Photo credit: gostanford.com
By Ana Kieu
Stanford freshman running back Austin Jones attended Bishop O’Dowd High in Oakland and most of his friends are Cal fans. On Saturday, he will play in his first Big Game and try to help Stanford break their hearts.
“I moved here in seventh grade, so I got to go to a couple games,” said Jones, who moved around a lot growing up. “I didn’t really pull for anybody, but I know it’s a heated, long-term rivalry. I just picked up on the emotion that comes with the game.”
Jones’ phone has been blowing up all week.
“I have a lot of good friends on their team,” Jones said. “We’ve been jabbing at each other a little bit and chopping it up. We’re going to get after each other.”
Neither school has produced the season it envisioned. Both have been racked by injuries as Stanford enters with a 4-6, 3-5 Pac-12 record and Cal enters with a 5-5, 2-5 Pac-12 record. The Cardinal boasts a series-high nine-game winning streak, but season records in the 121-year rivalry, often prove meaningless.
“The records don’t matter,” said senior inside linebacker Curtis Robinson, who will play for the Axe for the fourth time. “We know that we’re going to get their best shot because it’s Big Game week. It’s always that way.”
Stanford junior quarterback Davis Mills grew up in Duluth, Ga. and will experience his first start in the rivalry. He quickly discovered the significance of the contest.
“I kind of felt it right when I stepped on campus,” Mills said. “The Big Game is always circled. It should be fun to finally play in the game and I know there is a bunch of tradition behind it and all the ceremonies.”
For the last nine years, no Cardinal senior has tasted defeat.
“It’s kind of crazy to hear our coaches talking about it’s for the seniors and sitting back thinking, ‘Oh, that’s me,”’ said Robinson. “It’s been crazy to win those games with the senior classes and I’m starting to feel the importance of what this game means.”
Robinson knows he’s playing for more than his teammates.
“It means more to us to win the Axe for the Stanford community as a whole,” Robinson said. “Obviously, it’s very important to our pride as a team. But we understand we’re playing for something bigger.”
In the Stanford football office, the Andrew Luck Auditorium includes a wall of photos of seniors who have won the Big Game.
“We talk about the streak,” said Jones. “We always talk about how we don’t want to let our seniors down and want them to put their pictures on the wall.”
David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, starts off every Big Game week by reminding his team to keep emotions in check, especially the young players.
“This is a different game,” Shaw said. “We have to prepare as well as we can on the X’s and O’s side, but at the same time play with emotion and not let the emotion rule us. It will be a very hotly contested.”
Former Stanford standout Richard Sherman, now playing for the San Francisco 49ers, is pulling for his alma mater.
“The Axe belongs at Stanford,” Sherman said. “There is so much history and it’s such a great rivalry. I feel good about our chances to win it again.”
Senior quarterback K.J. Costello, senior free safety Malik Antoine, junior cornerback Paulson Adebo and junior tight end Tucker Fisk will not play Saturday. Senior cornerbacks Obi Eboh and Treyjohn Butler are questionable.
Freshman Ryan Sanborn handled kickoffs and field goal/extra points against Washington State but did not punt. He might be available to punt, but Shaw praised the efforts of sophomore Alex Gracey, who downed two of his three kicks inside the 5-yard line last week and could punt again.
“He did a great job,” Shaw said.
Stanford could start three true freshmen in its secondary.
“It’s all-hands on deck,” Shaw said.
Mills broke a 21-year-old Stanford single-game passing record at Washington State by throwing for 504 yards.
“Davis had an exceptional game,” said Shaw. “He caught fire, got the protection and a bunch of guys made plays. He broke a record that has been around for a long time. That was a positive for the football team, but we have to do things like that and win.”
Mills made his college debut earlier this year at USC and missed some throws. Shaw said his coming out party was against Oregon State.
“He played a complete game and made some of those throws he missed against USC,” Shaw said. “He almost played better against Washington than he did this past weekend.”
The even-keeled Mills seldom shows much emotion on or off the field. Asked to assess last week’s performance, he said: “I thought overall, I played well. In the end, it would have been nice to get a win.”
Mills credited his line and receivers, and said their hard work was rewarded.
“It really showed what everybody can do,” Mills said. “We’re still chasing perfection.”
Despite all that, Shaw continues to remind himself that Mills only has four college starts.
“He’s still a growing, inexperienced quarterback with a lot of talent,” said Shaw. “He’s much, much closer to his potential, but there’s a lot more up there.”
Last week, Shaw received a text from Sherman with a photo of the two at a recent game between the 49ers and Carolina Panthers. Sherman reminded Shaw that football is only a game and Shaw shared the well-received message with his players after practice.
“It’s the truth,” said Sherman. “At the end of the day, you win some, you lose some and you fight as hard as you can. But once this game is done and the lights are off and the fans are gone, the people that are left are your friends. What’s left are the relationships that you have with the people that you went through the struggles with. Those memories and people are real, and they’ll last you a lifetime.
“At the end of the day, if you win a million championships or lose a million championships, it doesn’t change the relationships and friendship that you have. Those are special, regardless of the outcome of the games or the season.”
Cal senior inside linebacker Evan Weaver leads the FBS with 151 tackles and averages 15.1 per game. He collected 22 stops against Utah.
Last year, Weaver made 159 tackles, second-most in school history.
“Somehow, Weaver has gotten bigger and faster,” Shaw said. “He’s the best linebacker we’ve seen all year. He just has to be accounted for and he’s hard to block.”
Asked how that can best be accomplished, Shaw said, “First of all, we hope Weaver misses the bus.”
Every fan who enters Saturday’s game with a paid ticket will receive a long sleeve T-shirt courtesy of Stanford Medicine. Additionally, Stanford will honor local veterans, military, fire and police officers in conjunction with Veterans Day.
The annual Big Game Rally will be held Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. in Memorial Auditorium and is open to the public. The Gaieties, dating back to 1911, will be staged Wednesday through Friday at 8 pm.
Shaw praised his team Wednesday night after a spirited practice. “I like where we are between the ears,” Shaw said … Stanford leads the overall series, 64-46-11 … Shaw is 8-0 against Cal … Former Cardinal standout safety John Lynch ’92 will be recognized as part of the 125-year celebration of Stanford football. He’s now general manager of the 49ers … Sophomore wide receiver Simi Fehoko has six touchdown catches in his last five games … The Cardinal has played 20 freshmen this season and 18 saw action last week … Saturday’s game will be televised on Pac-12 Networks.
“You have to amp up your energy and your execution to play at your absolute best, but you also have to know where that line is. This is a respectful rivalry.” — David Shaw on playing Cal.