Seldom in the 123-year history of the Big Game between Cal and Stanford will more be at stake for both sides than in Palo Alto on Saturday night. Yet it’s the Big Matchup that makes this one even more special than many of the rest.
All eyes will be on Cal’s Jared Goff and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan, two accomplished quarterbacks who have the talent and resources to turn the battle for the Axe into an old-fashioned Western shootout.
“This game is going to have, in my estimation — and I’ve seen all of them now — the two best quarterbacks in the [Pac-12] conference and in a conference with a lot of good quarterbacks,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “If you’ve got one game to win, I’d probably pick between these two, and that’s saying something.”
Goff and Hogan are on the short list of the most effective quarterbacks in the country, even if they go about it in somewhat different ways. As a classic pocket passer, Goff has produced 30 touchdowns, 3,324 yards and a 155.4 efficiency rating. Hogan checks in at 18, 2,135 and 162.1, respectively. The two-way threat also has gained 274 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
While Goff owns the more glitzy numbers, Hogan has what he wants more — the Axe that goes to the winner. This almost certainly will be his last chance to get it, as Goff, a junior, is projected to be a first-round pick in the next NFL draft.
“Two of the things that I wanted do when I got here was bring us back to a bowl game and beat Stanford,” Goff said. “We accomplished that [first one] last week — we are going to go to a bowl game — and this week we’ll have a chance to beat Stanford.”
As if the defenses won’t be challenged enough already, both enter the game with banged-up secondaries.
Stanford will be without Ronnie Harris, its top cornerback and an All Pac-12 candidate. Redshirt freshman Alameen Murphy is expected to take his place. The already thin Cal back line may get thinner yet without safety Damariay Drew, who is questionable because of a knee problem.
If Oregon beats USC at home earlier in the day, Stanford (8-2) will need to win in order to nail down the North Division title and a Pac-12 championship game berth. It also can keep its faint hopes alive for one of the four vacancies in the College Football Playoff.
For Cal (6-4), which opened as a 12 -point underdog, an upset victory would make its season an unqualified success almost regardless of what took place the rest of the season. It also would enhance its chances of landing a spot in one of the more significant Pac-12-affiliated bowl games.
There’s also the matter of Cal coach Sonny Dykes and his ongoing contract negotiations.
A Cal victory would further confirm the program has made noticeable strides in two-plus seasons under Dykes and improve his case for a lucrative extension. But another lopsided loss could leave doubts in the minds of school officials and influential alumni alike. The Bears haven’t won the Big Game in six years, and in two tries under Dykes, they were pummeled by a combined 101-30 score.
Of course, supporters of both teams will tell you they have the greatest stake of all — the right to say that their team is better.
“The best rivalries also have proximity to where you go to the mall, and there’s somebody wearing a Cal shirt that says ‘Go Bears,’ and there’s somebody wearing a Stanford shirt passing him that says ‘Go Stanford,’” said Shaw, who has a 4-0 record in the Big Game. “It’s not necessarily bitter as much as it is, ‘We’re going to see you a lot over the course of the year, and we want to have bragging rights.’”
Cal comes off a much-needed 54-24 confidence-booster against Oregon State, one that snapped a streak of four consecutive losses. It also applied the brakes to a freefall that had been eerily similar to a year ago, when the Bears dropped six of their final seven games, including a 38-17 loss to Stanford in Berkeley.
“We needed a performance like this,” Dykes said. “We needed to come out and play really well so we could recall that we are a good football team. Some other good football teams have played better than us and beat us, so it was a total team performance. I thought our defense did a lot of good things. They played really well most of the night, but this gives us confidence going into [the] game against a very good Stanford football team and we know we are going to need it.”