By King Jemison
Stanford (4-6, 3-5) may be slogging through its worst season of the decade, but that does not matter on Saturday. Because on this glorious week, you can throw the records out the window and just worry about one thing: keeping the Axe.
The Cardinal are seeking their 10th-straight win over Cal (5-5, 2-5) in the Big Game on Saturday. After two straight road losses to Colorado and Washington State, both of whom entered the game with a losing record, Stanford desperately needs something to go right. The best medicine for a tough season is a home win over your rival. If head coach David Shaw ’94 stays undefeated against the Bears, Stanford fans will head into 2020 feeling much happier about the future of the program.
But if the Cardinal lose The Axe and fall to 4-7, dark skies will gather on the Farm. Not only would it mean a full year of trash talk from Cal fans, but a loss would also guarantee Stanford’s first losing season since 2008. Since the Notre Dame game seems like a certain defeat, a loss in Big Game would likely signal a 4-8 season that would be the worst since Jim Harbaugh’s first campaign. Shaw will face some sobering realities if that nightmare scenario plays out.
For now, Stanford can lean on nine years of crushing Cal to do it one more time. Junior quarterback Davis Mills gets the start after recording the first 500-yard passing game in school history. The Cardinal have the better quarterback, skill position talent and coaching experience in this matchup. Usually, Cal is the desperate team heading into Big Game. This year, Stanford gets to play that role. Here are three keys to keeping the Axe on the Farm for another year, giving all of Nerd Nation something to feel good about:
1. Make the Bears Fly
Cal has the worst passing offense in the Pac-12, and it is not even close. Cal averages 177 yards per game through the air. UCLA’s passing game ranks 11th in the conference. Their average? 234 yards per game. The Bears stand alone in Pac-12 passing incompetence.
Usually, putting the pressure on Stanford’s pass defense is the opposite of good advice; the Cardinal rank 114th nationally in passing yards allowed per game. This week may be an exception. Cal can lean on a respectable rushing attack and move the ball on Stanford. But if the Cardinal shut down the ground game and force Cal to win through the air, Stanford has every advantage.
Cal quarterback Chase Garbers is questionable this week. If he misses the game, Devon Modster will most likely get the start. Modster is completing just 50% of his passes and averaging a miserable 5.8 yards per attempt. Garbers’ potential absence only makes the game plan more clear for Stanford’s defense. In four of Cal’s five losses, the Bears were held to fewer than three yards per carry on the ground. Shut down the Cal running game, make the Bears air it out, and Stanford keeps the Axe.
2. Finish Drives
Stanford crossed the 50-yard line on eight of its 11 drives on Saturday against Washington State. The Cardinal amassed over 500 yards of total offense. Despite all those yards and positive drives, Stanford somehow only managed to put up 22 points. Against Colorado the week prior, Stanford crossed midfield on six of nine possessions only to score 13 points. The Cardinal keep going to the bank but forget to cash the check. Against a much stingier Cal defense, Stanford must take advantage of every trip or the Axe might just get foreclosed.
Over its past four games, Stanford has faced the four worst defenses in the Pac-12 (the Cardinal went 1-3 over that stretch). The last time Stanford played an above average defense was way back on Oct. 5 against Washington. Cal’s defense has regressed since the start of the season, but the Bears still have shutdown potential. This will likely be a slow-paced, low-possession game. The Cardinal offense will not get many cracks at crossing the 50. When they do, they have to put up points.
Mills threw two costly interceptions in the second half last week, freshman kicker Ryan Sanborn missed his lone field goal attempt, and the offense consistently got bogged down in Wazzu territory. If that happens again, Cal can crush the Stanford offense. Even with three true freshman starters on the offensive line, the Cardinal have the talent to overwhelm this Bears defense. The key to finishing drives may be leaning on sophomore wide receiver Simi Fehoko, who has 90+ yards and at least one receiving touchdown in four of the last five games.
3. Manage the Momentum
Stanford Stadium often sounds more like a symphony hall than a football stadium. That will not be the case on Saturday. Big Game always draws one of the biggest crowds of the year, and both fan bases will be well-represented on the Farm despite the paltry records. The charged atmosphere of Big Game just feels different. The 20 true freshmen who have played for the Cardinal this season are set to face a Big Game trial-by-fire. How they handle it may well seal Stanford’s fate.
Rivalry games are always weird, but this historic one between two academic powerhouses separated by the world’s most iconic Bay might be the weirdest. After all, Big Game once ended with a LSJUMB trombone player getting trucked in the “most exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football” (he was down, by the way).
With both teams experiencing disappointing, injury-riddled seasons, the Axe means everything. Weird things are going to happen in this game. The momentum will swing back and forth. But Stanford is the better team, and that usually shows up over four quarters. If the young Cardinal team can harness Shaw’s eerie calm and weather the weird 60 minutes of Big Game intensity, the Stanford Axe should stay right where it belongs.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.