STANFORD, Calif. — The California players listened quietly all week to the pregame talk about how powerful Stanford had a chance to go to the Rose Bowl.
The Golden Bears provided their emphatic answer in one of the most exciting and important Big Games in recent memory.
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 Cal beat No. 14 Stanford 34-28 Saturday.
"We've heard a lot of talk about, 'Oh, they're going to go to the Rose Bowl,'" Mohamed said. "We felt like they were overlooking us a little bit. For us to come out and to prove all these guys wrong, it feels good. And we're keeping the Axe in Berkeley another year. You can't get much better than that."
And it's tough to imagine a better Big Game than one that had Rose Bowl implications, memorable performances by Vereen and Stanford's Heisman contender Toby Gerhart, curious coaching decisions and a most dramatic finish.
Gerhart ran for 136 yards, four touchdowns and carried 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 with 1:36 to go, setting off a wild celebration on the Cal sideline.
"It wasn't a good enough throw," Luck said. "I wish I had that one back. I could have done a lot of different things."
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 under coach Jeff Tedford.
"It was mayhem," Riley said. "People were jumping up on you. I was struggling to find my teammates. I think it's the first time since Coach Tedford has been here that we were the underdogs. It was great."
Stanford came into the game off two of its biggest wins, 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.
"All week long the talk was about how physical they are, how they were going to run the ball on us, things like that," Tedford said. "Our motto all week was, 'We're going to find out on the field.'"
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 four consecutive TD drives starting late in the second quarter, three ending with short runs by Vereen.
"I never carried that many times and never thought I'd carry that many times," Vereen said. "I just had so much emotion, I didn't think about any tiredness or pain."
Riley added a 12-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones early in the fourth quarter to give the Bears a 31-21 lead, silencing honorary captain Tiger Woods and the rest of the red-clad portion in the largest crowd in the fourth year at the remodeled Stanford Stadium.
Trailing 31-28 with 3 1/2 minutes to go, Stanford 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.
The Bears settled for a field goal to go up 34-28 with 2:42 to go, with Tedford calling for Riley to take a knee to center the ball on third down.
"I didn't want to risk anything," Tedford said.
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.
"I should have given him a better play," Harbaugh said.
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.
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. Stanford would have been eliminated anyway when Oregon beat Arizona 44-41 in double overtime, but now the Cardinal can't even share the conference title.
"This one hurts," Gerhart said. "Everybody takes pride in winning this game. The season has been decent and getting to a bowl game is nice but we had greater goals than that. When all is said and done we'll have an empty pit in our stomach that we didn't get the Axe back."