Ready or Not, It’s Big Game Time for Stanford and Cal

Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

 

For 115 years, the Stanford Cardinal and the California Golden Bears have played their annual rivalry game – “The Big Game” – on the last week of the season. The two Pac-12 North teams are facing off this weekend in Berkeley, sending old-timers to check their calendars.

Yep, still October.

Things got shuffled around when the Pac-10 added two teams, became the Pac-12, and tacked a conference championship game on to the end of the season. Cal coach Jeff Tedford and Stanford coach David Shaw have both gone on the record against the schedule change, which isn’t permanent, and rival fans have found something in common: mutual disgust at the break from tradition.

Thirty years after the rivalry game that gave birth to “The Play,” when the Stanford band came onto the field before the game was over and Cal’s Kevin Moen steamrolled a trombone player to score the winning touchdown, the northern California rivals will again battle for the coveted Stanford Axe.

It wasn’t much of a rivalry in the first decade of the 2000s. Cal won seven out of eight but dropped the last two to the Cardinal. Stanford won the last time the two teams met in Berkeley, but this season, their two losses have come in their only two road games, at Washington and at Notre Dame.

#20 Stanford is coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Irish on a controversial play that ruled that running back Stepfan Taylor didn’t reach the end zone on fourth down, ending the game.

It was a tough loss, and many Cardinal fans and, presumably, players and coaches, aren’t convinced they truly lost the game. It was also their second overtime game in as many weeks, and both games were physically and emotionally exhausting for Stanford. Will they have anything left in the tank by the time they kick off in Memorial Stadium? Rivalry games are easier to get excited about than other match-ups, but the Cardinal has a tall order to regroup and refocus for another tough road game, especially since they’ve struggled away from home in 2012.

While Stanford has been in some knock-down drag-out football fights the last few weeks, the Cal Bears might be hitting their stride. They won their last two games by wide margins, blowing out then-No. 25 UCLA, 48-17, and beating Washington State, 31-17, last Saturday.

The Bears have allowed fewer than 20 points in each of their last four games. They’ve given up 60 points, total, in the last four weeks; in the beginning of the season, when the team was really struggling, they surrendered 55 points in their first two.

The Cal offense might also be coming together. Senior receiver Keenan Allen, a first-team Pac-12 pick in 2011, had his best game of the season last week against WSU, with eleven receptions for 166 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown. Stanford has relied heavily on its tight ends in the passing game and will continue to do so this week with receiver Ty Montgomery still out with an injury.

Like Notre Dame’s, Cal’s rushing offense is more diverse than Stanford’s. C.J. Anderson leads the team with 72 carries for 498 yards and four touchdowns, and Isi Sofele isn’t far behind, with 87 carries for 417 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Brendan Bigelow‘s workload is slowly increasing as well; he has two touchdowns and he’s averaging 12 yards each time he touches the football.

The Cardinal run defense is one of the best, ranked sixth in the country, but the unit had its worst game last week against Notre Dame. The Bears might have more options at running back, but they’ll also be going up against a fiercer defensive front.

Stanford still leans on Taylor for the bulk of the offense. He’s fourth in the conference in rushing, with 109.5 rushing yards per game.

He’s been more reliable than quarterback Josh Nunes, who has occasionally looked brilliant but, more often than not, makes fans mourn Andrew Luck‘s graduation.

Cal has quarterback issues of its own. This was supposed to be Zach Maynard‘s year, his second full year as a starter, his senior season – but until last week, he didn’t seem comfortable. He probably wasn’t: he’s already been sacked 29 times this season, two more than in all of 2011.

Maynard has a better completion rate and TD-to-INT ratio than Nunes, who’s only taken six sacks, so protecting the quarterback needs to be the Bears’ top priority if they expect to reclaim the Stanford Axe.

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