Saturday will mark the final Big Game between Stanford and Cal before they leave the Pac-12 for the Athletic Coast Conference. Although both have rich histories behind them, they each enter the matchup under .500 for the third year in a row. However, as is the case with any Big Game, plenty is at stake with Cal’s bowl eligibility still on the line and the Cardinal looking to avoid their third straight home loss to Cal, which last occurred in 1951. The Daily’s Zach Zafran spoke with Mia Wachtel, head sports editor at the Daily Californian, to talk about Cal’s season, the battle in their quarterback room, the future of the program with conference realignment and what’s to come this weekend in the 126th Big Game.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Tell me a little bit about Cal’s season so far. How has it stacked up against expectations?
Mia Wachtel (MW): We’re 4-6 overall, 2-5 in conference play. I think a lot of Cal fans had higher expectations because we onboarded offensive coordinator Jake Spavital this past summer. I don’t know if you saw the Twitter hashtag #HogsForSpav, but it was a huge deal when we got him because he got a couple of good guys from the transfer portal. So I think a lot of Cal fans had higher expectations for the season than what has happened. We have four straight losses to ranked opponents, which I think is a little disheartening to Cal fans because we first came out against North Texas with a 30-point lead and won that, and then lost a game that Cal should have won against Auburn.
There’s this quote, “The worst thing a Cal fan can have is hope,” and I think that this season is defined very well by that. It’s just been a little bit of a roller coaster, a tumultuous ride, and I guess we’re riding the final waves.
TSD: Perhaps the brightest spot of this Cal team is sophomore running back Jaydn Ott, who’s among Pac-12 and national leaders in almost all major rushing statistics. Can you tell me more about the season he’s having and what it means to this team?
MW: Everybody knows that Ott is the standout running back. Everybody expects him to go pro, he’s great. He actually just broke 1000 rushing yards this past weekend, the first Cal player to do so [in six years].
You’ll see in every postgame press conference, someone talks about Ott at least once. We always put the ball with the person we trust most, and that person has been Ott throughout the season. He really is the lifeline of this team, and I think that a lot of people were worried that he was going to hit the transfer portal, but he didn’t. And now you’ll see this every week that he’s coming out with [honors and awards]. I would be surprised if he didn’t make it to the league in a couple of years.
TSD: In the quarterback room, a three-way quarterback battle headlined training camp until redshirt sophomore Sam Jackson V won the starting job at the beginning of the season. Since then we’ve seen all three command action until recently, as it seems redshirt sophomore Fernando Mendoza has earned the role. How has this quarterback carousel impacted the team this year, and how confident are you in Mendoza moving forward?
MW: It is precisely what you said. It was a carousel, and I don’t think that’s something that’s helpful for any team, ever. We didn’t have our definitive quarterback until the fifth game of the season, which is not where college football programs need to be at if they want to have serious contention for bowl eligibility. Now I know that if Cal wins these next two games, they’ll have the opportunity to go to a bowl, but obviously it’s tricky when the quarterback is the commander of the team and you have no flat out commander for most of the season.
In my opinion, Fernando Mendoza is the right choice at quarterback. He has the most accurate arm. He’s the best decision maker. He’s a scrambler, not as good on his feet as Sam Jackson V is, but I think Sam Jackson V is lacking in other ways. I think Fernando is the most well-rounded quarterback that we have in our carousel, and head coach Justin Wilcox made the right decision in keeping him in play. That said, he can be better with decision making, and I think that’s something that will have to improve. I mean, he’s a redshirt freshman and his first ever career start was this season, so there’s room to improve; and I am sure that the offense will just keep growing in these next couple of years as he becomes a more developed quarterback.
TSD: On the other side of the ball, Cal’s defense is giving up the most points per game in the Pac-12. What has to change for this unit entering Big Game?
MW: We took heavy hits this season in terms of our defensive line. Matthew Cindric, the Cal team captain and a sixth-year senior, was taken out of the season early because of a bicep tear. He had a bicep tear last season as well, but this time it was the other bicep. His loss was hugely detrimental to the defense, especially because Cal’s defense hasn’t been particularly good. We do have some bright spots in guys like Kaleb Elarms-Orr, who was leading the Pac-12 in tackles a couple weeks ago. We have strong guys on the team, I think that they’re just not being put together. That’s what we’ll need to change heading into Big Game.