Like 2020 itself, the 123rd Big Game will be like no other.
When Cal and Stanford square off Friday at Memorial Stadium — the first time over parts of three centuries the game will be played on a Friday — everything will different.
In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one is safe, nothing is sacred.
The Big Game is only four days off, and we still can’t even know for sure that it will be played.
Already this week, the Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State has been canceled, and Utah at Arizona has been postponed to Sunday, with concerns it may not happen.
Assuming we have a game Friday in Strawberry Canyon, here’s what it will look like:
— For the first time, the Big Game will feature two winless teams. Obviously, the teams typically have played far more than two games when they meet, but Cal and Stanford both are 0-2 in this shortened and repeatedly interrupted season. Cal has entered the Big Game without a victory only four times, and on none of those occasions did Stanford arrive winless.
A quick review: Cal was 0-0-2 entering the 1894 Big Game (two ties vs. the Reliance Club) and 0-2 in 1897 (two defeats to Reliance). Fast forward more than a century and the Bears took records of 0-10 and 0-9 into the 1999 and 2001 matchups. Cal lost all four of these Big Games.
— No fans, a direct casualty of COVID-19 restrictions. Sadly, that means none - no parents, family, close friends or anyone else.
Big Game attendance has diminished in recent decades, partly due to waning Bay Area interest and partly because both schools’ stadiums have smaller capacity. There were 48,904 at Stanford Stadium last season as Cal won 24-20 to end a nine-year drought in the series. There is no known record of the smallest Big Game crowd.
The 1952 matchup drew 83,000 — the most robust Big Game crowd in Berkeley. But the all-time Big Game record is 94,000 in 1935 at Stanford Stadium. The “Vow Boys” of Stanford were the two-time Pacific Coast Conference champs and 6-1 entering the showdown. Cal, under first-year coach Stub Allison, was a surprise at 9-0, having shut out seven opponents and allowed just one touchdown (on a blocked punt vs. USC) all season
Stanford won 13-0 to reach the Rose Bowl for a third straight season, but Allison’s young squad matured into the team that went 10-0-1 in 1937, beating Alabama in the Rose Bowl to finish No. 2 in the country.
— Along with no fans, there will be no marching bands, no halftime show, no Oski, no Stanford Tree. In order words, a minimum of college football’s traditional color and pageantry. Would what the late Keith Jackson think?
— The Axe will remain part of the festivities. It will be displayed on a platform behind the Cal bench for most of the game, then presented to the winning team at game’s end.
— Cal will hold a virtual Big Game rally on Friday at 11 a.m. (kickoff is 1:30 p.m.). That will replace the traditional bonfire rally at the Greek Theater on the eve of the Big Game. Cal also plans a tree chopping ceremony and the Big Sing at some point during the week. None of the events will be in-person. The Cal rally committee will post more details about the online festivities in coming days.
The old-school game-week traditions are gone. The Guardsmen charity luncheon in San Francisco was last held in 2015 after a 67-year run, and events such as the Cable Car Rally, Union Square Rally and The Big Sail regatta also are shelved.
— No access to Tightwad Hill. The view from above the northeast corner of Memorial Stadium will not be open to fans, although word is there may be cutouts of prominent Golden Bears displayed on Tightwad Hill.
— The cannon will be fired after each Cal touchdown but will be located along the east rim of the stadium rather than its traditional perch on Tightwad Hill.
— This will be Cal’s first home game of the season — the latest that has happened since football became a fall sport for the Bears in 1892. The first Big Game was held on March 19, 1892, capping off the Bears’ final spring football schedule.
One thing has not changed
Despite everything else swirling out of control in 2020, there remains one near constant: The odd stuff in the Big Game happens in the even years, when the contest is staged in Berkeley.
Here are just three examples:
* The Big Game was resurrected as a football event on Nov. 28, 1918, just weeks after the World War I armistice and during the Spanish flu pandemic that killed approximately 50 million worldwide. Stanford had just resumed playing football after more than a decade of rugby, and fielded a team of young men from the resident Student Army Training Corps, many of whom were not Stanford students.
The 1918 game, which is not recognized as official by either school, was expected to be a mismatch, and it was. Cal won 67-0.
* The 1982 game, of course, produced one of college football’s most famous moments — The Play. Eight years later, also in Berkeley, Stanford engineered revenge for that by scoring nine points in the final 12 seconds to beat Cal 27-25.
* And two years ago, with the Bay Area choking on smoke from the Camp Fire in Paradise, the Big Game at Memorial Stadium was postponed for the first since since JFK’s assassination. Playing it two weeks later didn’t help the Bears, who lost for the ninth straight time.
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo
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