by Celso Chamochumbi - 11/18/2005
The short, fifty-minute drive separating Berkeley from the Farm (Stanford) more or less encapsulates the little separation between the two football programs.
In early September, it seemed inconceivable that the Big Game would be much of a contest. Cal entered the season optimistic that Head Coach Jeff Tedford would groom quarterback Joe Ayoob into the next hotshot Bears prospect, and the team figured that it had a legitimate shot at putting an end to USC's undefeated streak. A 5-0 start to the season brought national attention, and Bears fans dreamed big.
On the other hand, Stanford began the 2005 season hoping to ease past the horrific Buddy Teevens era. New Head Coach Walt Harris and his team, however, quickly earned dubious fame for losing a home game to Division 1-AA UC Davis. Then, for the past two months, one team quietly ascended, as the other crashed hard. Stanford collected important road victories over Washington State, Arizona, and Oregon State, while Cal paid dearly for inconsistent play, suffering four recent losses as a result.
This Saturday, at Stanford Stadium, two teams that began the season with very different aspirations face off with the hopes of attaining one common goal: the axe!
Per the tradition of November college football, teams across America will reduce the meaning of their season to one basic factor: beating one's rival. A rivalry that dates to the late nineteenth century, the Cal-Stanford Big Game is more famous for an indelible moment in college sports history-The Play--, than for influencing the outcome of national championship races. In 1982, in what was John Elway's last Pac-10 game, the Bears produced the unlikeliest of finishes when five different players strung together a series of laterals that culminated, for good measure, with a Stanford trombone player taking a lick in the end zone that punctuated the foiled, premature celebration. In the twenty-something years since 1982, the Cal-Stanford rivalry has actually been marked by long winning streaks, rather than miraculous comebacks.
When Tyrone Willingham replaced Bill Walsh at Stanford in 1996, he patched together an impressive six-game winning streak, ending only in 2002 after his departure and the arrival of Tedford. During Tedford's reign Cal is 3-0 versus Stanford, and 1-0 SU & ATS as the visitors. Despite the recent swings each team has experienced, Cal still enters the game favored by four points. Many will take into account the recent swings of both teams, factor in home field, and conclude that Stanford will win this game, sealing a bowl berth in the process. To those, I urge caution.
Cal's failures this year, and most prominently Joe Ayoob's poor play, has left one thing clear: last year's phenomenal run was an aberration. Bears fans should get used to the idea that a 7-4 type season is reason enough to celebrate. Anything extra is icing, and a .500 season isn't beyond the realm of possibility.
When expectations are adjusted, the Bears still have a talented team that could put a scare in just about anyone, but one that shouldn't be counted on winning big road games against strong teams. Or put another way, Berkeley does not have a national caliber team; it is merely a top-30 type of program, albeit one that is well-coached and plays hard. The talent, this year, is missing; and in most seasons will not be well-rounded enough to mount a serious run at a conference title.
In short, even if they do not pull off the convincing road wins normally expected from the national powerhouses, Tedford's teams have still beaten every team that they should have beaten.
The recent quarterback controversy in Berkeley, and Tedford's decision to not disclose until Saturday who will start, is hogwash. Despite his knack for developing quarterbacks, the Bears offense is predicated on the run, and run they'll do on Saturday. The tailback duo of Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett enters the game with 900+ yards each for the season, making it conceivable that both eclipse the 1,000 yard mark against a vulnerable Stanford run defense. California's (9th nationally, 2nd Pac 10) rushing offense will take it's nearly 6yds/run average against a Stanford run defense ranked seventh in the Pac 10 that yields 130yds/game. In addition, to that fundamental advantage in the Bears' favor, Stanford's weak, 1-3, home record makes it unlikely that the home fans could affect the final outcome.
In fact, it is not easy to argue that the Cardinal enjoy any strong home-field advantage. Coaches around the country hardly spend money and time with the noisy speaker systems to simulate crowd noise when they prepare for Stanford. Perhaps it's due to a small student body (some 4,000 undergraduates), but Stanford's fans just don't muster up the boisterous and unrelenting support that most major college teams around the country rely on. A weak home base, coupled with the 25-35,000 Berkeley supporters expected to attend Saturday's game, easily mitigates the home field advantage.
The aura surrounding the game also does not do much to tilt the balance in Stanford's favor. From the fan's perspective, the games at Stanford are many times more preferable to the set up in Berkeley. However, I'm not sure that this helps Stanford or, if it ironically, gives Berkeley more of a boost. From experience, I can tell you that the vans, trailers, and overpacked cars start claiming their space on Stanford's vast grassy parking lot as early as 6:30 a.m. By nine a.m., the lot is usually full, and the blue memorabilia easily outnumbers the red by a 3-or 4-to-1 ratio. In the foreground, the drinks flow and most toss a ball or catch bits of the Michigan/Ohio State game. The sounds in the background are in harmony with the Cal fight song stuck on repeat, and the play-by-play of The Play bringing people to a standstill, each visualizing themselves scoring the touchdown and leveling the trombone player.
To a much lesser degree, the Cardinal faithful also gather around their meticulously organized and expensive food platters, with such delicacies as duck not that uncommon. It's difficult to convey the stark contrast between those two worlds, especially since most co-exist in the same brainy niches and affluent neighborhoods of the Bay Area. Perceived or real differences apart, by gametime, the lots empty and the stands start to fill. The expansive 80,000 seat stadium seems cozy to inebriated perceptions, but the reality remains that some ten thousand seats usually remain vacant.
The bowl implications surrounding the game also add intrigue to this match up. At 5-4, Stanford needs one more win to guarantee a bowl bid, with the Insight Bowl the most likely destination. With a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looming, this figures to be Stanford's chance to make their turnaround season complete. For Cal, this game means eclipsing Stanford in the Pac 10 standings, and also a possible return to the Insight Bowl, the sight of their 2004 upset victory over Virginia Tech. In sum, the 'they're playing for a bowl' angle also doesn't necessarily just have implications for the Stanford side.
Whether you choose to lean on the team that has exceeded expectations, or place your faith in the team seeking to redeem its season, the 108th Big Game still looms large. In a game that features experienced quarterbacks, look for Cal's terrific runners to extend Tedford's dominance over Stanford. Unlike other middling Pac 10 teams that may have underestimated the Cardinal, this California team-backed up its large traveling party-is playing to salvage a potentially miracle season gone awry. Besides, Oski is way cooler than a tree!