By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, CA–Midway through the fourth quarter of the 125th Big Game, Jackson Sirmon was just another guy on either team eager to change the narrative of a dismal season, willing to do anything possible to avoid another loss.
One play later, Sirmon was a hero, forever immortalized in the rich history of the series between Stanford and Cal.
When the football inexplicably starts exchanging hands at Memorial Stadium, grab it. Just like “The Play” 40 years ago, the intertwined memories last forever.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Sirmon said. “All I did that play is I didn’t mess it up. The ball came right to me and I ran with it.”
Sirmon’s scoop and score–after Stanford backup quarterback Ashton Daniels then Cal’s Jeremiah Earby both fumbled on the play–gave Cal its first lead of the evening, 20-17. Prior to Sirmon’s miracle play, the Bears’ defense was confounded, trailing 17-12 and likely facing some tough questions regarding Stanford’s fast start that saw them lead 10-3 after the game’s initial possessions in the first quarter.
Both Bay Area rivals came into Saturday’s showdown saddled with a second straight losing season dragged down by a bunch of injuries, and the inability to muster much offense at all.
Stanford hadn’t scored more than 16 points in any of its previous, five games, and Cal hadn’t won a game since September 24. In front of sellout crowd, and on the 40th anniversary of Cal’s miracle, 25-20 win in 1982, something had to give.
Cal trailed 17-6 to start the fourth quarter, and they didn’t exactly jump into the driver’s seat when Jack Plummer connected with Monroe Young for Cal’s first touchdown (on their 10th offensive possession) with 11:18 remaining in the game. The ensuing two-point conversion failed, and the Bears–trailing by five–were needing the unlikely combination of a second, go-ahead touchdown along with shutting down the Cardinal for the remainder of the game.
But Stanford resorted to trickery, bringing in Daniels for a designed run that saw him stripped of the football by Daniel Scott when he approached the line and tried to bounce outside.
Earby recovered Daniels fumble, but was stripped by Daniels when the pair crossed paths. That’s when Sirmon rushed up, grabbed the ball seamlessly on a bounce and raced in from 38 yards out.
“As a defensive player, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to score touchdowns and you have to enjoy them when you get them,” Sirmon said. “It was very neat especially considering the timing of it all.”
Five plays later, and after a pair of incompletions intensified the pressure on starting quarterback Tanner McKee, he was picked off by Scott, who returned the ball 18 yards, setting up Cal, first and goal at the nine.
The third, consecutive running play for freshman Jaydn Ott finished in the end zone, and Cal was in command, up 27-17 with 58 seconds remaining.
“We know how important this game is to us as a team, our administration and our support staff,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “Our fans and students were just incredible tonight. What an awesome environment.”
The game featured several, strategical twists as both teams desperate to change their fortunes, saw their coaching staffs pull out all the stops. The Bears, with an undisclosed, chain of command calling their plays after offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was dismissed earlier in the week, completely abandoned their run game in the first half.
Not surprising given the Bears’ desultory offensive line play, but eye-catching because Stanford came in allowing nearly six yards per rushing attempt, ranking them dead last among 131 FBS teams.
The result? Cal unleashed a short passing game that utilized Ott as a pass catcher with success, but several drops, and a critical end zone interception thrown by Plummer saw Cal go into the half trailing 10-6. The Bears failed to convert any of their first, five third down conversion attempts, and they suffered Plummer’s pick immediately after they finally converted on a fourth down attempt.
Stanford started Mitch Leigber at running back, a converted safety with no one to back him up because of a rash of injuries decimated the Cardinal’s depth chart. Leigber was terrific with 83 yards rushing on 22 carries, but when he needed a blow, coach David Shaw elected to lift McKee and bring on Daniels as a quarterback whose sole intent was to run the ball. But on Daniels seventh rush attempt the game switched as he was stripped and fumbled.
Cal (4-7, 2-6) finishes its season on Friday afternoon with a home game against UCLA.
DWIGHT GARNER PASSES, MOEN STATUE REVEALED: A 1,500 pound Statue of Cal hero Kevin Moen was debuted in a ceremony outside the stadium on Friday with the likeness of the rugby, football star holding the football high above his head as he did after crossing the goal line, concluding “The Play” in 1982.
At the ceremony, it was announced that Dwight Garner, an Oakland native and a freshman in ’82, passed away this week after battling prostate cancer in Florida. Garner, 58, handled the third lateral on “The Play” and was nearly tackled before shuttling the ball, and prolonging the play. It was his portion of the sequence that embittered Stanford players who felt Garner’s knee was down before he released the ball.