By Jeremy Rubin
Saturday marks the third iteration of the Big Game coaching matchup between Stanford’s David Shaw ’94 and Cal’s Justin Wilcox. Shaw, a former Cardinal himself, has a 2-0 record against Wilcox. For a season in which the gap between the two teams is smaller than ever in recent memory, a breakdown of each coach is needed as they both attempt to vault their respective teams into bowl game contention.
“Coach Wilcox and I individually have a lot of respect for each other, and I think our institutions have a lot of respect for each other as well,” Shaw said.
In his nine-year career as head coach of Stanford football, Shaw has never lost a Big Game. The Cardinal has had the best conference winning percentage of any other Pac-12 team since he took the helm, and he’s graduated multiple NFL starters on both sides of the ball. Stanford has been thought of as a defensive powerhouse throughout his tenure, amassing multiple top-10 defensive finishes in the last decade.
Justin Wilcox’s tenure as a Golden Bear actually began in 2003 — nearly 20 years ago — when he served as the linebackers coach for the team for two years. After stints as defensive coordinator for four other programs, he returned to Berkeley in 2017, having amassed a 150-58 career record as an assistant coach from 2001 to 2015.
Shaw, who was a wide receiver for Stanford during his undergraduate career from 1991 to 1994, has built some of the nation’s most productive offenses. His offensive schemes have led to outstanding seasons from positions all across the field, one of the most notable being running back Christian McCaffrey, who broke the NCAA record for all-purpose yards with 3,864 yards in 2015.
He is also the quickest coach in Pac-12 history to win three Coach of the Year awards. Shaw’s 86 career wins and counting are the most in program history.
In just under three seasons as head coach of the Golden Bears, Wilcox has a 17-18 career record. He signed a five-year extension this past offseason, stretching his coaching duties to 2023.
In 2018, Wilcox led his 15th-ranked defense in yards per game to the Cheez-It Bowl, Cal’s first bowl game in three years. In this contest, now known more infamously as the “Cheez-Int Bowl,” Wilcox lived up to his billing as a defensive mastermind. He and his defense held TCU quarterback Grayson Muehlstein to just 27 yards and an incredible four interceptions. However, Cal’s offense suffered an even worse implosion. The Golden Bears mustered just seven points in the contest and threw an interception — their fifth of the afternoon — on the first play of overtime to set up a game-winning field goal for the Horned Frogs.
This season has not been kind to the Cardinal due to injury and ineffective play calling. Shaw is facing increased scrutiny as the season draws to a close. Barring a 10th-straight Big Game win and a huge upset against No. 15 Notre Dame, Stanford will not qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2008.
Injuries are not the sole issue with this team — Shaw’s decision making has also been called into question. Against Washington State, for example, after multiple chunk plays to wide receivers on the outside to trim the deficit to three, the offense reverted back to shorter, catch-and-run slants and screens. This conservative play stalled multiple drives and ballooned the deficit from 25-22 to 49-22. Without a singular explosive backfield weapon as in previous years, Shaw will have to adapt to stay in the race for a Bowl Game spot.
Through four weeks of this season, the Golden Bears looked to be trending in the opposite direction as Stanford. The team rattled off four straight victories and at one point climbed to the No. 15 spot in the AP Poll. Wilcox’s stout defense held all opponents to 20 points or less.
The team crashed back down to reality in the second half of the season. Wilcox’s team is 1-5 over the last six contests, and his defense has surrendered nearly 30 points per game in the same stretch. Cal is currently last in the Pac-12 standings with a 2-5 conference record. With starting quarterback Chase Garbers injured, Wilcox will have to rely on backup Devon Modster. To become bowl eligible for the second-straight year, the Golden Bears will need to win either the Big Game or their meeting with UCLA on Nov. 30. Wilcox will look to reverse his team’s fortunes against the Cardinal and find his first career victory against Shaw and Stanford.
Contact Jeremy Rubin at jjmrubin ‘at’ stanford.edu.