Rivalries are not only the best things about sports, but the fuel for all the aspects of competition that make it so captivating. Rivalries are dramatic, passionate, compelling, and more often than not, started over something that seems small, but is bigger than meets the eye.
This weekend, more than a hundred players and thousands of fans will get to be a part of a tradition a century in the making. Was it geography alone that sparked the historic rivalry between Stanford and Cal? Two renowned universities situated just 48 miles away from each other is sure to spurn some competition.
Was it just because of that little axe? Or is it the constant drive each school has always had to be the best in the Bay Area?
“I don’t like red. I don’t wear red. Cal and the school with the tree, that rivalry means a lot,” said Bears linebacker Ben Hawk Schrider.
Maybe it’s a mix of it all. Regardless, Stanford and Cal fans, alumni and students alike have all found themselves in the throes of a heated, storied rivalry which will see its 122nd rendition this weekend on the Farm in Palo Alto.
It’s been a long time since the Bears have brought the Axe back to Berkeley, but things are different this time around. Cal has seen highs this season as immense as being ranked No. 15 in the nation — and lows as emotional as losing its starting quarterback and having a four-game losing streak.
There are many seniors on the squad who are itching to end their final season in a fashion similar to how the year started — that is, on top — and this might be the year Cal gets to claim a victory over Stanford.
Although the Bears and the Cardinal are different in very defining aspects, their football teams have had similarly unfortunate seasons when it comes to injury. Both the Bears and the Cardinal have had to resort to third-string quarterbacks this season, and are likely to start their backups in the Big Game this weekend.
Stanford redshirt sophomore quarterback Davis Mills will see his fifth start this weekend with K.J. Costello ruled out because of injury for the second game in a row. Last weekend against Washington State, Mills threw a record-breaking 504 yards for Stanford before throwing two picks that ended up thwarting the Cardinal’s comeback, resulting in a 49-22 defeat.
But Mills is on the money more often than not, and poses a definitive threat through the air. Stanford has swung from its typical run the rock scheme to an offense that looks more like Washington State’s, and if Cal’s defense had a hard time with anything against USC, it was pass protection.
The Trojans totaled 406 passing yards against the Bears and had 34 red zone points, playing Cal’s secondary like a fiddle in what may have been the weakest defensive showing of the blue and gold this season.
Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo, however, is also out with an injury — and considering the read option and deep ball threat that Cal backup quarterback Devon Modster is, the Bears should be able to put their own points on the board. Cal’s defense shut down Wazzu’s air raid offense with ease and can likely break up some long passes with its consistently good field position, taking a bit of the burden off of the offense to score.
With many key players out from injury — including quarterback Chase Garbers, leading rusher Christopher Brown Jr. and safety Ashtyn Davis — the Bears will need to dig deep to overcome the Cardinal. Stanford is a talented team despite its unlucky breaks this season, and Cal has an undeniable tendency to come up short in the times it needs to execute the most.
In true storybook fashion, this game is critical in either making or breaking both Stanford and Cal’s chances of going bowling. The Cardinal has a 10-year bowl game streak on the line and needs two wins in their final two games, and the Bears are looking to break a streak of their own and bring the Axe back to Berkeley for the first time since 2009.
“We don’t play against streaks. Nothing that happened yesterday — we don’t have control over that,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “What we have control over is trying to have a great week of practice so we can play really well, because ultimately it’s the individual plays within the game that decide the game, not what happened 10 years ago.”
Although uncertainties remain for each team, the matchup will undoubtedly be a close contest. A victory is just within a paw’s reach for the Bears, and to pull off a win would be a huge success for a team with a season described as unpredictable at best.
“We all put so much time and energy into our season and trying to be as good as we can be, and that’s why we want to win. That’s why you do all this,” Wilcox said. “You only get to play Stanford one time a year in the Big Game, so it’s not hard to get motivated for that.”