Is this the worst Big Game ever? Both teams enter the game winless for the first time in the 123-year history of the contest (shoutout to Cybele Zhang for digging up that stat). Stanford and Cal might be the two worst teams in the Pac-12, but that does not matter on Friday. Because these Bay Area rivals are playing for the Axe, and that means something even in an otherwise lost 2020 season.
The Cardinal received an unexpected week off last Saturday due to Washington State’s COVID-19 issues, but that does not mean the bye week was entirely unwanted. Stanford was able to turn its attention to reclaiming the Axe earlier, while Cal was still dealing with a gritty Oregon State team that ultimately beat the Bears 31-27.
In a season where both teams would be lucky to play six games and neither is likely to make a bowl game, the Big Game is bigger than usual. Not because the eyes of the college football media will be on Berkeley, not because this is a battle for Pac-12 supremacy, but because the winner of this game will have something to feel good about in 2020, while the loser will leave with only questions.
Thanks to Cal’s resurgence and Stanford’s decline in the late 2010s, these programs are in a very similar place. This Big Game could determine which Bay Area program will control the rivalry in the 2020s.
The 2020 Black Friday Big Game will be a doorbuster if only because this game is the sole contest that truly matters to each team this season. After a nine-year run with the Axe, the Farm felt empty without the iconic trophy over the past 12 months. Here are three keys to taking it back:
1. Chase down Chase
Cal quarterback Chase Garbers permanently etched his name into Berkeley lore with a 16-yard go-ahead touchdown run with 1:19 remaining in last year’s Big Game. That play ultimately brought the Axe back to Berkeley. It also capped off a 357 total yard and two touchdown performance for Garbers in which he did everything for the Bears offense. In a season where Cal’s leading rusher (running back Marcel Dancy) has just 80 yards through two games, Garbers will have to do everything for the Cal offense yet again in this Big Game.
In order to keep Garbers from repeating his magical performance from 2019, the Cardinal defensive front must get pressure on him. Stanford has just one sack through two games, while Cal’s offensive line has given up seven sacks. That classic “something’s got to give” matchup will likely decide the game. If Garbers has time to throw and show off his running capability, he will shred a struggling Stanford defense. But if Stanford’s front seven can maul the decimated Bears front, the Cardinal can shut down Cal.
2. Return to the Run
Cal head coach Justin Wilcox has rebuilt the program around defense, but this year’s defense is not the dominant unit Pac-12 fans have come to expect. Cal is giving up 400 yards per game. The passing defense is fine thanks to a talented secondary, but Cal is 114th in the nation in rushing yards per attempt allowed. You can run on the Bears.
That’s exactly what Stanford needs to do. An unbalanced performance like Stanford had vs. Colorado, where the Cardinal attempted 56 passes to just 21 runs, would play directly into Cal’s hands. Yes, Stanford needs to let senior quarterback Davis Mills and the passing attack eat, but they need to leave some leftovers for sophomore running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat, too. Jones had 100 yards against Oregon, while Peat is averaging a ridiculous 10.4 yards per attempt. Stanford’s offensive line is just plain better than Cal’s front seven. Head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard need to press that advantage up front with a persistent rushing attack.
3. Save the Season
For Cal, this can be a step-back year in an otherwise upward program trajectory. For Stanford, 2020 feels like another slippery step down the Pac-12 pecking order. A loss on Friday would mean seven straight for Stanford dating back to Nov. 9, 2019. The Cardinal once dominated the conference. Now, they cannot even dominate the Bay Area. Cal got the Axe back in dramatic fashion last year. If Stanford lets them keep it this season, the Axe might stay in Berkeley for a while.
Stanford faces a Cal team that was demolished by UCLA and beaten by Oregon State. The Bears provided the only win of the season for both teams. Cal’s offense is ranked 123rd out of 127 FBS teams in yards per play. The rushing attack is netting only 2.7 yards per attempt. All those stats scream that Stanford should win this game. If Stanford is to make anything of this season, it must win this game.
The Stanford Axe is lonely and cold in Berkeley. The Cardinal need to bring it home. If they do not, 2020 automatically becomes a failed season for Stanford — and Shaw would face major questions about his program, whose win drought would extend to over 14 months.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.