Stanford and Cal will play for the 114th time in the annual Big Game. Outside observers might not fully understand what Big Game means to both these schools. Let’s just say that Cal’s band was more than willing to come to Stanford and play their fight song at 4 am in the morning. Cal understands just how good the Cardinal team is and would love nothing more than to hand the Cardinal their second loss in a row. Objectively, a loss to Cal does not seem possible. But this is Big Game. Cal will wake up to play.
Quarterback Andrew Luck has played in two Big Games during his Stanford career. In 2009, Stanford had a chance to go to the Rose Bowl. Luck, however, threw an interception near the end of the game and sealed a 34-28 loss. “When I think about that game, that is what I remember,” Luck told the San Fransisco Chronicle. “I try not to think about it too much. But that’s a prevailing thought.”
Though Stanford ranks nationally in the top ten for this year, Cal has not had as successful of a season. The Cardinal, however, will not be overlooking the Golden Bears in the slightest. Luck still remembers what happened his first year as a starter. The team also wants to rebound after the tough loss last week to Oregon. When Kevin Gemmell asked Michael Thomas about the possibility of a let down, Thomas responded: “We remember the last time we played Cal, they beat us on our field and celebrated. That’s the last memory of playing them here so we have enough motivation. There will not be a letdown.”
Before I get into any analysis, it is important to understand why Stanford cannot overlook Cal. As a Southern California native, I have seen time and time again UCLA beat USC just because USC did not feel like playing that day. If Stanford shows up, they should win handily. The disparity in talent is too big, plain and simple. History tells us that Cal cannot be ignored. Big Game has had some crazy results and outcomes. Besides, I remember them winning on our field too. A little revenge would be nice (because a 48-14 win on their field was not quite enough).
On the injury front, both tight end Zach Ertz and receiver Chris Owusu are not expected to play this Saturday. Safety Delano Howell, however, is expected to play. Howell’s return will help to bolster a secondary which struggled last week.
Howell’s presence will be especially important because of Cal’s wide receivers, namely Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones. Between the two of them, they have accumulated over 1750 yards and 8 touchdowns. Stanford struggled against USC’s dynamic receivers a few weeks ago. The secondary will once again need to minimize the damage, keeping their man in front of them and making the tackle. Easier said than done.
The Cardinal’s front seven will also look to reassert itself this week. The success of the back end of the defense depends on how well the lineman and linebackers play. Oregon’s scheme took advantage of Stanford’s aggressive rush. Cal, however, plays more of a pro-style offense. They do not rely nearly as heavily on misdirection. Stanford’s defense should be able to generate consistent pressure against Cal quarterback Zach Maynard. Ideally, linebacker Chase Thomas will sack Maynard before he ever has a chance to look down field.
As for the Stanford offense, they will bounce back in a big way. Running back Stepfan Taylor will likely get a good number of carriers. Coach David Shaw will focus on returning to Stanford’s identity as a power run team. Even with Luck, Stanford is not a team which just wants to sling the ball around like they did last week. Too many things can go wrong. Oregon was able to stop this offense because they played terrific coverage and played well against the run. Cal has a decent defense but they gave up 30 points to USC and 43 points to Oregon. They have not proven they can stop the top offenses in the Pac-12. It will be a challenge for Cal to replicate Oregon’s success in stifling Luck.
If things go as expected, Stanford should win rather easily. I suspect there will be at least some craziness, there is every year, but Stanford should be able to overcome those things to pull of a solid home victory over their rivals. The Stanford Axe should stay with Stanford for the second year in a row.