(AP) - Getting that elusive sixth win for bowl eligibility after four failed tries was a relief for California.
Following that up with a Big Game win over rival Stanford would end an even longer drought and be even more significant for the Golden Bears.
Cal (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12) clinched its first bowl bid since 2011 by beating Oregon State last week and now heads into Saturday night's game at No. 15 Stanford (8-2, 7-1) seeking its first win in its most important rivalry contest since 2009.
"It's a weight lifted off our shoulders," fifth-year senior safety Stefan McClure said of becoming bowl eligible. "Now that that's behind us, all we're really focused on is playing football and getting that axe back."
While Cal has one player on the team who played in that last bowl game in 2011 - defensive lineman Mustafa Jalil - no one on the Golden Bears has beaten Stanford.
Cal's last win in the series came in 2009 when the Bears won 34-28 at Stanford behind 193 yards rushing from Shane Vereen and Mike Mohamed's interception of Andrew Luck near the goal line in the closing minutes.
The Cardinal have since won five straight, and few of those contests have even been close as they have taken the clear upper hand in Bay Area college football superiority.
Stanford has outscored Cal 201-75 the past five years, including a 63-13 win at home in 2013 in the final game of coach Sonny Dykes' first year with the Bears. Cal has come a long way from that 1-11 campaign, and the Bears now feel as though they have a team that can hold its own in the trenches against the more physical Cardinal.
"They're going to test you as well as anybody will test you in college football. They have a very distinct and clear identity and they do a great job playing to it," Dykes said. "We'll get tested and we'll know a lot more on Saturday.
"I do know we're obviously much further along than we were in year one, just physically a much better football team. We're stronger and have more depth."
This year's version is a rarity since both teams are having successful seasons. It will mark the fifth time that the two rivals will play in a bowl game in the same season is just the fourth meeting in the past 20 seasons where both have winning records.
While this one hasn't had the same national impact of more famous rivalries such as Michigan-Ohio State, Auburn-Alabama or Miami-Florida State, that doesn't dampen what it means to the parties involved.
"It's the biggest rivalry in college football," Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez said. "No matter what the records are, it's a dogfight from the beginning to end. All of our faces and all our alumni who've been there have an imprint on the game. It's as important to them as it is to us. The axe is a huge component to our season."
Although its playoff hopes were likely dashed with Saturday's 38-36 loss to Oregon, Stanford can still clinch the Pac-12 North and a spot in the conference championship game with another victory over its rival.
The loss was the Cardinal's first since the season opener and ended an eight-game win streak. Stanford nearly came all the way back with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes by Kevin Hogan, but his tying 2-point attempt was broken up with 10 seconds left.
"Any time you lose, it stings, it's tough," linebacker Kevin Anderson said. "If you told me at the beginning of the season we'd have a chance to beat Cal to win the Pac-12 North, go to the Pac-12 championship with a chance to go to the Rose Bowl, I'd say that's awesome. A little bit of perspective here, but it definitely stings right now."
The defeat overshadowed yet another outstanding performance from Christian McCaffrey, who set a Stanford record with his eighth straight 100-yard rushing game, running for 147 yards and a touchdown.
The Heisman Trophy hopeful leads the FBS with 241.8 all-purpose yards per game, over 30 more than second-place Tyler Ervin of San Jose State.
McCaffrey could become just the fifth Pac-12 player since 1978 to average 200 or more all-purpose yards. That group includes USC's Marcus Allen in 1981 (232.6), Stanford's Glyn Milburn in '90 (202.0) and USC's Reggie Bush in 2005 (222.3) and Marqise Lee in '12 (206.4).