College Sports

Big Game a measuring stick for Cal program

Stanford players, including James Vaughters (9), run with the Stanford Axe after defeating Cal last year in Berkeley.
Stanford players, including James Vaughters (9), run with the Stanford Axe after defeating Cal last year in Berkeley. Associated Press file

Stefan McClure talked with a certain reverence about the Stanford Axe this week. As a fifth-year senior, the Cal safety is well-versed in the football rivalry with Stanford that will see its 118th installment played Saturday. Yet for McClure, the trophy that goes to the winner of the annual Big Game retains an aspect of mystery.

“I haven’t touched the Axe,” McClure said. “Haven’t even seen it in person, face to face. I’ve only seen it through pictures or on TV.”

That’s because Cal last won the Big Game in 2009, the latest pendulum swing in a long rivalry that saw the Bears also lose seven consecutive meetings with the Cardinal from 1995 to 2001, then win seven out of the next eight years. McClure’s first Big Game experience came in 2011, when Stanford edged Cal 31-28 in a rainy affair behind then-quarterback Andrew Luck.

The close loss, McClure recalled, “hurt so much.”

Recent meetings have been less competitive. Two years ago, in the Bears’ 1-11 season under first-year coach Sonny Dykes, they lost a 63-13 rout that was the largest margin of defeat in series history. Last fall, Stanford controlled the line of scrimmage in a 38-17 victory, rushing for five touchdowns against a Cal team that finished 5-7.

Bears bowl-eligible

The Bears enter Saturday having secured bowl eligibility for the first time under Dykes with a win over Oregon State last weekend. Stanford is coming off a two-point loss to Oregon that likely dashed its College Football Playoff hopes, but the Cardinal can clinch the Pacific-12 Conference North title and a berth in the conference championship game by beating its Bay Area rival.

Though the Big Game will not carry the implications that it appeared it would after Cal started the season 5-0, there is still significance on both sides, especially for a Bears team hoping for a strong finish.

“We’re trying to keep taking steps forward, (and) this is one of those steps,” Dykes said this week. “Beating your rival is always important, I think, to getting where you want to go as a program. I think winning on the road against a Top 25 team is a step as well.”

Dykes said the Bears “will certainly find out Saturday” if they have closed the gap with Stanford at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal leads the FBS in time of possession this season, reflective of a steady running game that features the nation’s leader in all-purpose yards per game (241.8) in sophomore back Christian McCaffrey. Quarterback Kevin Hogan is Stanford’s all-time leading rusher at the position and has completed 68 percent of his passes this season.

“Everyone has to be assignment-sound,” McClure said of Cal’s defense. “Otherwise they will exploit it. And they’ve got athletes, and they’ve got more speed this year; they’ll take it the distance.”

Stanford’s defense, meanwhile, has allowed the fewest total yards per game in the Pac-12 (348.4). Its secondary will be without top cornerback Ronnie Harris because of an ankle injury, but Dykes said that won’t matter if his own pass-heavy Bear Raid offense cannot establish an advantage in the trenches.

“It starts up front and our ability to run the ball and pass-protect,” Dykes said. “If we can do those two things, typically it’s going to be a good day for us, and if we can’t, it’s more of a struggle.”

Big Games have not been memorable for Cal quarterback Jared Goff, who was injured in the 2013 game and threw for 182 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions last season. But Goff, coming off of a six-touchdown performance against Oregon State that tied a Cal record, is the most prolific passer in program history. It could be the last time the Bears face Stanford with Goff, should he elect to enter the NFL draft next spring, but the junior said that isn’t on his mind this week.

“I want to win the Big Game every year – I want to win every game just the same,” Goff said. “It’d be big, though. I think it’d be big for everyone. I think everyone in the program wants to beat them.”

Senior wide receiver Maurice Harris agreed that a win over Stanford would “do a lot for the team. Winning this game, I think, would open it up for the future, the rest of the guys that are coming up, just open it up by showing that you can beat Stanford.”

Early this week, reports surfaced that Cal had begun contract extension talks with Dykes, who has two more years on his current deal but could field offers from other teams after the season. Dykes has the Bears bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, though he still is searching for a marquee conference win. Dykes’ Cal teams are 0-8 against the other three California teams and winless in three meetings with Oregon, the class of the Pac-12 North in recent years along with Stanford.

For McClure and the Bears’ other seniors, though, Saturday is their last chance to defeat their rival – and to hoist the trophy that has eluded them every year since their arrival in Berkeley.

“It’d mean a lot to the freshmen, and to the older guys, the upperclassmen on this team who have been through so much,” McClure said. “A 1-11 season, just grinding from the bottom to try to get to this point where we’re competitive and respectable in the Pac-12.

“It’d mean a lot to get this Axe back.”