“Awful, absolutely awful.” After 367 days of sitting with the Big Game loss, head coach David Shaw ’95 did not answer in coach speak when asked how it felt.
“You hate to lose to your rival, you hate to lose to your rival at home — hate to see them carrying the Axe on your field,” Shaw added. “Hopefully we get to return the favor.”
Last year, Cal fans stormed the field at Stanford Stadium after ending a historic nine-year run for Stanford with the Axe. Entering the 123rd Big Game, a series which Stanford leads 64-47-11, the goal is simple.
“We got to bring our Axe back,” said fifth year outside linebacker Jordan Fox. “It’s still a bad feeling in our mouth after they rushed the field last year on us and won in our home stadium. This one’s a lot more personal, and we’re doing whatever it takes to win this game.”
Particularly for the seniors, who had never lost a Big Game until last year, the meaning of the game is unparalleled.
“Obviously, we’re not trying to lose games; but if we were to pick one game that we could win as a senior class, we would pick to beat Cal,” said senior Gabe Reid, who has moved from outside linebacker to the inside to alleviate depth issues.
No single game is more important than the Big Game, and no more than this year, when both Stanford and Cal will enter the game winless for the first time ever. Both programs are 0-2, each having had a game canceled (Cal technically had two canceled and one added).
In a year in which Stanford is not scheduled to play many of its other rivals, the game against Cal holds more meaning than ever. Stanford is not planning to meet USC or UCLA for the first time since 1945, nor Notre Dame for the first time since 1996.
For nine straight years, Stanford won the Big Game, the longest stretch in either school’s history. That fact made it all the more difficult to stomach for the Cardinal faithful.
“I say that the hardest loss I personally took was last year losing to Cal because the standard that’s been set here is we just beat Cal. That’s what we do,” said senior right tackle Foster Sarell. “I felt bad for the legacy of that year.”
Sophomore running back Austin Jones, who moved to Antioch in the eighth grade, attended Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland and has friends on the Bears’ team. In high school, his teachers pushed him to go to Cal. After last year’s game, he got texts, calls and emails informing him that he made the wrong decision.
“So it’s definitely a pretty personal game for me,” he said.
It is also personal between the two quarterbacks. Stanford’s senior captain Davis Mills will get a rematch against Cal’s Chase Garbers.
Shaw noted that Stanford had every opportunity to win the game, but California took it with brilliant performances from linebacker Evan Weaver and Garbers, whose 16-yard rushing touchdown was the difference. While Weaver no longer suits up in blue and gold, Garbers certainly does.
“He’s a dangerous weapon,” Reid said. “We saw that last year in the Big Game, he kind of gassed us.”
Cal’s quarterback rushed for 72 yards against Stanford and started a four-game streak with a rushing touchdown that was snapped last week. On the other side, Mills has not played a game under normal conditions — he missed the first due to testing protocol errors and had just 45 minutes of practice leading up to the loss against Colorado.
Unlike last year, Stanford faces fewer questions along the offensive line. Sophomore right guard Branson Bragg was cleared last week to play and will join a line anchored by Sarell at right tackle and senior Drew Dalman at center.
The offensive line may benefit more than any other positional group from the absence of fans and the noise they make because of how crucial communication is to its success. Through two games, the offensive line has given up just one sack.
“It makes communication a lot easier,” Sarell said. “It’s also kind of interesting because you can hear everybody’s communication, which is kind of unique. So you’re hearing the defense a lot more vividly than you usually would.”
In the season opener, Stanford rushed for 197 yards at Oregon. Against Colorado, however, Stanford’s run game planned for one defensive scheme in practice, but on game day the Buffaloes did not show it.
“To be honest, the thing that is emphasized is we’re pretty good, and we need to be dominant,” Sarell said.
Jones and fellow sophomore Nathaniel Peat will make up the bulk of the Cardinal rushing attack. With the cancellation of the game against Washington State, Stanford shifted its schedule a day forward so it would not have to treat the Friday game like a short week, making Saturday an off day. Jones used the time to rest, watch film and review the playbook.
Not only is the timeline shifted for the first Friday Big Game in history, but also the rivalry’s pageantry. Reid noted a change in the atmosphere on campus without the red fountain or banners, but emphasized that the seniors are maintaining the traditions in other ways.
“We’ve been really good about keeping the energy high, keeping that whole rivalry attitude present in practice,” Reid said.
Stanford is using that energy from practice and hoping to carry it over into the game, where they will not be able to draw upon Stanford fans making the trip to Berkeley for extra support.
“We’re so juiced up and fired up internally and personally and motivated as a team. We’re going to be flying around, we’re going to have that energy,” Fox said. “Fans are not going to be a factor.”
Normally, fans are an instrumental part of the rivalry that divides the Bay Area, and spectators on either side can celebrate the community it fosters. Personally, Shaw was saddened by the loss of the game for the fans, including his wife and kids.
Other differences from the pageantry of the Big Game include no marching bands, Oski or the Stanford Tree. The Axe will be displayed on a platform behind the Cal bench and there will be no access to Tightwad Hill. Further, the cannon typically situated on the hill will be moved to the east rim of the stadium, though it still will be fired after each Cal touchdown.
“If there’s a Big Game being played the Axe will be in the stadium,” Shaw said.
On Friday, everything will be different — from the day of the week, to the emptiness, to the Stanford Axe being on the Berkeley sideline. Still, the greatest rivalry in college football will kick off at 1:30 p.m. And for that, we can be grateful.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.