I think if you polled the Cal Bears fanbase before the season started in August, many would be happy with the thought of five wins for the entire season, and maybe being more competitive in the 117th Big Game (Saturday, 1 p.m. PT, Fox Sports One) against Stanford than the rivalry-worst 63-13 shellacking last season.
Instead, in front of the Berkeley faithful, the 5-5 Bears could win the Axe for the first time since 2009 and become bowl eligible with win No. 6 all in one fell swoop.
Cal has yet to produce a signature win that firmly establishes the program as on the way back up. The Bears have certainly had their chances to do so this season, but the defense failed each time. First and most devastating, the 49-45 collapse at Arizona that ended with the “Hill Mary.” Cal led in that game 28-6 at halftime and allowed the Wildcats to score an incredible 36 points in the fourth quarter alone. The UCLA game ended with an interception and a 36-34 loss instead of a potential game-winning field goal. I understand that conservative play is not head coach Sonny Dykes’ normal way of thinking, but there is a time and place for conservative play — the end of the UCLA game was it.
This year’s Big Game may bring another chance for Dykes to go against his normal plan of action and win. Many Big Games have been closer than expected. The first one in 1892 was expected to be a Cal victory, but the Cardinal pulled the upset by winning 14-10. A sign of things to come, as 42 of the 116 contests have had a final margin of seven points or less. In addition, while Stanford leads the series 59-46-11, the Cardinal have only scored a total of 120 points more than the Bears. As of this writing, the Cardinal are favored by five and a half even though the game is in Berkeley.
Though favored, Stanford is on a down year for reasons still unfathomable to the fanbase. Certainly the Cardinal, also at 5-5, know what’s at stake as much as Cal does. No matter how the season finishes, Stanford’s streak of four major bowl games is over. A loss in Berkeley and next week at UCLA would make Stanford bowl ineligible for the first time in five years. Cal would like nothing better than to help that happen.
The last time the Bears had over 400 yards of offense in Big Game was 2009, which was also the last time they won the game. If it happens again, the Bears ought to pick up win No. 47 in the series and show that Cal is closer to being back than anybody could have expected last year, or even in August.
And in case Cal needed any more motivation, there’s also this.