There’s always a certain foolishness to trying to predict how a rivalry game will go. With a week of athletic and emotional preparation, the added decorum of the season’s most important Saturday, and the knowledge that winning Big Game can make an otherwise bad season good and an otherwise great season disappointing, Cal and Stanford’s showdown might not follow the rules that ordinarily govern college sports. Keeping that in mind, it’s our weekly duty to predict the outcome of Stanford football games, and this week’s matters more than any other.
For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with Cal football in 2010, the Bears have been one of the nation’s most inconsistent teams from week to week. Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples even called them the “most schizophrenic team” in America. At 5-5 overall and 3-4 in conference play, Cal has struggled to produce multi-week stretches of excellence. But their success, or lack thereof, is almost a direct function of where they play. At home in Memorial Stadium, the Bears are 4-1 and have outscored opponents by an average of 31 points per game. Their only loss in Berkeley came last week against #1 Oregon, but Cal held the Ducks to just 15 points, lost by 2 points (no other teams this season has lost to Oregon by fewer than 10 points) and could have pulled off the upset had Cal place kicker Giorgio Tavecchio made a 29-yard attempt late in the game. On the road, Cal is a different team: their only road win was a narrow victory over lowly Washington State on November 6.
So if precedent holds, we’ll see the better version of Cal on Big Game Saturday. Memorial Stadium should be full to its nearly 72,000-person capacity, with more looking on from Tightwad Hill. We know that Cal plays well at home, and the added attendance and hype that Big Game attracts should help inspire the Bears even more than usual.
Unfortunately for Berkeley fans, Cal cannot score. After senior quarterback Kevin Riley got hurt late last month, junior back-up Brock Mansion has assumed the starting role with less than stellar performance. The Dallas native has completed only 47% of his passing attempts this season (compared to Andrew Luck‘s 70% rate) and has not led the Bears to more than 13 points in any game he’s started. Before stepping in for Riley, Mansion had completed just 3 collegiate passes in his career, and despite fielding scholarship offers from big boys like Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee as a high schooler, Mansion hasn’t yet had enough opportunities to develop as a passer while backing up Riley. Though Cal played a beautiful game last week and nearly knocked off a team that many observers thought was virtually unbeatable, Mansion wasn’t the key to the team’s success. He completed barely more than one third of his passing attempts and threw for only 69 yards with no touchdowns.
Junior tailback Shane Vereen has, and will, provide the biggest portion of Cal’s offensive production. Remember his gem during last year’s Big Game? Replacing the injured Jahvid Best, Vereen ran for 193 yards and 3 touchdowns to beat the favored Cardinal in Stanford Stadium. He also got the ball 42 times, as Cal head coach Jeff Tedford sought to exploit a tired Stanford front seven. 2010 has been, by far, the most productive season of Vereen’s career. He’s broken 100 yards rushing 5 times, and averages 100 yards rushing per game. To put that in perspective, Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor has been a key part of the Card’s offensive success, and Taylor gains an average of 15 fewer yards per game than Vereen does. When Vereen needs a break, Cal has been able to get effective touches from sophomore Isi Sofele. Although Sofele, who is just 5′ 7″, rarely gets more than 6 carries per game, he’s good for a helpful 5 yards per carry.
Nonetheless, Vereen and the running game is not nearly productive enough to single-handedly power the Cal offense, and no one expects Mansion to have a 300 yard, 4 touchdown kind of game against Stanford. Cal will likely post somewhere between 10 and 20 points, and then rely on its defense to shut down Andrew Luck and the Cardinal attack.
That might sound like a lost cause, but if Cal can hold Oregon to 15 points, what’s to stop the Bears from bringing the Stanford offense to a grinding halt? If anything, Cal should be able to stall the Stanford running game. The Bears’ leader and best player, senior Mike Mohamed, plays linebacker, and has about as much playing experience as anyone in college football: he’s only missed one game in his career at Berkeley. The one game he missed? Cal’s matchup with Nevada early this season, when the Wolf Pack ran all over the Cal defense en route to 52 points and an easy win. Mohamed had a monstrous game last week against Oregon, in making 16 tackles (11 unassisted) and a sack. The Mohamed-led defense allowed just 317 yards against the Ducks, who ordinarily put up 542 yards.
We know by now that Jim Harbaugh loves the running game, so don’t expect him to get away from trying to pound out yards on the ground. But don’t be surprised if Anthony Wilkerson gets more carries than usual, as he’s been more effective than any other back on the team in recent weeks. The true freshman also looks to be the fastest and most athletic of the Cardinal backs, and could find himself as the starter next season.
Regardless, Andrew Luck figures to have a big role in this game, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to pass the ball. The Cal defense is at its best when it can focus on stopping the run, so expect Luck to have opportunities to drop back and find open receivers. Wideout Chris Owusu may or may not play–pregame reports rarely report his injury status with accuracy–but Luck has looked increasingly comfortable targeting senior Doug Baldwin as his main down-field receiver.
With the adrenaline flowing and the mystique of Big Game cast over Memorial Stadium, virtually anything could happen (presumably, though, the laws of physics will hold). But if Stanford can manage even 21 points, that should be enough to put away Cal. As stingy as the Bear defense can be, let’s assume that the Cardinal can score at least 3 touchdowns.