Garbers gets the call, and Cal gets the Big Game

© Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

STANFORD, Calif. — The football cliché is that quarterbacks get too much credit for a victory or too much blame for a defeat, that what they contribute to a team is overrated.

But who handles the ball on virtually every play from scrimmage? Who makes the calls in the huddle? And as was the case on Saturday in the 122nd Big Game, who brings a team from behind?

Chase Garbers had to come out of last weekend’s loss to USC because of an injury — we’re never told whether it’s a scraped pinky finger or a torn muscle — but a couple hours before kickoff it was announced he would start.

And a couple hours after kickoff, with 1 minute 19 seconds remaining, there was Garbers dashing the 16 yards that would give Cal a 24-20 victory and end Stanford’s streak of victories over the Golden Bears at nine.

So Garbers isn’t yet Joe Montana or Tom Brady — or even Jared Goff, who in three years never beat Stanford — but he does have a considerable degree of success. The Bears are 11-2 in games when Garbers plays at least half.

“Gutsy, tough,” was the summation of Garbers by Cal’s third-year-coach, Justin Wilcox. “On both sides of the ball we would kind of stub our toe from time to time. But he, whether it was extending plays with his feet or getting tough yards, did what wasn’t always on schedule.”

There was plenty of imperfection Saturday, other than the weather, which was as close to perfect as imaginable.

Let’s start with the crowd, or lack of. “The story,” said radio play-by-play man Joe Starkey, “is all those empty seats.”

True, neither Cal (6-5) nor Stanford (4-7) is headed for the national championship — and after getting upset by Arizona State, neither is Oregon — but doesn’t more than a century of history mean anything?

It definitely does to Starkey, who has been Cal's radio voice for decades and who in the famous 1982 five-lateral Bear victory bellowed out “The band is on field!”

That was at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, and it was the Stanford band, with the controversial winning touchdown being scored by Cal. This Saturday, at unfilled Stanford Stadium — attendance was announced as 48,900, ho, ho — it was the Cal band.

They were tootling joyfully while dozens of Cal fans swarmed about, choosing to celebrate instead of trying to find their cars in that forest of trees Stanford uses as a parking lot.

“To feel the energy after the game,” said Wilcox, Cal’s coach, “was just unbelievable. I’m not sure I can do it justice. The emotion on the field, with so many people, I’m not sure I can do it justice.”

Stanford scored two minutes into the game, and your thought was “Here we go again.” Wrong thought. Cal kept tying the game, 7-7, 10-10, 17-17, but never went ahead until Garbers’ run on a second and 19.

“It was a designed pass play,” said Garbers, “turned into a broken play. Found a crease in the defense to make a run, and receivers down field blocking was huge.”

He is a redshirt sophomore from Newport Beach, and obviously his legs are as effective as his arm, which seems to be true for every top quarterback in the game, no matter what level.

Cal, of course, gained control of the series trophy, The Axe, the visible symbol of beating the rival.

“I saw a bunch of people rushing the field,” said Garbers. “And a lot of people jumping (from the stands). But it was awesome to see the Cal fans celebrate with us.

“I knew later this week I would play. And I mean playing against Stanford is huge for a Cal Bear.”

For one Cal Bear, Chase Garbers, huge is an appropriate word.