This is the task that Cal (1-10, 0-8 Pac-12 Conference) faces Saturday when it confronts No. 10 Stanford (8-2, 6-2) in the 116th Big Game at Stanford Stadium.
“Coming off a loss, our guys can’t wait to get back on the field,” Cardinal coach David Shaw said. “There’s going to be energy and there’s going to be fire because it is the Big Game.”
The Bears are heading into this year’s Big Game as, quite possibly, the biggest underdog in the rivalry’s 116-year history.
Cal is carrying a 14-game conference losing streak, an average margin of defeat of 23.5 points and it is missing seven starters from its season-opening depth chart, including center Chris Adcock, cornerback Stefan McClure and safety Avery Sebastian.
The Bears are currently 123rd out of 125 teams in the nation in scoring defense (44.4 points per game), 122nd in total defense (522.9 yards per game) and 125th in passing defense (334.1 yards per game).
But Shaw said the Bears’ record is misleading, referencing the fight they put up in the first half of a 62-28 loss to No. 23 USC on Nov. 9.
“That thing was back and forth for a while,” he said. “Cal came back and tied it, a couple of flea-flickers and reverse passes and they kept USC on edge until the game was broken open.”
Despite its youth, Cal is fifth in the Pac-12 in total offense (459.9 yards per game) and third in passing offense (331.5 yards per game) with true freshman quarterback Jared Goff, sophomore wide receiver Bryce Treggs and running backs Brendan Bigelow and Khalfani Muhammad.
“They’ve got good receivers, they’ve got good backs, they’ve got speed and athleticism,” Shaw said. “They’ve got an outstanding young quarterback, so they can put points up if you’re not ready for them.”
But Cal’s weaknesses play into Stanford’s strengths. The Cardinal beat teams by bullying them at the line of scrimmage on both sides of ball, an area where the Bears tend to get outmatched.
The Bears’ defense is playing without its top end, Brennan Scarlett, and middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. while the offensive line is trying to overcome the losses of Adcock and starting right guard Matt Cochran.
In addition to the obvious mismatches, Stanford will bring extra motivation to the field after getting knocked out of the national title picture last week by USC.
“We lost last week,” Cardinal wide receiver Jeff Trojan said. “We can’t afford to have a letdown.”
And while the Cardinal is 31-point favorites, both teams realize that anything can happen in a rivalry that once saw a game decided by a six-lateral kickoff return.
“It’s Cal — it’s absolutely our biggest rivalry,” Trojan said.