Football Roundtable: The Axe’s fate

Nov. 24, 2020, 7:43 p.m.

For the first time ever, winless Stanford is playing winless Cal in the Big Game. For the first time since 2010 (when the freshman class was in the third grade), Stanford is coming into the rivalry game without the Stanford Axe on its side. The Daily’s Sofia Scekic, Jibriel Taha and Ells Boone discuss what it will take for Stanford to win the 123rd Big Game. 

By the end of Cal’s previous game, the offensive line had just one starter remaining from its preseason group. Stanford has just one sack through the first two games. Is there any chance Stanford is able to win this battle? 

Jibriel Taha (JT): Definitely, but the Cardinal defensive line has not played up to their ability thus far. Opposing quarterbacks have had ample time to throw the ball, and the Cardinal have given up 35 points in both games this season. That being said, Cal has given up seven sacks in their first two games: five against UCLA and two more against Oregon State. I’m looking forward to seeing junior defensive end Thomas Booker and fifth-year defensive end Thomas Schaffer — the only Cardinal with a sack — lead the way for a defensive line with something to prove. 

Ells Boone (EB): It would say a lot about the Cardinal defensive front if they cannot get pressure on Cal quarterback Chase Garbers with a decimated offensive line. I think Stanford will get their second sack of the season, and have their best defensive outing of the season. Cal’s O-line was already leaking in their first two games, they will have even more trouble come Friday. 

Sofia Scekic (SS): Garbers is a mobile quarterback, but this is the perfect matchup to allow the Cardinal’s defensive line to get back on track with their first breakout game of the season. Cal has allowed seven sacks through two games even when they had more than one player from their preseason group remaining, and the Cardinal defensive line has some players who are too talented to justify one sack through two games. Stanford’s defensive line is also hungry to show how it can impact games, and it will put on a show on Friday.

What is one aspect of the game — one stat, one play, one positional battle — that Stanford could win that would clinch a victory?

JT: Running the football. We all know that head coach David Shaw loves to do it, and it is the most straightforward path to reclaiming the Axe. Cal has struggled to stop the run this season, giving up 244 and 205 yards in their first two games. If the Cardinal offensive line can establish the run game, like they did against a talented Oregon front seven a couple of weeks ago, the Cardinal running back duo of sophomores Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat will make the Golden Bears pay. This, of course, opens up everything else for the offense, and we could see senior quarterback Davis Mills torch the Bears defense with a couple big plays to the talented Cardinal wide receiver corps. 

The California Axe Committee runs with The Axe after the November 23, 2019 game in Palo Alto, California. (Photo: JOHN TODD/isiphotos.com)

EB: Since Jibriel took the running game, and we have already covered the battle in the trenches, I will go with quarterback play. Mills will have to outplay Garbers in order to win. Both QB’s are very capable, but I think Mills has more to prove right now — and he will do so in what will probably be Stanford’s biggest game of the season. The Cardinal have a better receiving corps, and Mills will need to bring his A game to return the Axe to its rightful place. 

SS: As Jibriel said, establishing the run early on is how Stanford will beat the Golden Bears. Cal has been awful at stopping the run — so much so that UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Oregon State quarterback Tristan Gebbia had to pass for just 196 and 147 yards, respectively, to lead their teams to victory. In a game where one team features talented rushers like Jones and the other team features a defense that can’t buy a stop on run plays, the key to victory will not come down to quarterback play. If the Cardinal can establish the run from the start and control the time of possession to keep their leaky defense off the field, the Axe should return to Stanford Stadium.

Neither team has won a game this year. For Stanford, it has been 398 days. For Cal, it has been 333 days. Which team comes out hungrier?

JT: This season has been incredibly disappointing for both these teams. The Cardinal were dealt a bad hand with the Mills COVID-19 test debacle, but nevertheless have not shown many promising signs in their two games, especially defensively. Cal was considered a “dark-horse” candidate for the conference title this year, and has now lost to two teams that were projected to be at the bottom of the conference. That being said, Stanford should come out hungrier and needs this game more than Cal. It’s been a steady five-year decline for the Cardinal, and losing the Big Game for a second straight year would be yet another step back for the program. Before the Cardinal can leave Autzen Stadium with a victory, they need to get back to establishing Bay Area dominance. 

EB: I think Stanford will come out hungrier. Losing a rivalry game is a terrible feeling, especially when you had not lost to your rival in a long time. That alone should make Stanford hungrier than Cal, but there are more factors at play. Stanford was not able to play Washington State this past weekend, plus did not get to start the season off on a good note thanks to the testing fiasco involving Mills and senior wide receiver Connor Wedington. Not to mention the Cardinal are still eager to put last season’s 4-8 record behind them. I think Stanford will come out raring to go on Friday. 

SS: While an extra week of rest has to be beneficial for the Cardinal given the injuries they’ve dealt with this season, two weeks off from football can lead to teams coming out flat as they try to shake off rust from the lack of game action. I agree with Jibriel that losing the Axe for the second year in a row would be a huge setback for the program, but Cal — who has had an equally disappointing season — has Big Game momentum on its side in the form of added motivation to defend the Axe. Additionally, as neither team is likely to make the conference championship game, this looks to be the most meaningful game remaining on each team’s schedule, and I see Cal coming out hungrier at home to defend its title as the Bay Area’s best college football team.

Contact Jibriel Taha at jtaha ‘at’ stanford.edu, Ells Boone at eboone24 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sofia Scekic at sscekic ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jibriel Taha is a staff writer for the sports section. He is from Los Angeles and studies economics. He also co-hosts The Stanford Daily's men's basketball podcast series. Contact him at jtaha ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Ells Boone is a desk editor for the sports section. He is a sophomore from Virginia Beach, Virginia, studying communication and economics. You can catch him waking up early on weekend mornings to watch his favorite Premier League team, Tottenham Hotspur, play. Contact him at eboone24 'at' stanforddaily.com.Sofia Scekic is the deputy managing editor for the sports section. She is a senior from Wisconsin studying Public Policy. An avid Green Bay Packers fan, she has watched nearly every game for the past nine years. Contact her at sscekic 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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