STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — While there will always be an emotional twist to the Big Game between Stanford and California, there is much more at stake for both teams heading into Saturday's matchup. For the 20th-ranked Cardinal, an eighth consecutive win over the Golden Bears would keep alive hopes for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, while a loss would dash them entirely.
STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — While there will always be an emotional twist to the Big Game between Stanford and California, there is much more at stake for both teams heading into Saturday's matchup.
For the 20th-ranked Cardinal, an eighth consecutive win over the Golden Bears would keep alive hopes for a spot in the Pac-12 championship game, while a loss would dash them entirely.
Stanford (7-3, 6-2) is tied with No. 15 Washington State for first place in the North division but the Cougars — who have a bye this week — hold the tiebreaker advantage by virtue of their 24-21 win over the Cardinal on Nov. 4. Stanford can win the division title with a win against the Bears and a Washington State loss to No. 16 Washington on Nov. 25.
California (5-5, 2-5) has a more modest goal. Beating the Cardinal would make the Bears bowl eligible for the second time since 2011 and would mark another step in the team's turnaround under first-year coach Justin Wilcox.
"It's a great rivalry, a ton of history, and it's exciting for both schools and the alumni . but what's most important for us is our preparation," Wilcox said. "It's part of college football, you acknowledge it, but we have to produce on Saturday. We have to go out and play a good game."
The 120th annual Big Game is a matchup of one of the perennial top teams in the Pac-12 and one that is trying to get there.
While Stanford is angling to play in its fourth conference championship game in the last six seasons, California is trying to get into the postseason and have a winning record, something the Bears have done only once since 2011.
Both teams anchor their offense around the running game.
Stanford's Bryce Love leads the nation with 1,622 yards and is one of the country's most explosive backs. The junior had a stretch of 10 consecutive games with at least one carry of 50 yards or longer, tying the FBS mark for most in a single season set by Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon in 2014.
"He's an excellent back," Wilcox said. "He's got great balance and vision and patience, and his top-end speed is elite."
California counters with Patrick Laird, a junior who began the season third on the Bears' depth chart and didn't have a scholarship until this year. Laird has run for a team-leading 796 yards and is coming off a 214-yard game against Oregon State on Nov. 4, the most rushing yards by a Cal player since 2009.
"He runs hard, he has a total disregard for his body," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "He's going to get every inch of every play."
Here are a few other things to watch for when California plays Stanford at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night:
LOPSIDED RIVALRY: Wilcox was an assistant on Cal's coaching staff for three seasons when the team won five straight Big Games from 2002-06. Since then, the Bears haven't had much luck against their Bay Area rivals and have lost seven straight in the series. "We're not competing against streaks," Wilcox said. "We have a ton of respect for Stanford and it's going to take a great game on our part."
On the flip side, Shaw has never lost to Cal during his six-plus seasons at Stanford. "It means a lot," Shaw said. "There's tangible evidence with the trophy. It's great to have something to hold onto after the game. We want our seniors to keep the Ax."
TOUGH LOVE: Love's production has dipped a little since he suffered an ankle injury against Oregon on Oct. 14 but it wasn't much of a hindrance last week against Washington when he ran for 166 yards and three touchdowns. "We've learned not to ask him if he's OK," Shaw said. "He can play through ridiculous pain. He's amazing to watch. Even at 80-90 percent he's still faster than most. It's unbelievable."
MINI-STREAK: Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello will be making his fourth career start. The Cardinal are 2-1 when Costello starts.