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Cal's Marvin Jones (1) celebrates with Shane Vereen (34) after he scored a touchdown in the second quarter of the Big Game, at Stanford University in Palo Alto Calif., Saturday Nov. 21, 2009. (John Green/Staff)

CAL PLAYED THE role of ball hog well enough Saturday night to keep the Axe for a second straight year.

As red hot as Stanford running back Toby Gerhart and freshman quarterback Andrew Luck were coming into the 112th Big Game, they couldn't complete what had the makings of an epic comeback in this storied rivalry.

Final score: Cal 34, Stanford 28.

Final analysis: Great game, before 50,510 fans, the most ever at the remodeled Stanford Stadium.

Linebacker Mike Mohamed's interception at the Cal 3-yard line with 1 minute, 36 seconds remaining sealed Cal's seventh Big Game victory in coach Jeff Tedford's eighth season as coach. It should go down in Cal lore as "The Interception."

Cal running back Shane Vereen rushed for three touchdowns and 199 yards, quarterback Kevin Riley got better as the game went on and Cal's defense clutched up just in time to eliminate Stanford from Rose Bowl contention.

Not even four touchdown runs by Heisman-hopeful Gerhart were enough to ruin Cal's night. Yes, four touchdowns, and he almost got a fifth.

Gerhart took a short pass from Luck and rambled 29 yards down the left sideline, breaking Mohamed's would-be tackle and dragging a couple other Cal defenders to the Bears' 14 with 1:52 remaining.

But Luck's lousy Big Game debut ended with a comeback-killing interception into Mohamed's hands. Luck, a redshirt freshman, was 10-of-30 for 157 yards and often overshot open receivers on deep throws.

Gerhart finished with 20 carries for 139 yards and etched his name further in the Stanford record book. But he didn't win what likely was his final Big Game.

After Tedford got showered in Gatorade and once the final seconds expired, Cal fans stormed the field, seizing it like Friday protesters at Wheeler Hall.

So how did Cal pull this off?

The Bears didn't quit after falling into a 14-0 hole on two Gerhart touchdowns. Instead, they churned out long scoring drives to keep Stanford's offense off the field and keep the Cardinal from breaking 50 on the scoreboard in a third straight game.

Vereen was a workhorse, totaling 42 carries and sparking Cal's offensive surge with many productive direct snaps out of the trendy "wildcat" formation.

Riley played better than his numbers: 17-of-31 for 235 yards, one touchdown, one interception. His 12-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones gave Cal the insurance it needed, and a 31-21 lead with 13:14 remaining.

Stanford's offense looked as advertised in the early going, with Gerhart darting 61 yards for a touchdown on the game's third snap. A blocked punt — and a nice scramble by Luck — set up a second touchdown run by Gerhart before the first quarter was done.

But Cal didn't curl up and die. This definitely is a different Cal team than that 2007 squad that collapsed so tremendously and lost the Big Game here.

As crushing as this loss is to Stanford after dominant wins over Oregon and USC, this was a well-earned win by Cal.

That Cal pulled off this upset — Stanford was a touchdown favorite — is even more impressive considering the Bears did so without Jahvid Best, who was out a second straight game because of his goal-line fall against Oregon State.

Is Cal's offense more consistent without Best? Don't go that far. Vereen and Riley did a wonderful job executing Tedford's offense and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig's crafty calls.

Riley started off bland, in keeping with his overall tenure at Cal. But then he came on strong, then stronger, and that touchdown to Jones made Cal's lead strong enough in the end.

In contrast, Luck's strong arm was seemingly too wild and strong. Pass after pass sailed over receivers in the red zone.

Luck hung in there until the end, however. Midway through the fourth quarter, he avoided a sack near Stanford's goal line and found Chris Owusu at midfield. That drive ended with Gerhart's fourth touchdown, a 5-yard run with 7:01 remaining.

But when Gerhart can't even manage half as many carries as Vereen, you know Stanford didn't control this game.

Time of possession: Cal 3 semesters, Stanford 1. Officially, Cal had the ball 39 minutes, 6 seconds; Stanford 20:54.

Stanford's defense keyed a 2007 win over Cal. But not this time. Stanford allowed 477 yards on 88 plays. The Cardinal wore down after the first quarter.

Cal's fifth win in its past six games makes for an impressive rebound. The program isn't in the shambles that Old Blues feared after lopsided losses to Oregon and USC.

Stanford's program isn't in bad shape, either. Luck has a bright future. So does coach Jim Harbaugh, wherever it may be.

Put both programs together and you get a heck of a ballgame, complete with over 800 yards of offense, 62 points and a well-earned celebration by the victor and its fans.

Contact Cam Inman at cinman@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at twitter.com/CamInman.