Big Game still in play, while other rivalries end

Few rivalries in college football have as rich of a history as the 120-year Big Game rivalry between Cal and Stanford.

Even fewer have produced as many epic games. Pick your favorite Big Game memory: The first Big Game to go into overtime back in 2000, when Stanford’s Casey Moore caught the winning touchdown on the final play. Michael Mohamed intercepting a pass at Cal’s 3-yard-line with less than two minutes left, sealing a Cal upset over 14th-ranked Stanford in 2009.

Then there’s the one everyone knows — the wild ending to the 1982 Big Game when Cal lateraled its way to a kickoff return touchdown on the final play, running over the Stanford band in the process.

Stanford coach David Shaw remembers his first Cal matchup as his favorite Big Game. It was 1990. Shaw, a wide receiver, was a redshirt freshman. He stood on the sideline and watched one of the wildest endings to a game in college football history.

“It was a complete seesaw battle,” the coach of No. 20 Cardinal said this week leading into Saturday’s 115th Big Game (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

“(It) ended with Stanford scoring a touchdown to be down by two, missing the two-point conversion, the (Cal) fans rushing the field, but there was time on the clock, the refs clearing the fans, assessing a 15-yard penalty against Cal, kicking the onside kick, recovering the onside kick, throwing one pass, getting a late hit on the quarterback penalty, another 15 yards, and then John Hopkins kicking a game-winning field goal.”

The coach paused and took a breath, remembering the craziness of that moment more than two decades ago. “That sequence still gives me chills.”

It’s games like these that make rivalries like the Big Game one of the best parts of college football tradition. Even though Stanford’s national relevance has plummeted this season after losing all-world quarterback Andrew Luck to the NFL, and even though Cal has struggled through a difficult early schedule, starting 1-4 and bringing longtime coach Jeff Tedford’s future into question, the Big Game is still most definitely a big game.

It’s Cardinal vs. Golden Bears. It’s quarterback factory (Luck, John Elway) vs. quarterback factory (Aaron Rodgers and former Falcons Pro Bowler Steve Bartkowski). There’s some real across-the-bay hatred brewing here. Something crazy is bound to happen. It’s something special, traditions at each school that include a week full of rallies, reunions, bonfires and an annual Stanford theatrical production on the rivalry.

One might even call it sacred.

Except for one thing: This is supposed to be the final game of the season. The Big Game is always played in late November or December, so a season full of buildup can culminate toward the matchup. Yet here we are, mid-October, and Stanford is making the trip to play Cal.

It just doesn’t feel quite right.

“It’s the changing of the college football landscape is what it is,” Shaw said. “Everybody involved respects this rivalry. Everybody involved, including the Pac-12, understands how important this is. Most of us want it later in the year, but you have issues with scheduling.

“Our TV contract just changed everything. Our desire to keep this relationship with Notre Dame has changed a lot of things.”

Things change in college football. It’s a hard lesson learned in the tumult and upheaval of the past couple years of realignment. Pitt and West Virginia no longer play the Backyard Brawl after the Mountaineers moved to the Big 12. Texas and Texas A&M have quit the Lone Star Showdown after the Aggies headed to the SEC.

Nebraska and Oklahoma can’t look forward to their annual slug-it-out tilt after the Cornhuskers headed to the Big Ten. Kansas and Mizzou’s Border War, a constant every season since 1891, died this year after the Tigers divorced the Big 12 for the SEC.

Stanford and Cal playing in the middle of the season instead of at the end has nowhere near the gravity of these other historic rivalries ending … but it is something. It’s one more reminder that everything we hold sacred in college sports may not last forever.

“We have to be very careful about that,” Tedford said about ignoring tradition for the convenience of scheduling. “You see so many things, like Texas and Texas A&M not playing anymore. You see so many realignments. Some traditional rivals don’t that play one another anymore.

“When you start moving these to the middle of the season, at some point there has to be a stand for some of the rivalries and traditions of college football.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at