The Stanford Cardinal have gone bowling every year since 2009. That streak rests on the Cardinal being able to close out 2019 with a pair of wins over rivals. The first pits Stanford against the California Golden Bears in the 122nd edition of The Big Game.
The 2009 season was also notable as the last in which Cal took home the Stanford Axe. The symbol of this Bay Area rivalry has resided on The Farm every year since. Cal's best chance to reclaim the prize might be this season — and securing bowl eligibility might well hinge on winning this game, as well.
California at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 23 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Stanford -2.5
When California Has the Ball
In a Nov. 9 win over Washington State, the Cal offense was clicking in a way it hadn't since losing quarterback Chase Garbers to injury on Sept. 27. Devon Modster was in control of the offense, Christopher Brown Jr. ran the ball hard, and the Golden Bears put up 33 points.
Garbers returned to the lineup last week against USC, and he led the Golden Bears down the field on a touchdown drive to open the game. From that point forward, it was all Trojans. Garbers reinjured his shoulder, and the outlook for Cal's final two games was suddenly much murkier.
In addition to losing Garbers again, Brown's status is uncertain. Modster's play has been markedly up and down. Playing up against a Stanford defense that has had its own issues with consistency will shape Saturday's contest. Casey Toohill and Thomas Booker promise to bear down on the quarterback often.
When Stanford Has the Ball
Stanford's offensive play has been all over the map this season, the result of injuries across the offensive line and a revolving door at quarterback. Last week, Davis Mills was up at quarterback — and played quite well. He went throw-for-throw with Washington State's Anthony Gordon until the fourth quarter, when a pair of interceptions dissolved Stanford's hope for a rally on the Palouse.
Despite the turnovers, Mills' performance offers some hope that Stanford can move the ball against a talented Cal defense. USC attacked the Golden Bears aggressively last week, targeting standout wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. often. Stanford's Simi Fehoko has emerged as a similarly dynamic playmaker in recent weeks, racking up six touchdowns and averaging 31.7 yards per catch since the start of October.
But on the topic of dynamic playmakers, there may be none on the field more impacting than Cal linebacker Evan Weaver. The charismatic product of Spokane backs up his talk with some of the most aggressive ball-hawking seen anywhere in college football. Not only does he have 150 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss and 2.5 sacks, he has also two forced fumbles and defended three passes. Stanford's inconsistent run game may struggle to get moving against the Weaver-led defense.
If ever there were a year for Cal to reclaim the Axe, this is it. Stanford's tumultuous season puts the Cardinal's back against the wall in the final two weeks, and the weight of injuries just might be too much for an already thin offense to bear. But in the same vein, Cal's own offensive inconsistency might preclude the Golden Bears from taking full advantage. Expect a low-scoring affair decided on a handful of plays in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: California 17, Stanford 14
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.