By Samuel Curry
A week full of tradition culminates in the Battle for the Axe on Saturday, as the No. 24 Stanford Cardinal (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12) and the California Golden Bears (4-6, 2-5) meet at California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley for the 119th Big Game.
Stanford’s campus is already buzzing with excitement as enormous banners reading “Beat Cal” have been hung and the fountains have been dyed red, and while some players try to downplay Saturday’s contest as just another game, head coach David Shaw is not afraid to acknowledge the emotions that come with the rivalry.
“It’s not just another game. Last night, you could just tell, seniors in particular — it’s a Monday night towards the end of the year, but we didn’t have to get them going last night. The guys were fired up … I anticipate us having a very good week of practice,” Shaw said on Tuesday.
But while those emotions can be channeled in a positive direction for the Cardinal, they will be especially careful to stay focused this week through all the hype.
“I’ve basically said the same thing to the team every year since I came here… when you walk in the stadium, you’re going to feel it. From the opposing fans, from the student section, you’re going to feel that, and it’s going to get your juices going,” said Shaw of the energy surrounding big game.
“We just have to make sure we’re doing the things football is all about, which is blocking, tackling, doing your job, knowing your assignment, playing hard, but playing smart … all those things that sometimes happen when you lose your focus and get overly amped to play the game.”
After all, behind all the hype and tradition are just two football teams hungry for a Pac-12 win. Aside from pride, Cal has bowl eligibility on the line, while Stanford will look to continue a three-game winning streak and improve its Pac-12 record in order to land a spot in a respectable bowl game.
The Bears will look to their explosive offense, led by Texas Tech transfer senior quarterback Davis Webb, to carry them to victory Saturday against a Stanford defense that has held every opponent under its scoring average this season. Webb is third in the nation in passing yards, averaging 360.1 yards per game, and has thrown for 33 touchdowns on the season, tying for fifth nationally.
“That kid has a quick release. That ball comes out fast, and it comes out accurately. They’ve done a great job getting him into their system … It’s impressive to watch,” said Shaw of Webb.
Webb has no shortage of targets to throw to, with six players on Cal’s roster catching three or more touchdowns, but Stanford’s primary concern will be junior wideout Chad Hansen, whose 122.4 yards per game ranks fifth nationally. Hansen, who only received a scholarship offer from FCS Idaho State coming out of high school, has exploded onto the scene, catching nine touchdowns this season despite missing two games.
“He’s phenomenal … I wasn’t sure who he was when the season started … then I saw [Cal’s] game in Australia, and I said, ‘Where did this guy come from? Holy mackerel!’ He’s big, he’s fast, he’s a great route runner, he catches the ball. As a former receiver, I love watching him play,” Shaw said.
Stanford’s offense will look to be potent on Saturday as well, after executing a balanced attack last week that produced 540 total yards against Oregon. Statistically, a similar performance from the Cardinal offense seems inevitable, as the Golden Bears give up slightly more points and yards per game than Oregon. Cal’s run defense is particularly bad, allowing 283.4 yards per game, which ranks second to last nationally. But, as always, David Shaw and co. won’t take anything for granted.
“We haven’t played well enough this season to look down on anybody about anything. We have not been the pantheon of consistency,” Shaw said. “We’ve got to focus on us and doing our jobs … We can’t get ahead of ourselves and think about what someone else doesn’t do well. We have to concentrate on what we do well and hopefully minimize what we don’t do well.”
Stanford leads the all-time series 61-46-11 and has won six straight games over the Golden Bears. A win Saturday would tie the longest streak in the series history.
“You’ve got two great academic institutions that are coming together once a year, around Thanksgiving, to strap it on and play some great football,” Shaw said. “There’s a lot of pride on the line this week.”
The 119th Big Game kicks off Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at California Memorial Stadium. The game will be aired on Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Samuel Curry at currys ‘at’ stanford.edu.