It wasn’t but a few moments after the game clock hit zero that the field of Stanford Stadium became a mosaic of blue and gold. Cal had reclaimed the Axe for the first time in a decade, and hundreds of students poured out of the stands to rejoice. After a wild ending to the 2019 Big Game, in a rivalry that has been played an astonishing 122 times, you may think you’ve seen it all.
But this Friday is going to feel a lot different.
There will be no fans, no bands and no field-storming. Just the two teams and an ax sitting on the sideline, anxiously awaiting its reclamation.
“It definitely feels a little different, having school online and not being able to see all the stuff down at Sproul Hall,” said Cal quarterback Chase Garbers of the traditional Big Game buildup throughout the week. “We have the Axe now; we’re not going to let that go. The atmosphere’s there on the football side.”
Even with Cal and Stanford both entering the matchup with 0-2 records, the stakes feel as high as ever. In an unfathomable year that might not even have postseason bowl games (and if it does, there’s a good chance neither team would qualify), winning the Big Game will define the season for whoever comes out on top.
As any true Big Game should be, there is no clear pregame favorite, and a back-and-forth affair would seem quite fitting. Garbers was able to score the go-ahead touchdown with just more than one minute remaining in the 2019 edition, and he will have to put the team on his shoulders again if the Bears want to go back to back.
After an abysmal offensive showing against UCLA, Cal turned on the jets in the first half of last week’s game against Oregon State, as Garbers threw for 227 yards before the offense fizzled out in the second half. The signal-caller was without four of his starting offensive linemen after the second quarter, three of whom were out due to COVID-19 contact tracing protocols, meaning they will also be out for the Stanford matchup.
“Most of them, that was their first time playing college football,” Garbers said. “They answered the call very well. I didn’t sense any nerves from any of them; they handled themselves pretty well.”
Team captain and center Michael Saffell, who left the Oregon State game with an injury, has a chance of returning in time for Stanford, but regardless, the Bears’ experience in the trenches is a bit less than ideal. Even without those veterans, however, Cal’s emergency backups held their own, only allowing two sacks on the day. With Stanford having tallied just one sack on the season to this point, Garbers should have some opportunities to attack downfield, especially after repeatedly connecting with receivers Kekoa Crawford and Makai Polk last week.
On the ground, Stanford has struggled to limit its opponents, but no one this season has been worse at defending the run than Cal. The Bears sit dead last in the Pac-12, having allowed a horrific 224.5 rushing yards per game. To win this game, head coach Justin Wilcox’s defense will have to focus on stopping Stanford running back duo Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat. While neither is a game-changing force like Cal faced in Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson, with the way the Bears’ defense has been playing, it doesn’t matter who is taking the handoffs — they are getting all they can eat.
Under center, Stanford quarterback Davis Mills returned to action last week against Colorado after missing the first game because of COVID-19 protocols. While he did throw for 327 yards, the veteran only completed 55% of his attempts and will be facing a stout Cal secondary that is currently allowing fewer than 200 passing yards per game. The most talented pass catcher for the Cardinal comes in the physical 6’4” frame of Simi Fehoko, who leads the team with 162 receiving yards.
“They’ve got some good wideouts creating some mismatch situations with their size, so it’ll be good for our guys to go out and compete against them,” Wilcox said.
The Bears came away with two interceptions against Mills in last season’s Big Game, and turnovers could once again be the difference in this affair.
Both Mills and Garbers possess the ability to maneuver out of the pocket and pick up yards with their feet when needed, adding an extra dimension that both defenses must account for. Stanford allowed two quarterback rushing touchdowns last week alone, and the vision of Garbers’ game-winning trot into the end zone last season will surely draw some added attention.
With both teams desperate for a win, fans should expect a dogfight from the get-go in Memorial Stadium. But regardless of who comes out victorious, this Big Game will be one for the history books.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].