BERKELEY — The students wearing more football apparel and the signs hanging around Cal’s campus tell the story of the energy surrounding the program as well as anything else.
“Chop the Tree,” one banner reads.
“Beat Stanford,” another proclaims.
With the Bay Area’s teams heading in opposite directions, the Big Game has a different feel this year because, well, it’s actually a big game for both teams.
Stanford is no longer the powerhouse it has been in recent years, and Cal is returning to relevance in Sonny Dykes’ second season as coach. Both enter Saturday’s 117th meeting at Memorial Stadium with .500 records and a chance to become bowl-eligible.
“You just look at our program now from where it was a year ago, a lot of the negativity has slowly gone away,” Dykes said Tuesday. “We bottomed out last year. I think we’re in a much more conducive place right now than we were a year ago.”
Stanford and Cal meeting in mid-November with the same record seemed unfathomable just a few months ago.
The Cardinal (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12 Conference) won 11 games last season, captured the conference championship for the second straight year and were the only team in the country to go to four consecutive BCS bowls. The Golden Bears (5-5, 3-5) won just one game — against lower-tier Portland State — and lost by an average of 25.6 points last season.
Now each team needs to win one of its final two games to become bowl-eligible. Cal closes its season at home against BYU a week from Saturday, while Stanford finishes at No. 11 UCLA.
“We’ve got two chances to do it in the next two weeks. But doing it this week would be a lot better,” Cal quarterback Jared Goff said.
Stanford’s slide might be the most surprising development. David Shaw’s team had been the model of consistency, winning behind a physical defense and a power running game that pushed around opponents.
Stanford still leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense (16.5 points) but has the conference’s lowest-scoring offense (23.9 points). The Cardinal also are tied with Washington State for the worst turnover margin (minus-10) in the Pac-12.
“It’d be easy to say there’s been one thing that’s been holding us back. But it’s been a little bit of just about everything, from turnovers to missed field goals to blown coverages to a lot of things that typically don’t happen to a Stanford football team,” Shaw said.
The Bears began the season with better health, more depth and a deeper understanding of Dykes’ Bear Raid offense that showed flashes of greatness but lacked consistency in his first year.
Goff was a rare bright spot as a freshman, throwing for a school-record 3,508 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has passed for 3,398 yards, 30 TDs and four interceptions this season, getting help from an improved running game led by Daniel Lasco.
Like Stanford, though, Cal has struggled to find a balance between offense and defense.
The Bears have the Pac-12’s second-best scoring offense (40.6 points) behind Oregon and the worst scoring defense (39.7 points) per game. They also are allowing 518.3 yards, the most in the conference.
But the Bears have something they didn’t have at this time last season: confidence. It’s the same thing Stanford is struggling to rediscover now.
“We were playing them last year at 1-10, this year we’re playing them at 5-5. Definitely that helps a lot with excitement and enthusiasm coming into this week,” Goff said. “We feel like we can be competitive with them and have a chance to win.”
Nobody expected that last season.
Stanford won its fourth straight game in the series a year ago, crushing Cal 63-13 for the most lopsided victory in Big Game history. The Cardinal are just six-point favorites this season and coming off consecutive losses for the first time in five years.
The Stanford Axe hasn’t been this up for grabs since most of the current players were in high school.
“We have some momentum. We’re doing a lot better compared to last year,” Cal wide receiver Bryce Treggs said. “If there was any year to do it, it’d be this year.”