BERKELEY -- Throughout the week, every California football player and coach has made a point of saying how physicalStanford is, on both sides of the ball.
"I never get tired of Stanford being physical," said senior tailback C.J. Anderson, who has run for 263 yards over the past two games. "Me, as the type of back I am, even though I probably have some quickness that people don't know until they actually play me, I also love being physical, myself. I love putting my nose in there and being physical, so a physical team this week, it's going to be a fun, great game."
"That's the big thing with them: They play really hard and they're really physical," said senior center Brian Schwenke. "We're really physical too."
As much of a grind as it will be on the body, facing the No. 7 rushing defense in the conference -- stacked with playmakers like linebacker Shayne Skov (38 total tackles), linebacker Chase Thomas (35 total tackles) and defensive end Ben Gardner (ninth in the Pac-12 with 4.0 sacks, tied for 15th with 6.0 tackles for loss) -- there is one part of the Cal anatomy that will perhaps be the biggest X-factor heading into the first-ever October edition of the Big Game: Heart.
The Cardinal (4-2, 2-1 in the Pac-12) are coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame. The Bears (3-4, 2-2) are coming off of two straight wins, in which they've ripped off 503 rushing yards, and likely need this win to salvage a season which saw them shoulder a 1-4 record not that long ago, with the only win coming against a Football Championship Subdivision team in Southern Utah.
"Every game, we're playing for our season. This is a big game -- it's the Big Game -- but all these games are really big for us," says senior right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin. "We had a slow start, but we're starting to pick it up and we're starting to improve. We've got to keep continuing on the right track. We can't have any lapses. We can't go in the other direction. We have to keep staying on the right track. This game is just another opportunity to do that."
Summers-Gavin, for one, has not touched The Axe since 2009, when a last-minute interception by linebacker Mike Mohamed iced an improbable win for Cal in Stanford Stadium.
The distance between holding the rivalry trophy aloft, and seeing it handed over to the opposing team is, as Summers-Gavin says, night and day.
"You feel horrible when they take that Axe, especially two years ago here," he says. "That was a terrible game. We need that Axe. We need to bring it back home to Berkeley, and that's the biggest thing. We've got to do our little things, and those big things will take care of themselves."
One player on this squad, of course, has the rivalry in his blood: tight end Richard Rodgers. Rodgers' father -- Richard, Sr. -- touched the ball twice during The Play, 30 years ago.
"It's different, but you hear a lot of stories about it, so I can talk about it, and my dad told me the whole story one time, so it's not really that hard to talk about," says the younger Rodgers, who recently sat down and watched the entire 1982 Big Game on the Pac-12 Network. "It's definitely weird. I just don't imagine my dad playing like that. I don't see him playing, especially how big he is now -- I can't see him playing safety. It's just funny to see."
Rodgers remembers when his father first educated him on his role in the famous return, and it's been a part of his life ever since.
"It kind of just came up one day, like where we saw it on TV and he kind of just told me the story about how the whole day unfolded and what the game was and I actually watched the game last night on the Pac-12 Network, so that was fun to watch and see my dad play," he says. "It was just kind of in the moment, I guess. It just kind of happened, and I feel like no one really knew what was going on, and I think they were just kind of like in a panic, and it just turned out that they scored, so it was a good experience. I don't think they practiced that kind of stuff like we do now."
Others on the team have never once touched The Axe. They've never beaten Stanford. In that category sits junior wide receiver and punt returner Keenan Allen, who is six catches away from passing Geoff McArthur for the program's all-time receptions record -- a record he set during his final Big Game.
"It's definitely something I look forward to," says Allen, about the record. "Being this close to it, I'm definitely looking forward to it. Hopefully, it can happen this game. This would definitely be the game I want it to happen in."
In Allen's first Big Game in 2010, Allen caught eight passes for just 51 yards in a 48-14 drubbing at Memorial Stadium. Last year in Palo Alto, Allen hauled in six catches for 97 yards and one touchdown, as his older brother -- quarterback Zach Maynard -- completed 20 of 29 passes for 280 yards and two scoring strikes, while taking three sacks.
