STANFORD, Calif. (AP) - Toby Gerhart has grown so accustomed to walking by The Axe every day in Stanford's football offices that he doesn't want to go back to the old days where there was only a picture of the prize that goes to the winner of the Big Game against California.
``It was kind of like an 'axe goes here thing,''' Gerhart said. ``Now we've gotten used to it being there. It's so much nicer than the picture. We don't want to give that back.''
If the Cardinal (5-6, 4-4 Pac-10) can beat the Golden Bears (6-4, 4-3) in their annual rivalry game for a second straight year there will be perhaps an even bigger prize waiting for Stanford.
With a victory in the season finale, the Cardinal will qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2001 - a momentous step for a program that won just a single game two years ago before coach Jim Harbaugh arrived.
``It's bigger than one game. It's bigger than just Cal,'' running back Anthony Kimble said. ``This is big for our program. This is for what we were hoping to do since we've been here. This game means more to us than any year before.''
The Big Game has rarely had such big stakes for the Cardinal, with cornerback Wopamo Osaisai calling it the most important in his four years at Stanford.
There have been a few other years that beating Cal would have sent the Cardinal to a bowl game, including in the most memorable meeting of all.
In John Elway's final collegiate game in 1982, Cal used five improbable laterals to score a touchdown on the game-winning, last-second kickoff return, with Kevin Moen flattening a Stanford trombone player as he reached the end zone for punctuation.
With the loss, Elway finished his career having never gone to a bowl game - a distinction this year's senior class is eager to avoid.
``The way we leave this program will be determined on Saturday,'' center Alex Fletcher said. ``We don't want to be class of almost. The team is getting better every year and will continue to get better as long as Coach Harbaugh is around. To make our marks as seniors, it all depends on Saturday.''
Harbaugh has done an impressive rebuilding job after taking over for Walt Harris two years ago. He won four games in his first year, including the memorable upset at Southern California and Stanford's first Big Game victory since 2001.
But the Cardinal were also overmatched at times last season, and felt fortunate to win some of their games.
ful running game behind a solid offensive line, that has not been the case this season. The Cardinal have been competitive in every game, even outplaying USC for the first half in last week's loss.
Harbaugh calls that the first step for a building program, but now Stanford has to prove it can win a big game where it counts most.
``We're not a bowl eligible team yet. But I feel like we're a bowl quality team right now. I feel like we made a lot of strides this year,'' he said.
``That's where our program is at right now. It needs to kick that door down and beat the elite teams in the Pac-10 - Oregon, USC, Cal, Oregon State. Those are the elite teams in the Pac-10.''
The Cardinal did beat Oregon State already in the season opener, and could have locked up the bowl bid already if they had been able to close out games against UCLA and Oregon.
They allowed an 87-yard drive in the final minutes to lose 23-20 to UCLA on Kevin Craft's TD pass to Cory Harkey with 10 seconds left on Oct. 18.
Then two weeks ago with Stanford up by one with 2:18 to go, Oregon moved the ball 76 yards to win on LeGarrette Blount's 3-yard run with 6 seconds to go.
Throw in Tavita Pritchard's three interceptions in a slow start of a seven-point loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 4 and the Cardinal will have many lost chances to lament if they don't win this week.
``It's hard not to look back, but that's football,'' linebacker Clinton Snyder said. ``You can't really worry about what happened before. You watch film and try to learn from your mistakes. That's all you can do. You can't replay the games.''

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