Stanford linebacker Gabe Reid was sitting in class this week watching a PowerPoint presentation when his teacher snuck into an extra slide.
Basically the slide said: Beat Cal.
“I think it’s really special because you’re playing for something that’s bigger than yourself,” Cardinal wide receiver Michael Wilson said. “You play for former soccer players, the student body, all the athletes, the NFL guys. So many people have opinions about the game, so many people are invested in the game, so many people have invested so much in it and you don’t want to disappoint anyone.
The rivalry has lived up to its bill in each of the past two years.
In 2019, Cal QB Chase Garbers rushed for a touchdown with 1:19 left to play at Stanford Stadium as the Bears won 24-20 to reclaim the ax for the first time in 10 years. Last year, defensive end Thomas Booker blocked an extra point with 58 seconds left as Stanford beat Cal 24-23 at Berkeley.
This year, the preparation for Saturday’s 124th Big Game at Stanford Stadium (4 p.m., Pac-12 network) is a little different.
Stanford (3-7, 2-6 Pac-12) begins a five-game losing streak on Saturday – his longest in 15 years. And Cal (3-6, 2-4 Pac-12) was hijacked by a COVID outbreak and in their previous game became the only team to lose to Arizona.
But the losing slippage and messy COVID situation did not dampen enthusiasm within the two programs.
“All Cal fans you talk to, the first thing they bring up is, ‘Go beat Stanford this year,’” Cal center Matthew Cindric said. “It’s exciting to go and win not only for us, but for the fans. Everyone wants the ax.
Wilson, a senior, has experienced both winning and losing the Axis.
“I’ve been on both sides, and there is no greater feeling than winning the Axis, and on the other hand, there is no worse feeling than losing the Axis.” Wilson said. “In 2019 when Cal stormed our pitch it was the worst I have ever felt after losing. Just chasing that feeling of victory and holding the ax is what drives us this week.
On the back wall of the auditorium where Stanford hosts team meetings, there are photos of the seniors of the winning teams holding the ax after beating Cal.
“It’s something we always talk about,” said Reid. “At the end of the week, we want our elders to be up there, clapping, celebrating, holding the ax. ”
The excitement is just as strong at Berkeley, where Cal coach Justin Wilcox spends time each season explaining the meaning of the Big Game to his team.
“Each year we talk about the history of The Ax in detail,” Wilcox said. “It’s an amazing story and I want them to enjoy it because they have the chance to play in this game and it means so much to so many people. I think it’s a special and special game for so many reasons and I want them to feel it.
Here are the biggest keys to the game:
Tanner McKee is back for Stanford while Garbers is available for Cal. Stanford was outscored 87-21 while McKee missed the last two games with a leg injury, while Cal only scored three points against Arizona when Garbers was sidelined due to protocols. COVID. Garbers was one of seven starters, and 21 players in total, who weren’t available against the Wildcats.
THE NEW STANFORD FACADE
The Cardinal’s defense, ranked 127th in the FBS in yards allowed, moved to a four-man front last week against Oregon State, and the new roster appeared to be working better. The Beavers still ran for 218 yards, but it was less than their conference average, and those yards were more the product of missed tackles than big holes.
Cal is tied at the top of the national ranking for least turnover (six) and is fifth nationally in terms of turnover margin. The Bears haven’t committed a turnover in four straight games. Stanford has won the turnover battle in all three wins this season and has lost the turnover battle in all six losses.
Stanford’s 136 rushing yards last week might not seem like much, but it was his most productive running game in eight weeks. The Cardinal will be hoping to continue to be balanced against the Bears, but most do without right guard / tackle Branson Bragg, who had started every game this season but suffered a season-ending injury at Corvallis.
It has been a demoralizing few weeks for both teams as Stanford lost all hope of bowl eligibility and Cal was exhausted by a COVID outbreak. But a victory on Saturday will go a long way in erasing those bad feelings. Stanford linebacker Jordan Fox said the team has a new motto: Finishing Strong.
“We had high hopes, with goals in mind to win the Pac-12 championship and fight for a playoff berth,” Fox said. “Things got a bit daunting, but it’s the way you react, the way you deal with adversity and how you get out of it. We have two opportunities to fight to the end.