For the past nine years, head coach David Shaw and the Stanford Axe have been constants on campus. Each season, Shaw coaches a respectable — and at times brilliant — football team to a winning record and bowl game, while taking care of the Golden Bears in the process.
On Saturday, when Stanford (4-6, 3-5 Pac-12) and Cal (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12) meet for the 122nd Big Game, throw all of that out.
“This is one of those games where we kind of draw a line between the rest of season and this game,” Shaw said. “Previous games don’t matter right now, it’s only about this game. It’s only about our Bay Area rival.”
For the first time since 2008, Cal comes into the matchup with a better record than Stanford. In that match, then-offensive coordinator Shaw called plays for now-offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard ’09. Pritchard threw for a career-high 306 yards on 22-of-37 with one touchdown to then-sophomore Doug Baldwin ’11, and three interceptions. In the first half, Stanford breached the Cal red zone three times but managed just three points. The Bears scored 37 unanswered before the Cardinal scored twice in garbage time to make it 37-16.
Many of the same things can be said about Stanford this season. Break-out wide receivers, a quarterback having a career day in a losing effort and red zone trips failing to materialized into points apply just as much to last week’s Washington State game as 2008’s Big Game.
Last week, junior Davis Mills set Stanford’s single-game passing record with 504 yards in an otherwise resounding defeat. For the fifth time in his career, but first in a Big Game, Mills will be Stanford’s starting quarterback on Saturday.
If the Cardinal had an “unmistakable sense of hope for the future” in 2008, now, the program may be on the other end of the trajectory. Then, Stanford was nearing the end of eight seasons with seven Big Game losses, but the season was viewed at the time, correctly, as promising. Two years later, the Cardinal finished the season ranked fifth and won the Orange Bowl in a blowout.
For almost a decade under Shaw, Stanford has clung to that dominance and identity. The Axe has been on campus the past nine seasons, the longest win streak in the history of the oldest rivalry on the West Coast. Shaw’s nine consecutive bowl appearances are the longest active run in the conference and include three trips to the Granddaddy of them all.
Now, however, Cal is one win away from back-to-back bowl appearances, the first time since 2008 and 2009. The Bears have a formidable defense led by inside linebackers Evan Weaver, who leads the nation in tackles, and Kuony Deng, who is third in the Pac-12 in total tackles per game.
“First of all, we hope Weaver misses the bus,” Shaw said. “Somehow Weaver got bigger, faster and better with age and experience.”
Stanford’s inside linebacking corps, for comparison, has been decimated. Until senior Curtis Robinson returned from injury last week, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson was essentially rotating three players between the two spots — fifth-year Ryan Beecher, senior Andrew Pryts and freshman Tristan Sinclair.
“I’ve always felt like family in that room,” Robinson said. “Through all the injuries that we’ve experienced and the ups and downs of the season, we’ve stayed strong as a group.”
“Rivalry games bring emotion,” Shaw said. “Both teams have had bright spots and low spots. Both teams have had injuries. This is one of those games that on gameday no one is going to care.”
Cal also has an experienced defensive backfield, with seven players having started a combined 143 games. In Stanford’s entire two-deep defensive depth chart, a total of 19 players have a combined 128 starts. Among a secondary that has been plagued by injury — most recently to senior safety Malik Antoine and junior cornerback Paulson Adebo, who will both miss Saturday — there are just 32 career starts, including senior cornerbacks Obi Eboh and Treyjohn Butler, who are both questionable.
“This has just been a process for coach Wilcox and his staff,” Shaw said. “Getting to the point where they’ve got a bunch of juniors and seniors out there that have played a lot of football. We had planned to be right there, also, with a bunch of juniors and seniors on both sides of the ball.”
If Eboh is held out, Stanford will likely start a pair of freshman cornerbacks, Kyu Blu Kelly and Zahran Manley, as well as first-year Jonathan McGill at nickelback.
“That should be exciting, starting two freshman corners, and a freshman nickel in the Big Game,” Shaw said. “It’s all hands on deck. Potentially anybody who’s healthy is probably going to play in this game.”
This season, Cal has turned 19-of-22 red zone drives into points, including 14 touchdowns. Stanford is 26-of-30 in the red zone, but have found the end zone just 13 times. The Bears’ anemic offense is last in the conference in points per game, but the Cardinal rank just one above. Last week alone, Stanford twice punted in plus territory and missed a field goal, while Mills threw an interception at the goal line.
“We got to put the ball in the end zone,” Pritchard said. “We get some of those opportunities early in the game. We didn’t perform like we wanted to.”
“A big takeaway, we gotta finish in the red zone,” Mills said. “We gotta score more touchdowns instead of ending drives in field goals and punts.”
Despite making a long-anticipated return to action last week in a home defeat to USC, the Bears’ starting quarterback Chase Garbers is questionable for Saturday. A healthy Garbers would be a huge lift for a Cal side that is 10-2 in games in which he has played more than half. The likely backup, Devon Modster, performed well against Washington State, completing 16-of-24 passes for 230 passing and 43 rushing yards with four total touchdowns, but is hovering around a 50% completion percentage for the season with as many interceptions as passing touchdowns.
On Tuesday, Shaw guessed that Modster would play.
“They’ve got an athletic quarterback,” Shaw said. “He’s been able to make some plays with his legs. That’s been a difficult thing for us to handle this year, so we have to really focus on containing the quarterback.”
“We know that we’re going to get their best shot just because it’s Big Game,” Robinson said. “It’s always that way.”
Emotions run high on Big Game day. An entire week of festivities, a fountain running red, train whistles on the hour and a rally lead up to the most anticipated game of the season. Whereas every other game is important for a tally in the win/loss column, Big Game has something tangible on the line — and it belongs to Stanford.
“This game is always important,” Pritchard said. “It’s Big Game, it’s for the Axe and we got to keep it in its rightful home.”
“This is always a week that we have a boost of energy,” Robinson said. “To be able to hoist that Axe at the end of the game is always a good sense of motivation compared to other weeks.”
“We always have the big game circled,” Mills said. “That’s a big historical rivalry that’s always been here. I mean, [it] should be fun to finally play in the game. I know there’s a bunch of tradition behind it with all the ceremonies on campus.”
No player on Stanford’s roster has ever experienced a loss in the Big Game. For the seniors especially, playing in their final rivalry game, at home in Stanford Stadium, there is an added weight to Saturday.
“It’s been crazy to grow with the different senior classes and win those games with those senior classes,” Robinson said. “I’m starting to feel that importance as a senior, and along with the fifth-year seniors, what this game means to us.”
“I charge the seniors with making sure that practices are at the level that we need them to be for how big this Big Game is,” Shaw said.
In another sign that times have changed, the Cardinal ran for just six yards. Whether or not he is prepared for it, this game will be an indictment on Shaw, the coach that has masterminded unprecedented success on the Farm but has failed to live up to the lofty standard he has set for the program.
“This is one of those rivalry games that’s for the most part done the right way,” Shaw said. “This is a respectful rivalry. This is an energetic emotional physical rivalry where after the game there’s a lot of handshakes and hugging.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.