STANFORD — The level of excitement for Big Game week is always high at California, with the opportunity to beat rival Stanford and win The Axe among the top goals for the Golden Bears.
When the Bears hit the practice field Monday for the first time this week, it was at an even different level for good reason.
After playing one game without more than 20 players and having another postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak, Cal (3-6, 2-4 Pac-12) was more than ready to get another game, especially against Stanford (3-7, 2-6) on Saturday.
“As excited and as motivated as they've been since I've been here," fifth-year coach Justin Wilcox said “Going into that team meeting (Monday), just the energy in there, it felt like the first day of fall camp. There's been some adversity and some things out of our control. ... They’re very, very eager to practice and play and focused on moving forward and not necessarily talking about what has happened and what hasn’t happened.”
What happened is Cal had a player test positive for COVID-19 leading up to the game at Arizona on Nov. 6. That led to program-wide testing on a team that was 99% vaccinated, forcing Cal to keep quarterback Chase Garbers, six other starters and several other players home in a 10-3 loss.
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Additional testing the next week raised the total of positives among players and others in the program to more than 40, leaving Cal without enough players at certain positions and leading to the postponement of last week's game against Southern California.
Nearly all those players are back this week. The only starters not listed as being available are left tackle Will Craug, who has an ankle injury, and right guard McKade Mettauer.
That includes Garbers, who threw for 285 yards and a TD and ran for 72 yards and a score in Cal's 2019 win at Stanford.
“I have all the respect in the world for the quarterback who has just been a terror on us,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “His athleticism, his mobility, his game management and stepping up and making big plays in the pass game or taking off running is a challenge.”
Garbers isn't the only quarterback expected to return this week. Stanford starter Tanner McKee is expected back after missing the past two games. The Cardinal lost 52-7 to Utah and 35-14 at Oregon State without McKee. He has completed 64.8% of his passes this season for 1,916 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Cardinal also could get cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, linebacker Ricky Miezan and starting tight end/defensive lineman Tucker Fisk back this week.
“Having some guys back I think will help a lot this week,” Shaw said. “But right now it’s not about any of the previous games, it’s not about next week. This is rivalry week. This is Big Game week and that’s what these guys are focused on, trying to keep The Axe.”
The Bears end the season with three straight games against their in-state conference rivals with a trip to UCLA coming up next week and the makeup game against USC on Dec. 4.
Wins in those three games would make Cal bowl eligible.
“There's a lot still to accomplish,” said center Matthew Cindric, who is back from COVID isolation. “Beating the three California schools is something we look forward to every year. Everyone is motivated and excited to go get these three wins.”
Wilcox's name has been mentioned in relation to some job openings, including at Washington where he once served as a defensive coordinator for two years.
“I’m very, very fortunate to have the job I have," Wilcox said. "I think extremely highly of our players, not only their ability as football players, but I love coaching these guys, our staff that I get to work with.
“A million people would love to have my job, and I don’t take that for granted. In our profession it seems to be you’re either on one of two lists, and that could change by the week.”
Stanford has dominated the Big Game series of late and regained The Axe last year after a rare loss in 2019. The Cardinal have won 10 of the last 11 meetings but Cal's last two wins have come at Stanford Stadium. The Bears won 24-20 in 2019 and 34-28 in 2009.