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California and Stanford set for the most meaningful Big Game in years

Stanford got punched in the face by Oregon, but winning the "Big Game" will get the Cardinal into the Pac-12 title game for the third time in four seasons. Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Stanford coach David Shaw was resolute even in the face of 38-36 defeat on Saturday night.

"We're living life in the windshield right now," he said. "[The College Football Playoff] is in the rearview mirror. We have one game to go the Pac-12 championship game, and that's what we're going to focus on."

Still, despite the forward-looking perspective, pain was palpable outside the Cardinal's locker room. Tight end Greg Taboada spoke optimistically of Stanford's recalibration toward a Rose Bowl goal, but his somber mood made it clear that this loss wouldn't be easy to swallow. Linebacker Kevin Anderson also verbally re-emphasized a positive outlook, but acknowledged a feeling of "devastation" as he recalled stumbling just short of the end zone on a fumble return.

In the end, there's no way to sugarcoat this reality: Stanford lost in agonizing fashion to the Ducks. They can now clinch the Pac-12 North against archrival California instead, but this will be a test of discipline for them, as Oregon wounds are still fresh. Disappointment is a double-edged sword: No one can be sure if it'll catalyze a renewed surge or cause a prolonged stumble.

The only certainty is that the Golden Bears are ready to pounce on any potential Cardinal vulnerability when the two rivals meet for the 118th time this Saturday.

Cal linebacker Hardy Nickerson says that he was already fired up for the Big Game three minutes after Cal's 54-24 victory over Oregon State, in which his team secured bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. That was a big deal for the rebuilding Bears, but its importance paled in comparison to the looming challenge.

"We were still on the field, and I was already like, 'we're playing Stanford this week. I'm fired up,'" Nickerson said. "It's Big Game week. You've gotta prepare a little extra, watch a little more film, lift a little bit more. Every little bit counts and I can't wait to step out there Saturday."

While Stanford needs this win to bounce back and seal the division, Cal needs a victory to continue its upward trajectory under head coach Sonny Dykes. Upon his arrival in 2013, the Bears went 1-11. They improved to 5-7 in 2014 and notched their sixth 2015 win last week, but Dykes insists that he won't be satisfied until his team prevails over an opponent that's consistently been among the Pac-12's elite.

"We want to develop into the kind of program that's in that conversation," he said. "And in order to do that, you have to beat them. That's the next step for us."

In 2013, Cal was light years away from that step. Stanford humiliated a Bears team that was bad even before it was decimated by injuries. Final score: 63-13.

"Guys understood that was unacceptable," Nickerson said. "To get beaten by 50 points by a rival is terrible."

The season-ending fiasco fueled offseason hunger in Berkeley that led to marked progress last year. Stanford beat Cal again, but this time by a much more respectable 38-17 margin.

Now, the Bears want to show they've taken yet another stride, and a wounded Stanford team stands in their way. On paper, it's the most meaningful Big Game in years: For the first time in over a decade, it legitimately feels that Rose Bowl dreams are on the line. Yes, Cal has technically had a shot to play spoiler to powerful Stanford teams in recent seasons, but the game itself was merely a formality -- the Bears were hopeless underdogs.

Of course, Stanford still has the upper hand entering this matchup as an 11-point favorite, but the defensive vulnerability they showed against Oregon last week (the Ducks averaged 9.1 yards per play, the highest total against a Jim Harbaugh or Shaw-coached unit) combined with Cal's upward trajectory sets up a truly competitive game.

Cal made former star Mike Mohamed, the linebacker who intercepted Andrew Luck to seal the Bears' last win over Stanford in 2009, available to the media this week -- and players aren't shy about their desire to repeat that history.

"We've had times this year where we thought we were on top of the world, and we've had rougher times," offensive lineman Jordan Rigsbee said. "But we're now finally starting to get it together and have that confidence that we can come into these big games and win. Beating our rival, another California team, would be awesome for our program."

An "awesome for our program" narrative is present on the flip side, too, where a Stanford victory would put them one win away from their third Rose Bowl berth in four seasons.

And that's the essence of healthy rivalry: Two teams -- one fresh off success, the other still stinging from disappointment -- set for a bitter battle with major potential ramifications. It's been a while since the Big Game meant this much, and both sides are welcoming the raised stakes.

"If you want to keep moving forward, this is the kind of game you have to win," Dykes said.