It's the 115th version of the Big Game, and with the earlier than usual game date, we've got the makings of an interesting and somewhat unusual matchup. The Bears are riding a two game winning streak (stop snickering, two games is SO a winning streak) while Stanford's coming off one of the more bitter losses in recent history after falling to Notre Dame in overtime.
Make no mistake about it though, it appears both seasons are on the line for both teams. For Stanford, a loss would likely end any hopes at a Pac-12 North championship. It was fairly unlikely anyway (heck they couldn't do it with Andrew Luck), but it'd be cemented after falling to 4-3 on the season.
For the Bears, a loss would put a screeching halt to any sort of momentum they may have had, and would ;ikely end any last hopes of bowl eligibility. It would also only rapidly stoke the flames under Tedford's hot seat that had quieted to burning embers the past few weeks. After winning the axe in 7 of his first 8 years at Cal, Tedford would see his record fall to 0-3 in the last three Big Games.
So yeah, it's kind of a big deal.
And more than anything, the Bears need this win. It wouldn't salvage the season by any means, but it would go a long, long way to making fans feel better about the direction of this program. Having the Axe will do that. And I for one, can't stand the idea of Stanford holding on to the axe for three years in a row. It'd go back to a dark place before Tedford got here and I certainly don't want to revisit that.
In short, a win would be affirm all the good qualities this team has demonstrated going into this game and would exorcise many of the negative ones.
Let's get into a few things to look out for.
Got to Limit the Run
The Bears are going to have implement the same type of defensive gameplan that other teams have used against Stanford: stack the box and dare Josh Nunes to make his plays through the air.
Here's the thing. Stanford can certainly run the ball. They're very patient with their run game and don't get away from it even when it's not ripping off huge chunks of yardage. It so vital to their offensive rhythm, that they simply can't afford to. It sets up their passes to their tight ends and fullbacks.
But the caveat is that neither Stanford's passing or running game is effective if opponents don't respect the pass.
Linebacker Nick Forbes had this interesting quote this past week:
"If you take away a fisherman's pole, he's got to learn to survive another way. That's the mentality you have to have attacking any great offense -- you want to attack their strength and make them one dimensional."
As much as we like to applaud Stanford's dominant power run game the past few years, a lot of that had to do with Andrew Luck's abilities as a game manager and passer. When they don't have that component, like they don't now with Nunes, opposing defenses are able to limit both aspects of their offense. On the season, Josh Nunes is completing just 53.3% of his passes, while averaging just 6.9 yards per pass, with just 8 TDs to 6 interceptions.
Meanwhile, in both losses against Washington and Notre Dame, Stanford's offense was held without an offensive touchdown. The Cardinal's yards per carry average in both those games? 3.2 ypc (2.3 ypc if you factor in Nunes' lost yardage) against Washington and just 3.7 ypc against Notre Dame.
It might an oversimplification, but the lack of Stanford's passing prowess has handicapped Stanford's typically dominant rushing attack.
Compounding Stanford's offensive woes has been their straight-forward and predictable playcalling this year. With the exception of the occasional reverse or throw on first down, you know what they're going to do--Run the ball down your throat and keep Nunes in manageable passing situations. However, Stanford is converting just 34.48% of their third downs, usually because opponents have not only figured out what Stanford is going to do, but actually doing something about it.
In other words: Stanford's offense has been limited this year because other teams have been able to hold their fronts and manage the flow of the game defensively. What's troubling for the Bears is that Stanford's offense matches up well against us. Our defense shines more in its speed and athleticism than it does in its sheer size and physicality. We've had an uncharacteristically bad year defending the run. In particular, HB cutbacks and counters have absolutely killed us, with our defenders either overpursuing backs and not defending their assigned gap, or simply being unable to shed blocks quickly enough to account for the cutback run. USC did this on us time and time again and the Trojans rolled up nearly 300 rushing yards on the Bears.
The Bears going to need at least 3 defensive linemen, though don't be surprised to see the Bears switch to 4-3-4 or even 5-2-4 looks more often on first or second down. The Bears aren't going to be able to completely stop Stanford's rushing attack. But they simply can't afford to let the Cardinal's rushing game average over 4 yards a carry on first and second down. If they can limit the run game and put in on the arm of Nunes, I like our chances.
Get Playmakers in Space
For as much as Stanford's offense may have been exposed this year, Stanford's defense is legit. They're relentless in rushing the passer, are very active in getting to the ball carrier, and their playmakers have shown an ability to play some shutdown ball here and there.
The Bears have their work cut out for them on offense. If there's one thing Arizona showed when they hung up 48 points on the Cardinal is that Stanford can be vulnerable to big plays if they're spread wide and forced to defend playmakers in space.
Fortunately, the Bears have no shortage of playmakers. The question is whether the Bears will be have the time to get the ball to them. The Cardinal plays a whole lot of zone coverage, though they're pretty good at mixing things up. It will be up to Cal's coaching staff and Zach Maynard to find the soft spots in the zones and take what they can in chunks. This isn't a defense that's susceptible to a whole of busted plays, so the Bears are going to need to live by delivering the ball quickly and decisively to their backs and receivers in space and hoping some good downfield blocking will spring their players for some critical plays.
Again, look for the Bears to work the tight ends and slot receivers on quick hitches and outs. I'd expect them to continue to try and spring Keenan Allen free on crossing routes that provide for natural picks. And I'd be shocked if they didn't try to work Brendan Bigelow more on bubble screens and stretch runs. Bigelow might be the wildcard here if he get into space.
Oh, and Watch Out For...
...the use of Stanford's fullbacks on short yardage situations. The Cardinal love to sneak them on short power runs, or get them to run into the flats on play action. Ryan Hewitt killed us last year out in the flats, and they're going to need to be accounted for...
...Oh, and don't forget about those 6'7 tight ends over the middle. They're pretty good.
I've been going back and forth in my confidence that the Bears pull the win out. Heading into season, I was confident that the Bears could trump an Andrew Luck-less, one-dimensional Stanford squad at home.
And then 1-4 happened.
I had been without any hope that the Bears could pull the upset, until the Bears began clicking on offense and holding previously dangerous offenses in UCLA and WSU to just 17 points. And Stanford continued to show their flaws with conservative play calling and an offense that has been a far cry from that of years past.
Now I'm torn. I've got my major doubts that the Bears can slow down Stanford's run game. They've struggled in this category all year, and the prospect of Cal's offensive line holding off Stanford's aggressive pass rush doesn't scream out confidence either.
Still, my heart has me pulling for the Bears, and you can bet I'll be there Saturday screaming my head off in hopes that the Blue and Gold will be hoisting the axe by the time the clock hits zero. And this isn't blind optimism--the Cardinal can be had. The only real question is whether the Bears can be the team to do it.
Prediction: Cal 20 Stanford 17