tanford doesn’t enter the 114th playing of Big Game the way it wanted to: that much is certain. But even with the Oregon loss likely looming large in the minds and emotions of the players, Cardinal coaching staff and certainly the fans, Stanford could potentially still nab a BCS bowl berth at season’s end.
In that case, The Andrew Luck Era on the Farm would end with consecutive BCS appearances for a program that had never before reached even a single BCS game. David Shaw’s staff could hit the recruiting trail this winter and spring with even better evidence that Stanford can produce a big-time team. And while the disappointment of last Saturday’s loss will take a long time to heal, who are we kidding? Two straight years of BCS bowl appearances would be pretty darn sweet for a program that nearly went winless just a few years ago.
That whole happy ending, though, is contingent upon Stanford winning its last two games. And Stanford shouldn’t need much extra motivation to win on Saturday. While last week was the biggest game of the season and the Cal program continues to struggle, the Axe is only up for grabs on one day per year.
o what’s up with football in the East Bay? Since Stanford saw the Golden Bears in Berkeley last November, Cal has sputtered along right around the .500 line. Head coach Jeff Tedford’s team enters Stanford Stadium with a 6-4 overall record and 3-4 mark in conference play for 2011. In the beginning of the season, junior quarterback Zach Maynard returned to the starting role after not throwing a pass for the Bears in 2010, and his performance has been pedestrian. On the year, he’s completed roughly 55% of his passes while his touchdown passes barely outnumber his interceptions. He’s had good games–including his 349-yard game in a close loss at Washington and an efficient showing in a 34-10 win in San Francisco against Utah–and awful ones–namely a 4-interception day in a loss to UCLA just 3 weeks ago.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Cal offense as a unit is almost precisely average by Pac-12 standards. The team ranks 7th in the conference in total yards per game, with the majority of offensive production metrics falling somewhere around 5th-8th in the conference. On the average Saturday, you can expect 28 points from Berkeley–good for 8th in the conference and only slightly higher than the average number of points the team allows (22.4).
What the Golden Bears have going for them is a decent amount of consistency. Sure, they have their good days and their bad ones, but at no point this season has the offense been completely unable to move the ball. Take a look at their game-by-game offensive production, as measured by total yards in each game:
Cal’s 417.5 yards per game once again places them smack dab in the middle of Pac-12 offenses, but the Bears are always in the neighborhood of those 418 or so yards. Against Washington and Oregon, 2 of the most difficult opponents on the 2011 schedule, Cal rose to the occasion (or perhaps just benefitted from extra possessions) and upped the offensive outing.
But there’s only so much information of interest there. Check out that same graph plotted against Maynard’s passing yards per game (the yellow line):
Here’s a trend that might substantially inform Saturday’s Stanford game. Maynard is becoming less and less of a factor in the Golden Bear attack. Despite an overall upward trend in total yardage for the team in the last few weeks, Maynard’s numbers have fallen fairly consistently since the midpoint of the season.
Running back Isi Sofele has been the great offensive catalyst for Cal. The junior Salt Lake City native ran for a career-high 190 yards on just 23 carries last week against Oregon State as the Bears got bowl-eligible. The week before, in a 30-7 win over Washington State, he used a 6.0 yards-per-carry pace to record 138 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Cougars. Sofele will be the only true threat to the Stanford defense, just as Shane Vereen was in 2009 when he ripped the Card open for 193 yards and 3 touchdowns.
The parallels to 2009′s Big Game end right about there. This year’s playing will once again happen in Stanford Stadium and Andrew Luck will once again start at quarterback for Stanford. But there’s virtually no chance that Luck will repeat his 10-30, 157-yard performance. In 2009, Luck was a liability and his 4th-quarter interception in Cal territory ensured that Stanford would not mount a successful comeback. He’s now one of the finest players in the country and the type of performer who almost always plays one of the best games of all the men on the field. While Stanford enters this year’s game only 8 spots higher in the BCS than it was this time 2 years ago, the accomplishments and inertia earned by the program in the last 24 months are unprecedented in Cardinal football history.
In the time that Stanford was learning how to be a national winner, Cal kicked around 50/50, straying further and further from the glory days of Aaron Rodgers and DeSean Jackson.
The one remaining question, and it sure has been asked enough times this week, is whether Stanford will get over the emotional letdown of the loss to Oregon. Last week was deflating for everyone involved in the program. But Stanford is an athletic program grounded in beating California. Stanford-Cal isn’t Michigan-Ohio State or Alabama-Auburn, and coaches in Northern California aren’t measured exclusively by their success on Rivalry Weeks. But the prominent Axe display in the lobby of the Arrillaga Family Sports Center–one that every Stanford student-athlete regularly passes–makes clear what the goal of every season is: Beat Cal. Regardless of the Oregon loss, Stanford players won’t forget that, and the died fountains and painted banners around the Farm this week won’t let them. Stanford is clearly the better team, and it shouldn’t have any problem taking care of Cal.
Verdict: Stanford beats Cal, 45-21
How to Follow the Game
7:15 pm PST, Saturday, November 19
Live: Tickets at StubHub
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)
Social Media: @DailyAxe on Twitter
(Headline image courtesy of Monica’s Dad on Flickr)