Big Game shootaround: Who will take home the Axe?

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Theo Wyss-Flamm/Senior Staff

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How do you think the recent COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent setbacks Cal has faced will affect the outcome of the game?

Kabir Rao: The obvious answer here is that the Bears will likely be missing players, but who is out remains unknown. As of now, Cal allegedly has 47 positive cases, 31 of which are symptomatic. However, quarterback Chase Garbers and other starters who initially tested positive should be on track to suit up in the Big Game given that they clear all necessary protocols. Adversity can either bring people together or tear them apart, and time and time again this season, we’ve seen the Bears respond to it rather than roll over. This situation should be no different. Cal never needs extra motivation before playing Stanford, but a return to the field and the realization that this could be several starters’ final Big Game will likely have the Bears more amped up than usual. Expect the blue and gold to come out swinging and to stay that way until the final whistle blows.

William Cooke: The outbreak shouldn’t affect Cal all that much given the fact that it is reportedly under control now. Based on how poorly the Bears played two Saturdays ago in their 10-3 loss to Arizona with at least 24 players missing, mass ineligibility would be catastrophic against Stanford. Cal’s second- and third-string players were woefully unprepared to play in Tucson. Luckily for Cal fans, in an interview between Garbers’ parents and Mercury News correspondent Jeff Faraudo, his parents revealed that he has been cleared to play in Palo Alto and that they expect every starter that missed the Arizona game to be cleared to play as well. As long as the Bears’ starters are eligible, I do not expect the recent outbreak to affect the game substantially.

Maria Khan: At this point, it is difficult to say. Although the game against the Cardinal is still on, the postponement of the USC matchup occurred just a week prior. Even if all players, in particular big names such as Garbers, are cleared to play, the fact that they have not had consistent practice for about two weeks now is something worth thinking about. Are they out of the midseason “win by any means necessary” mindset? Is the pause between Oregon and Stanford so big that all traces of their game faces have been wiped away? Unfortunately, only time will tell. Perhaps the divet in the season will prove to be a positive rather than a negative and the starters will come back stronger than ever, proving all naysayers wrong — or perhaps not.

What will be some key differences between last year’s defeat to Stanford and this year’s game?

KR: Last season was the first one for Cal’s offense under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. The Bears had to learn and try to master an NFL-style offense during an abbreviated offseason and then implement it in a fanless Memorial Stadium. Now, the blue and gold’s offense has had time to gel, and the unit has flashed the ability to successfully deploy a balanced attack, which, in turn, allows it to push the ball downfield. And where Cal’s offense has found new life, Stanford’s has sputtered. The Cardinal lost quarterback Davis Mills to the NFL draft in May and have seen this year’s starter Tanner McKee go down with an undisclosed injury. That left freshman Ari Patu, who threw for 51 yards in his first career start this past weekend as Stanford’s leading man — that is, until he got hurt. Question marks and possibly inexperience at the quarterback position for the Cardinal could be the difference in this one.

WC: Both programs were on losing streaks heading into last year’s Big Game. Stanford lost its first two games of the 2020 season before enjoying a bye week due to a COVID-19 outbreak at Washington State. The very next week, it beat Cal, a team that had lost to UCLA and Oregon State in the two weeks prior. This year looks eerily similar to last, but with one major difference — Stanford is currently on a horrific five-game losing streak, including losses to a pitiful Washington team in Palo Alto and a 52-7 drubbing at the hands of Utah. Cal lost its most recent game to Arizona, but before that was on a two-game winning streak and looked much more at ease on both sides of the ball. Patterns were not evident last year because of the unusually short season. Now, with more data points to consider, it’s safe to say that, unlike last year, the Cardinal will enter Stanford Stadium feeling like they are on the ropes, while the Bears will feel a bit shell-shocked but on their feet.

MK: The fact that Cal and Stanford have not been doing so well this season notwithstanding, both teams did enter the last Big Game as bad as they look this year. The records on both sides have not been pretty. Aside from the two breakout wins Cal has had against Oregon and Colorado (disregarding its tragic allowance of 30 points to a Football Championship Subdivision team, Sacramento State), as well as Stanford’s victories against USC, Vanderbilt and Oregon, both teams are on a major losing streak. Both team morales are in the trenches. The Bears only have a slight chance at a bowl game. It seems as though the Cardinal and the blue and gold are going to try their hands at a few Hail Marys. The Bay Area rivals have nothing to lose but pride, and it looks like they’ll do anything to win the Axe.

Does Cal have what it takes to win back the Axe?

KR: Yes, Cal definitely does. The Bears have a lot to fight for Saturday. Cal has been the story of the college football world over the past two weeks but for all of the wrong reasons. However, if the blue and gold can grind out a win, they’ll stay on track to be bowl eligible, they’ll earn good faith with future recruits and they might even help keep head coach Justin Wilcox, who has been rumored to be on the short list for the newly opened gig at Washington. But whether the Axe returns to Berkeley could have more to do with how Stanford is performing right now. After upsetting No. 3 Oregon, the Cardinal have dropped five straight games. A healthy Cal squad has enough talent to get the job done — at least against this year’s Stanford team.

WC: Yes, but only because of how poorly the Cardinal have played this year. When head coach David Shaw’s team is playing good football, Cal’s chances are slim to none (see 2010-2018). When his team is struggling to secure bowl eligibility, the Bears fare much better (see 2019). Stanford is currently 3-7, ineligible for a bowl game and on its longest losing streak under Shaw’s 11-year tenure. Cal fans might be ashamed to admit it, but their team’s chances in the Big Game consistently hinge upon how well the Cardinal are playing, not on how well the Bears are playing. Assuming that Cal is not missing too many players due to COVID-19, it has a decent chance of winning against this unimpressive Stanford team.

MK: Yes, not because Cal is just so fantastic at football but rather because Stanford is in the thick of a five-game losing streak with no nearby hope of climbing out of it. With many Cal players back on the field, it is quite possible that the blue and gold could come out of the match clutching the beloved Axe. Furthermore, the Bears need a win to have even a chance at a bowl game — the stakes are much higher for the blue and gold. Stanford might just throw whatever at the wall and see what sticks. Cal, on the other hand, is aiming for redemption: not only against Stanford, to whom it lost last year, but also against a lackluster season. The team’s most recent loss against Arizona was an embarrassment to Cal athletics in general. All in all, the blue and gold have a lot to prove. Whether they can claim victory, however, remains to be seen.

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