1980 was a truly abysmal season for the Bears. After a modestly successful 7-5 season in 1979, which had culminated in Cal’s first bowl appearance in 20 years (a loss to Temple in New Jersey’s Garden State Bowl), Cal fans hoped better times were ahead in 1980. This was especially so because of the return of senior quarterback Rich Campbell, who looked to break most of Cal’s passing records before the season ended. Thus, the disappointment was all the greater when Cal found itself with a 2-8 record entering the Big Game. The season had included a hideous 60-7 loss to USC and a 26-19 loss to Army, which Cal had been favored to beat by 14. Against Arizona, Cal led 21-3 at the half and 24-10 in the fourth quarter. And somehow lost 31-24. (Causing the Cal mic men to lead the student section in a rousing late-game cheer of “Hey Arizona, Eat Shit and Die,” which in turn resulted in a certain unhappiness by their superiors in the Athletic Department.) Adding injury to insult, Rich Campbell’s Cal career ended with a knee injury against USC, in the eighth game of the season. Back-ups Gale Gilbert and walk-on J Torchio then quarterbacked Cal to losses against Arizona State and Washington State.
Things looked very different on the other side of the Bay. Stanford was led by its sophomore sensation, John Elway, who was already being touted in the media as “the greatest quarterback ever.” Stanford was 6-4 on the season, including a stunning 31-14 win over #1 ranked Oklahoma at Norman. Stanford had been all but guaranteed a berth in the Peach Bowl. All it had to do was beat the lowly Bears. Cal’s students and fans viewed the upcoming Big Game with grim foreboding.
Cal was a 15-point underdog and it was rumored that the job of Cal head coach Roger Theder was on the line if he could not manage a Big Game victory. Theder pulled out all the stops, inviting Cal coaching legend Pappy Waldorf to address the team before the game. Waldorf spoke to the players about the meaning of college football, of Cal football, and of the Big Game. “The Big Game,” Waldorf said, “is college football in its purest form. There is nothing else like it.”
The Bears seemed to take Waldorf’s words to heart. Led by walk-on quarterback J Torchio, the Bears went 80 yards for a TD on their first possession. The big play was a 56-yard pass from Torchio to Don Sprague on 3rd and 13, followed by a 15-yard John Tuggle run into the end zone. Stanford immediately responded with a 97-yard drive to tie the game.
In the second quarter, Torchio took his team on a 69-yard drive to put the Bears ahead again, 14-7. When Stanford got the ball back, Elway was sacked by Richard Rogers and the ball was stripped from him by noseguard Kirk Karacozoff. The Bears recovered on the Cardinal 4, and two plays later Tuggle carried the ball into the end zone to give Cal an astonishing 21-7 halftime lead.
By now, the Cal fans were going absolutely crazy. In an era before bags or packs were inspected, the Cal students had brought literally thousands of peaches into the stadium — in “honor” of Stanford’s presumptive Peach Bowl bid — and they spent most of halftime hurling peaches onto the field using all manner of gigantic slingshots and similar devices. By the time the Stanford band ended its show, the place looked more like a fruit salad than a football field. The students began chanting, “Hey Stanford – Eat My Peach.” And they kept it up for most of the rest of the game.
But the game was far from over. Early in the fourth quarter, Stanford wide receiver Vincent White caught a swing pass, broke through the Cal defense, and ran 32 yards for a TD, cutting Cal’s lead to 21-14. On the Cardinal’s next possession, Elway took his team on another drive. This time, however, the Cardinal were stopped when Vincent White fumbled after catching a pass, and the Bears recovered. Except that the line judge, for reasons never explained, ruled no fumble. And because replay did not exist, that was that. Elway was permitted to continue the drive, which ended in another Stanford TD. Suddenly the Cal lead was gone. It was 21-21.
Stanford stopped the Bears on their next possession. With five minutes left, Cal’s Mike Ahr came through with a great punt that was downed at the Stanford 5. And on the very next play, Elway fumbled the hand-off to White, and Cal recovered at the Stanford three-yard line. J Torchio carried the ball in on a bootleg, and with four minutes left, Cal was back ahead, 28-21.
Stanford had one last shot. Starting at the Cardinal 26, Elway led his team all the way down to the Cal 4. Everyone was speculating about whether Stanford head coach Paul Wiggin would go for a 1 point conversion for the tie, or 2 points for the win and the Peach Bowl bid. But that turned out to be academic, as the Bears threw Vincent White for a loss on third down. On fourth down, Cal safety Kevin Moen blitzed Elway, forcing him to throw early. The ball landed harmlessly in the end zone, and Cal took over on downs at its own 6.
But the game still wasn’t over. The Bears were unable to make a first down. With 22 seconds left, Coach Theder ordered his center to snap the ball through the end zone for an intentional safety, making the score 28-23, but allowing Cal to make a free kick from the 20. After the kick, Elway tried one desperate Hail Mary pass, but could not connect. The upset was complete.
John Elway had good numbers in his first Big Game: 20 for 45 for 257 yards. And Stanford had out-gained Cal 442-276. But Cal’s walk-on back-up quarterback, J Torchio, had the best game he would ever have at Cal: 11 of 22 for 186 yards and one TD. And, unlike the Cardinal, the Bears played error-free football. Two years later, John Elway would be the #1 overall pick in the NFL draft, while John Tuggle, the Cal running back who dominated the 1980 Big Game, would be the last player picked in that same draft. But on this day, Tuggle and Torchio and the rest of the Bears had pulled off Cal’s greatest Big Game upset to date, kept Stanford out of the Peach Bowl, and brought the Axe back to Berkeley. The Bears had also provided a fitting tribute to Pappy Waldorf, who had inspired them with his pre-game speech. It was especially fitting, because this was the last Big Game for Waldorf, who would pass away just a few months later.