STANFORD, Calif. (AP) -- The first Stanford seniors to hold The Axe in six years passed it around in reverent awe, posing for pictures and basking in cheers after earning their biggest victory in their final college game.
A few yards away, the California seniors attempted to wrap their minds around their own unbelievable evening after their once-promising season bottomed out in the Big Game.
T.C. Ostrander passed for 151 yards and an early touchdown to Mark Bradford, and Stanford snapped its five-game losing streak against Cal with a 20-13 victory Saturday night, the Golden Bears' sixth loss in seven games during a stunning collapse by the former No. 2 team.
Cal's incredible two-month tumble was of little concern to Stanford cornerback Nick Sanchez when he led a charge through the jubilant students to collect The Axe, which was emphatically reclaimed by the Cardinal after the schools' 110th meeting.
"It was the best feeling I could imagine," said Sanchez, whose two interceptions highlighted Stanford's strong defensive effort. "I couldn't see ending my career in a better way. I got two picks, we went down to the wire with Cal, and we got The Axe back."
Though the Cardinal (4-8, 3-6 Pac-10) didn't score in the final 23 minutes, they earned their first home league victory under rookie coach Jim Harbaugh in the most rewarding way possible for Stanford fans enduring their sixth straight losing season.
Harbaugh's first team wasn't much better than the last two under coach Walt Harris, but it picked up victories over USC and Cal that should keep Stanford fans warm all winter.
"This was a championship game to all of our players," Harbaugh said. "We made the right plays at the right time. It was a team effort. All three phases played some of their best football tonight. ... It's so special, just the great thrill of winning, the thrill of ultimate victory and getting that Axe back at Stanford."
Stanford won for just the sixth time in 29 games, but beat Cal coach Jeff Tedford for the first time in six tries. With Sanchez making the biggest plays, the Cardinal held Tedford's offense to 13 points or fewer for just the fourth time in his six seasons.
Stanford didn't even need any trickery on the 25th anniversary of The Play, Cal's famed five-lateral kickoff return for the last-second touchdown that won the Bay Area schools' 1982 meeting. Harbaugh platooned two quarterbacks to run his steady offense, and the Cardinal defense made it look easy to shut down Tedford's talented collection of playmakers.
"It's not like they're the better team," Cal linebacker Worrell Williams said. "They're not. There's no way, no how. Everybody knows that. But taking nothing away from them ... we killed ourselves today, and that's why we've had this slump."
Cal, which hadn't even trailed against Stanford since 2003, finished in a tie for seventh place in the Pac-10 standings.
Nate Longshore went 22-of-47 for 252 yards and two second-half interceptions in another awful performance for the Golden Bears (6-6, 3-6), who were the nation's second-ranked team before their first loss to Oregon State in early October. Justin Forsett rushed for just 96 yards, and the passing attack floundered until the final minutes.
Cal got a last chance when Stanford freshman Jeremy Stewart fumbled near midfield with 2:43 to play. The Bears drove to the Cardinal 19, but Lavelle Hawkins dropped a sure TD pass before Sanchez dived to make his second interception at the 8 with 1:55 left.
Bradford then made a nifty first-down catch on the Cal sideline, allowing the Cardinal to run all but 6 seconds off the clock. After Longshore's final pass fell incomplete, Stanford fans stormed the field -- and Sanchez led a charge of players to The Axe.
"We focus on Cal just about every day of the year," said Bradford, another senior. "To come in and fight the way we did is an amazing feeling. It's how we wanted to go out as seniors."
Both teams came into the first Big Game at Stanford's gorgeous renovated stadium with five losses in their previous six games. The Cardinal lost at home last week to perhaps the worst Notre Dame team ever, while Cal had a bye after a 14-point loss to Washington, the Pac-10's last-place school.
The Bears still expect a bid to San Francisco's Emerald Bowl after Arizona State beat Arizona, leaving the Pac-10 with only six bowl-eligible schools. If the Wildcats had posted an upset, the Bears likely would have missed the postseason -- an unbelievable development for fans with national title hopes just two months ago.
"This is definitely a new low for us," Cal safety Thomas DeCoud said. "It's kind of too late to salvage anything, but we just want to get to a bowl game and end on the right note so the younger guys can get this program back to where it was."
DeSean Jackson, the Cal junior who caught seven passes for 127 yards in last year's Big Game, wore his pads and helmet on the sideline but didn't play with a bruised quadriceps. Robert Jordan caught an early 46-yard pass for Cal's only touchdown.
Hawkins, the other member of Cal's talented receiving trio, dropped at least three key passes -- including that sure over-the-shoulder TD pass with 2 minutes to play.
"I really want to apologize to the Cal fans and everybody that supported us," Hawkins said, tears welling in his eyes. "I'm really sorry about this game. ... I should have had those catches. I really feel like I lost this game for my team."
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