fell apart defensively after halftime in their third consecutive loss.
Stanford trailed 10-3 at halftime despite controlling much of the first half, but the Bears’ offense quickly took charge with tight end Cameron Morrah’s TD catch on a fine misdirection play, receiver Verran Tucker’s clever lateral to Best for a score, and Best’s short scoring run after a long reverse to receiver Jeremy Ross — all in a 4:06 span before the third quarter was half over.
“It got to a point in the third quarter where we just came unraveled,” Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Cal got on a roll with their trick plays that were all working, one right after the other.”
Tailback Shane Vereen caught an early 59-yard scoring pass from Riley, and the defense finally clicked after halftime. Linebacker Zack Follett’s 21/2 sacks led a strong second-half defensive effort for the Bears, who improved to 6-0 at Memorial Stadium this season.
Cal finishes its regular season at home against winless Washington in two weeks, followed by a bowl trip that could land the Bears anywhere from San Diego or El Paso to San Francisco or Las Vegas.
“I could tell early on this week that emotion was not going to be a problem, motivation was not going to be a problem,” Tedford said.
Pritchard threw three interceptions, yet the Cardinal managed 435 total yards — more than any Cal opponent this season. But Stanford didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter, with two lengthy first-half drives ending on a missed field goal and a fumble at the Cal 10.
Toby Gerhart rushed for 103 yards and a score at the close of his own 1,000-yard season, and Doug Baldwin caught a 34-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter for Stanford. Though the loss stings, the Cardinal realize they took another step forward this fall under Harbaugh, who’s close to signing a contract extension.
“The culture is definitely changing here at Stanford, (but) I know I’m hurting for the seniors,” Gerhart said. “They have to be killing to not go out with a win in the Big Game and not go to a bowl game.”