"I would be disappointed," says Allen, of what losing what will likely be his final Big Game would mean. "Our fans would be disappointed, and our team would definitely be disappointed. This is a win that we need for the season -- not even for The Axe, but for the season."
For all his accomplishments in his two and a half years in Berkeley -- 3,325 all-purpose yards, 19 touchdowns and 196 catches -- Allen still wants to get that last piece of hardware.
"It bothers me," Allen says. "I think we deserve it. I think we've put in the work just to touch it, just to feel it, just to know what it feels like to have that."
Allen went as far as to say that winning The Axe on Saturday would be the biggest victory of his career, one which has seen the Bears come close plenty of times - the 10-9 road loss to Arizona and the 15-13 heartbreaker at home to Oregon in 2010, the 35-28 loss to Ohio State on the road this year -- but have yet to tally a signature victory.
"I think it would be the best win," says Allen. "First of all, because it's the Big Game. Secondly, we haven't won a big game like that. If we win this game, it's definitely going to give us so many more things we can do with this season, as far as bowl games."
Apart from simply catching the ball and just doing that voodoo that he does so well, Allen could get the crowd into the game easily with one of his patented punt returns, giving the team and the fans a shot of adrenaline in what should be a crucial field-position battle on special teams.
Allen has tallied 20 punt returns in his 31-game career for a total of 223 yards, including a 69-yard return to the house against Southern Utah earlier this season. As many Cal fans can remember, it was DeSean Jackson's step-back-and-go punt return in the second quarter of the 2007 season-opener against Tennessee that not only broke a 14-14 tie with the Volunteers, but eventually spurred the Bears to victory that Sept. 1 day in Strawberry Canyon.
"He has really high expectations for himself," says Summers-Gavin. "That 69-yarder he took, everyone was going. The crowd went silent, and I was just going, 'That's Keenan.' Classic Keenan. I expect him to keep doing it. He works hard. It's not just talent. A lot of guys are talented, but they don't put the work in. He does. He puts it all together. That's the best part about him. That rubs off on the rest of the players."
To come out on top, Allen says, it will all come down to the trenches -- an odd thing to say, coming from a skill position player, especially one with Allen's talent for evasion. But, with the Cal offensive line having allowed 29 sacks on the season, and the Cardinal ranking fourth in the nation in tackles for loss and fourth in sacks, he couldn't be more right. That's where Schwenke, Summers-Gavin and the rest of the offensive line come in, and they'll be getting some key reinforcements from emotional firebrand Dominic Galas.
"Galas is coming back, so that's a good thing," says head coach Jeff Tedford of his veteran interior linemen, felled in July by a torn pectoral. "He should play. He should get some time. He's worked hard to get back, and gives us some depth there because some of the offensive linemen have been banged up."
When healthy, Galas -- last year's starting center -- is a mauler in run blocking. Pass protection has always been a weak point for Galas, but his ferocity and raw emotion are something that the Bears could use right about now -- the kind of heart that saw Galas knock a blitzing Vontaze Burfict back five yards in his one start as a sophomore.
"There's that veteran leadership," says offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik. "It's hard because he hadn't done a lot lately, and there's a little bit of rust, obviously there. There was a bit when MSG missed those games. His first game back, he provided some good things, but there was a lot of rust there, and every game, he's just been better and better. The thing that Dom really provides is that he's got that bulldog attitude. He is a warrior, he's a tough kid a competitor, and you love that about him.
"He's worked his butt off. You really worry, when guys get hurt, if they mentally, because they're not involved, it's hard for them to stay engaged a lot of the time. He's been phenomenal."
As Summers-Gavin said, it's not just a big game. It's The Big Game. This game could very well determine not just how the rest of the season plays out -- with a tough road trip to face Utah next week, followed by home dates with Washington (3-3, 1-2) and No. 3 Oregon (7-0, 4-0) , then a season-ending trip up to Corvallis to face the resurgent No. 8 Oregon State Beavers (5-0, 3-0) -- but perhaps even for Tedford's future at Cal. For Tedford not to get the axe, perhaps, the Bears need to take back The Axe.