The Axe is on the line as Stanford and Cal both seek their first win of 2020
When the California Golden Bears and Stanford Cardinal met in the first installment of The Big Game, Benjamin Harrison was president, Arizona was two decades away from becoming a state, and the contest was held in the spring.
The 2020 installment very nearly became the first springtime edition since then, but the Pac-12's initial plans to hold the season in early 2021 were reevaluated. We now get this bitter Bay Area rivalry on Thanksgiving weekend, with Cal seeking to maintain possession of the Stanford Axe for the first time since 2008-09.
While the rivalry itself takes precedence, there's also a sense of urgency with both Stanford and Cal out for their first win of the campaign. The Cardinal's disappointing 2019 has continued into 2020, while a Cal team with designs on a Pac-12 championship heading into the season has limped out of the gates.
Stanford at California
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 27 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: California -1.5
When Stanford Has the Ball
The peculiarity of this season is evident in Stanford's first three weeks. The Cardinal were without quarterback Davis Mills in the opener at Oregon, the result of COVID-19 protocols. Stanford then had its Nov. 21 game against Washington State canceled because of issues with the virus within the Cougars' program.
Stanford is thus coming off an unexpected bye week, but with Mills back in the lineup. The Cardinal offense looked different in its first two games with and without Mills behind center: At Oregon, Stanford seemed to regain the rushing groove it lost in 2018 and '19, but the Cardinal were more reliant on the pass against Colorado.
The possibility for balance exists, which is something Stanford hasn't had in a few seasons. Nathaniel Peat and Austin Jones are both capable ball-carriers, and Mills is an effective passer with a talented corps of pass-catchers. Stanford's issue has been putting that together. The Cal defense has yet to show out as anticipated ahead of the season, but it's not for lack of playmakers. Camryn Bynum matched up on Simi Fehoko will be worth watching on Friday.
When California Has the Ball
The return of Chase Garbers at quarterback was cause for celebration at Cal, but the Golden Bears offense looked sluggish in its season opener at UCLA. That game isn't great for making any sort of evaluation: Cal had its season delayed by a week, and the UCLA game was thrown together at the 23rd hour as a COVID protocol replacement.
The Golden Bears were much more effective against Oregon State, with Garbers passing for three touchdowns. The absence of Christopher Brown Jr. looms large, however, and Cal goes into Friday's contest with a variety of offensive line question marks due to the virus.
Stanford's defensive front hasn't been the overwhelming monster the Cardinal deployed in its Pac-12 title-contending seasons, but it still features enough talent to pressure Garbers in a manner similar to UCLA against Cal. The Golden Bears need Marcel Dancy to establish a reliable rushing attack.
Points may come at a premium on Friday, the result of both of these rivals' similar philosophies and the uncertainty under which COVID-19 has shrouded this season. One or two big plays could be the difference. Stanford arguably has the personnel more likely to spring such a big play, in particular Fehoko. The deep-ball specialist could be the X-factor in what should be a competitive contest between desperate rivals.
Prediction: Stanford 21, California 20
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.