Shane Vereen ran for a career-high 193 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries and Mike Mohamed intercepted a pass from Andrew Luck at the 3 with less than 2 minutes left as California spoiled No. 14 Stanford's Rose Bowl hopes with a 34-28 victory in the Big Game on Saturday.
What was billed as the biggest Big Game in years lived up to the pregame hype, with Stanford's Heisman Trophy contender Toby Gerhart rushing for 136 yards, four touchdowns and carrying defenders on a 29-yard reception that set up Stanford (7-4, 6-3) at the Cal 13 with less than 2 minutes left.
Luck then threw an incompletion on first down and was intercepted by Mohamed on second with 1:36 to go, setting off a wild celebration on the Cal sideline. After Kevin Riley took three knees, the Cal students rushed the field and Stanford Stadium as the Golden Bears (8-3, 5-3 Pac-10) won the coveted Axe for the seventh time in eight years.
Stanford came into the game off two of its biggest wins in recent memory, scoring 106 points in the back-to-back victories over nationally ranked Oregon and Southern California that put the Cardinal in position to win the conference title.
Stanford looked poised for another big win after jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. But the Golden Bears responded behind Vereen and a defense that flummoxed Luck.
The victory puts a bright spot on a mostly disappointing season for the Bears, who entered the season with hopes of a Rose Bowl bid or possible national title. That was dashed with blowout losses to Oregon and USC and the season looked lost when star tailback Jahvid Best was sidelined by a scary concussion in a loss two weeks ago against Oregon State.
Vereen has responded with the two best games of his career the past two weeks in wins over Arizona and Stanford. Running effectively off direct snaps in Cal's form of the wildcat, Vereen overpowered the Cardinal. The Bears drove more than 70 yards on three consecutive drives starting late in the second quarter, all ending with short runs by Vereen.
Riley added a 12-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones early in the fourth quarter to give the Bears a 31-21 lead, silencing Tiger Woods and the rest of the red-clad portion in the largest crowd in the fourth year at the remodeled Stanford Stadium. Riley went 17 for 31 for 235 yards.
After Gerhart cut Cal's lead to 31-28 on his fourth TD, Stanford got the ball back at its 21 with under 5 minutes to go. After two incompletions and a short run by Gerhart, coach Jim Harbaugh decided to go for it on fourth-and-8 despite having all three timeouts remaining. Luck badly missed his receiver on the fourth-down throw, giving Cal the ball back with 3:28 to go.
The Bears settled for a field goal to go up 34-28 with 2:42 to go, with coach Jeff Tedford calling for Riley to take a knee to center the ball on third down. Stanford drove down the field and was in position to win until Luck's interception. Harbaugh put his arm around his quarterback as they walked off the field following the key turnover.
Luck entered the game as the top-rated passer in the Pac-10 but finally looked like the redshirt freshman he is against a Cal defense that has played its best two games the past two weeks. Luck finished 10 for 30 for 157 yards, rarely finding open receivers and missing a few of them when he did have the chance to make a play.
Gerhart, who moved into the Heisman Trophy race with 401 yards rushing and six touchdowns the past two weeks, scored on a 61-yard run on the third play from scrimmage. Gerhart added three more short TD runs on the day, giving him a school-record 23 for the season and school-record 39 in his career. Gerhart scored again in the first quarter on a 2-yard run following a blocked punt.
This marked the third time this season that the Cardinal lost a game in which they led by at least 14 points. This one was especially painful because it came against Cal and ended the team's Rose Bowl hopes. Now Stanford could be looking at a possible bid to Sun Bowl or Emerald Bowl instead of the Rose.