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The Big Game: Can Stanford get their first win

Will The Axe return home on Friday?

Stanford v California Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The Stanford Cardinal can get their first and biggest win of the 2020 football season this Friday afternoon when they take on the California Golden Bears in the 123rd Big Game.

The Cardinal and Bears both enter the game with identical 0-2 records after Cal’s first game of the season was cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak while Stanford’s Week 3 matchup with Washington State was cancelled due to the same reasons.

Now, both programs enter this week’s Big Game winless during the shortened 2020 season, and with very little to play for as the Oregon Ducks and USC Trojans each hold the inside track to representing the conference in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

The point can be made that this is the last ‘game to play for something’ for Stanford, as this season has largely unraveled at its seams, for both programs.

Cal enters this meeting having stolen away The Axe last season, breaking Stanford’s historical run of nine straight victories from 2010-2018. As we approach the game, let’s take a look at the biggest items of note for the 123rd Big Game:

Stanford holds the historical record over Cal, 59-44-10.

Stanford has the series’ longest win streak at nine games AND the series’ largest margin of victory from the 2013 trouncing of the Bears, 63-13.

Stanford has an all-time better win percentage at .580 to .551.

The Cardinal hold the edge in conference championships as well, 15-14.

Stanford has put 267 players in the NFL draft compared to 240 for Cal

The Cardinal have been ranked in the AP poll for 303 weeks, 103 more weeks than Cal at 200

So to the gridiron this season. It hasn’t really been that pretty for either team this season, but we can take a look at some of the more important position battles in this one.

QB play

Cal QB Chase Garbers threw for three touchdowns against Oregon State last week, but has also matched that with three interceptions this season. He has struggled to really see the field, save for a few good throws against the Beavers and is really missing throws last season that he was hitting when healthy. He’s been inefficient over the middle of the field and in the short to intermediate range of the field, where he dominated a year ago.

Most importantly for Stanford, Garbers has made a few errant throws when he’s been kept clean from pressure in the pocket. Those kind of mistakes are the ones you can see week to week as those are completely on the quarterback.

The Cardinal secondary has been good, not great, all things considered. They missed Kyu Blu Kelly in their first game against Oregon as Ethan Bonner, who played in his place, got beat deep multiple times. Kelly allowed just one long reception in his first game back and should be integral in locking down some of the skillplayers for Cal outside.

When it comes to the middle of the field, however, Stanford has had solid coverage play from Levani Damuni, after his two-takeaway game against Oregon saw him get more playing time in Week 2. Malik Antoine has also been solid over the middle of the field as well.

Overall, the secondary with a healthy Kelly absolutely has an advantage when it comes to throw-for-throw efficiency this season versus Garbers.

Run game

The rushing game is obviously an integral part of the David Shaw attack for the Cardinal. Austin Jones has toted the rock 29 times already and Nathaniel Peat has chipped in with another 11 carries. Though Peat leads the team with 114 rushing yards, 73 of those came on his long run versus Oregon and Jones has been the most impressive on a down-for-down basis.

The Bears allowed Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson to go for 196 yards on 18 carries last week, allowing Jefferson to ice the game with a long run late that saw them run the clock out afterwards. He also had a 75-yard touchdown run to open the Beavers scoring as well.

The Stanford offensive line is certainly in a better place than the Beavers offensive line, and that should absolutely mean trouble for the Bears, who seemingly haven’t found anyone capable of replacing Evan Weaver from last year.

UCLA even ran for 236 yards against Cal’s rush defense in their first game as well.

Watch out for pressure and Bynum, Hicks

The Bears best two attributes on defense have certainly been their likely NFL draft picks in the secondary. Camryn Bynum has been a stout run defender at the cornerback position, playing much bigger than he is. Hicks has shown off his cornerback skills multiple times, now at his safety position as he transitioned to fill the void left from both Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis at safety as they’re now in the NFL.

In his first game this season, Stanford QB Davis Mills was solid downfield and over the deep middle and deep right. That plays directly into the hands of Bynum and Hicks, so he’ll have to sharpen up his accuracy and decision-making to the other levels of the field to stay away from those two.

And when it comes to pressure, Mills was a paltry 3-11 for 26 yards when he faced pressure from Colorado. Cal has recorded on average 11 pressures a game and has multiple sacks this season. The Stanford offensive line will be in charge of stopping Cameron Goode off the edge and Brett Johnson up the middle. New starter JH Tevis has also put together some solid play on the defensive line and could also present an issue if he continues to get home up the middle.

The offensive line keeping Mills clean from pressure will be vital to allow the receivers time to break and separate from Hicks and Bynum.

Simi Fehoko vs Camryn Bynum is absolutely a must-watch battle not only for college football fans but for NFL draft enthusiasts.

Overall, on paper, the Cardinal have the advantage at some of the more important factors when it comes to winning. Head coach David Shaw must absolutely come up with a good game plan offensively to push this game to those strengths and that will ultimately be where this game is won or lost.

Either way, it’s Thanksgiving Week, it’s Rivalry Week, it’s Big Game week.

Stanford is going to get The Axe.