The tree fell Saturday. But not The Tree.
Sometime during the first half of the Cal-Stanford football game, there was a slight commotion to my left in the Memorial Stadium press box. A few writers for the Daily Californian, Cal’s student newspaper, were pointing and looking beyond the seats across the field, to the slope of Tightwad Hill, where a smattering of Golden Bears fans gather to watch football games for free. It seems a tall tree had spontaneously cracked in half, the top portion crashing to the ground, close enough to spook some of the spectators.
Alas, metaphors have their limits.
On the field of play, Cal was unable to take down the Stanford Tree, falling 23-13 in the final Pac-12 game of the season — a contest that was postponed two weeks because of unhealthy air quality due to the Camp fire in Butte County.
“We wanted it really badly. These seniors obviously haven’t beat Stanford,” Cal quarterback Chase Garbers said after the game. “So our goal was to send them out with that W, and us underclassmen, we failed in that aspect. It hurts a lot.”
But it’s nothing new around here.
This ancient and hallowed series tends to go through cycles. Cal dominated the Cardinal between 2002 and 2009, during Jeff Teford’s heyday in Berkeley, beating Stanford seven times in eight years, by an average of 18.6 points. Then Jim Harbaugh arrived in Palo Alto, and when he left for the 49ers, the program remained in the capable hands of David Shaw. Stanford had beaten the Golden Bears eight consecutive times heading into Saturday’s game, with an average margin of victory of 19.5 points.
There have been signs that the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction. Stanford has looked vulnerable this season, while Cal qualified for its first bowl game in four years. Cal beat Washington 12-10 on Oct. 27, for example, a week before Stanford lost to the Huskies in Seattle. Each team went into Saturday’s game with a 7-4 record. If the Bears won, they would finish tied with their Bay Area rival in the Pac-12 standings at 5-4, ending Stanford’s one-upmanship.
“I felt like we had a great opportunity today to change that, and to be the team to get the axe back,” Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk said, referring to the trophy that resides with the annual winner of this series. “We’ve seen that gap close. I think they knew that this is a different Cal team, and obviously we know the culture’s changed here, too.”
As Cal fullback Malik McMorris said: “The fifth-year guys, they’re gonna leave it better than they found it. The older guys, we know this place is going in the right direction.”
But it hasn’t reached its preferred destination.
In the end, Cal-Stanford parity was a mirage. Yes, the former is on the rise under coach Justin Wilcox, and the latter has lost a bit of its ability to manhandle opponents. But Saturday proved that the Golden Bears are not yet at Stanford’s level. They just aren’t. The Cardinal are bigger, stronger and more explosive.
Wilcox knows it, and Shaw knows it, too.