Cal excited to return for Big Game after COVID break
The excitement level for Big Game week is still high in California, with the possibility of beating rival Stanford and winning The Ax among the Golden Bears’ best goals.
When the Bears hit the training ground Monday for the first time this week, it was on an even different level for good reason.
After playing a game with no more than 20 players and having another postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Cal (3-6, 2-4 Pac-12) was more than ready to play another game, in especially against Stanford (3-7, 2-6) on Saturday.
“As excited and motivated as they’ve been since I’ve been here,” said fifth-year coach Justin Wilcox. There has been adversity and things beyond our control … They are very, very eager to train and play and focus on moving forward and not necessarily talking about what happened and what did not happen.
What happened is that Cal tested positive for COVID-19 before the game in Arizona on November 6. This led to program-wide testing on a 99% vaccinated team, forcing Cal to keep quarterback Chase Garbers, six other starters and several other players at home in a 10-3 loss.
Further testing next week brought the total of positives among players and others in the program to over 40, leaving Cal without enough players in some positions and leading to the postponement of last week’s game against Southern California.
Almost all of those players are back this week. The only starters not listed as 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 touchdown and ran for 72 yards and a scoring in Cal’s 2019 victory at Stanford.
“I have all the respect in the world for the quarterback who just terrified us,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “His athleticism, his mobility, his handling of the game and his acceleration and his big plays in the passing game or his running start is a challenge.”
Garbers isn’t the only quarterback set to return this week. Stanford starter Tanner McKee is expected to return after missing the last two games. The Cardinal lost 52-7 to Utah and 35-14 to Oregon State without McKee. He completed 64.8% of his passes this season for 1,916 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Cardinal could also bring back cornerback Kyu Blu Kelly, linebacker Ricky Miezan and defensive lineman Tucker Fisk this week.
“I think some guys coming back 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. It’s rivalry week. It’s Big Game week and that’s what these guys are focusing on, trying to keep The Ax.
RIVALS IN STATE
The Bears end the season with three straight games against their state conference rivals with a trip to UCLA next week and the makeup game against USC on December 4.
Wins in those three games would make Cal bowl eligible.
“There is still a lot to be accomplished,” said center Matthew Cindric, who has returned from COVID isolation. “Beating the Three California Schools is something we look forward to every year. Everyone is motivated and excited to go for these three wins.
TALKING ABOUT EMPLOYMENT
Wilcox’s name has been mentioned in connection with certain job offers, notably in Washington where he was previously defensive coordinator for two years.
“I am very, very lucky to have the job that I have,” Wilcox said. “I think very hard about our players, not only their abilities as football players, but I love coaching these guys, our staff that I work with.
“A million people would love to have my job, and I don’t take that for granted. In our profession, it looks like you are on one of two lists, and that could change within the week.
Stanford has dominated the Big Game series lately and returned to The Ax last year after a rare loss in 2019. The Cardinal has 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.