Stanford (4-2) remains nationally ranked heading into its Oct. 20 game against traditional rival Cal (2-4), but there are two things about that game in Berkeley that are noteworthy.
For one thing, the game is on the road, and the Cardinal offense has been dreadful on the road, which is why the Cardinal is 0-2 away from Stanford Stadium. In fact, the Cardinal failed to score an offensive touchdown in either of its road games against Washington (a 17-13 loss on Sept. 27) and Notre Dame (a 20-13 overtime loss on Oct. 13).
Quarterback Josh Nunes completed less than half his passes in both games, so obviously he has to improve on that for the Cardinal to beat a Cal team that has righted itself with two straight wins after getting off to a slow start in 2012.
The Cardinal defense played well in both games, but the offensive deficiencies led to the Cardinal’s downfall in those contests.
The second significant issue is the timing of the game. The game against Cal, known as the Big Game, has always been at the end of the season – either the final regular-season game or close to it. They have played 114 times previously, and never was the game played before November.
The coaches expressed disappointment in recent years when either team played a regular-season game following the Big Game, removing some of the climactic appeal of the rivalry. But this season it has been placed in the middle of the season, making it almost seem like just another conference game.
The game will lose the feeling that it is a season unto itself, but the Cardinal must win to keep alive its Rose Bowl hopes. The Cardinal is 2-1 in the conference, and a team cannot expect to get to the Pac-12 title game with a second conference loss.
Stanford must try to forget the controversial loss to Notre Dame when the Cardinal’s Stepfan Taylor appeared to get the ball across the goal-line for a touchdown in the overtime period. Instead, officials ruled Taylor was short on his fourth-down effort.
Cal presents an interesting challenge for the Cardinal defense, which rebounded from its only disappointing showing against Arizona by preventing Notre Dame’s offense from doing much.
Cal’s strength recently has been its running game, and the Cardinal defensive strength is its run defense. Whichever team wins that battle will have an advantage, because Cal’s chief offensive weakness has been pass protection. Stanford’s defensive strength is its pass rush, and if the Bears are forced to throw often, Stanford should be able to hurry Cal quarterback Zach Maynard into mistakes.
Cal is on a roll, coming off decisive wins over UCLA on Oct. 6 and Washington State on Oct. 13 after the Bears’ 1-4 start, so a game that seemed like it would be an easy victory for the Cardinal a month ago is turning into a challenge — especially on the road.
–The Cal-Stanford was moved to the middle of the season to accommodate the Pac-12’s television schedule. Officials from Cal and Stanford voiced their opposition to having the game played in October instead of late in the season, but officials from the other Pac-12 schools voted to approve the schedule. Having the Pac-12 title game set for the first weekend of December limited the options. The Cal-Stanford game could have been played the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but the two schools did not want the holiday to conflict with the events leading up to the Big Game. The game could have been played the Saturday before Thanksgiving, but officials from other conference schools vetoed that because of a variety of scheduling issues. The Cal-Stanford game will be played late in the season again in most future seasons.
–Stanford is ranked No. 22 in the AP poll and 20th in the BCS standings, marking the 39th straight week Stanford has been ranked among the AP’s Top 25. The streak is tied for the fifth longest in the nation, dating back to Sept. 5, 2010.
–Stanford has intercepted eight passes this season. It had seven interceptions all of last season.
–Cal and Stanford have met 114 times, which makes it the ninth-most-played rivalry among FBS teams. Minnesota-Wisconsin leads with 121 games played.
–Stanford has averaged 36.3 points in its four home games and 13.0 points in its two road games. The Cardinal defense has outscored its offense on the road 14-12 (adding the extra points on the defense’s touchdowns).
SCOUTING THE STANFORD OFFENSE: The Cardinal offense has been fairly productive at home and completely absent on the road. Stanford failed to score an offensive touchdown against Notre Dame on Oct. 13, one week after piling up 617 yards and 54 points against Arizona. The Cardinal relies heavily on its running game and TB Stepfan Taylor, who averages 109.2 yards a game. QB Josh Nunes has been effective in home games, and not effective on the road, although pass protection has been adequate home and away. The Cardinal does not get much production from its wide receivers, and that lack of big-play threat has made it difficult to score points on the road. The Cardinal passing game relies heavily on TEs Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who have been outstanding. They have accounted for 649 receiving yards, which is more than half of Stanford’s total passing yardage.
SCOUTING THE STANFORD DEFENSE: The Cardinal defense has been outstanding this season except for the Oct. 13 game against Arizona, which used its spread option offense and athleticism to create space and slice apart the Cardinal. In the other five games, the Cardinal defense has been dominant, especially against the run with its talented front seven. Opponents have attacked Stanford almost exclusively through the air, trying to take advantage of the Cardinal’s biggest defensive weakness – cornerback – although the Cardinal is improved at that position from last season. Stanford combats opponents passing game with a strong pass rush, led by DE Ben Gardner and OLBs Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy.
QUOTE: “It’s the changing college football landscape.” – Stanford coach David Shaw, explaining the odd timing of the Big Game this season because of television scheduling concerns and a variety of other issues.
THIS SATURDAY’S GAME: Stanford at Cal, Oct. 20, noon, Fox TV, KNBR (1050 AM) radio — Stanford is 4-1 (2-1 in the Pac-12) after its 20-13 overtime loss to Notre Dame, and Cal is 3-4 (2-2 in the conference) after beating Washington State 31-17 for its second straight victory. Stanford has won its last two games against Cal, although the Cardinal had a tougher time than expected last season, when the Cardinal eked out a 31-28 victory.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford leads 57-46-11 (last meeting, 2011, 31-28 Stanford)
KEYS TO THE GAME FOR STANFORD: Stanford must apply pressure to Cal QB Zach Maynard, who probably had the best game of his 2011 season against Stanford last year. Cal has yielded 29 sacks this season, the most in the country, and rushing the passer is Stanford’s defensive strength. Maynard has made mistakes and has shown frustration when he does not get time to throw, and if Stanford can get to him early in the game, it may affect the entire contest. Cal WR Keenan Allen is the one Cal player capable of making big plays in the passing game, and Stanford must prevent him from getting the ball in space. Offensively, Stanford needs to grind out long drives with a ball-control attack. The Cardinal should be able to run effectively against the Cal defense, and if it can get five or six yards on first down consistently, it will make things a lot easier for QB Josh Nunes, who needs to hit a few big passes.
STANFORD PLAYERS TO WATCH:
OLBs Chase Thomas/Trent Murphy – Thomas and Murphy have combined for 14.0 tackles for losses, including six sacks, and eight quarterback hurries. They are the chief weapons in Stanford’s pass rush, and both are capable of coming up with game-changing plays.
TEs Levin Toilolo/Zach Ertz – They have combined for 38 receptions, 649 receiving yards and four touchdowns. They have been the Cardinal’s most reliable receivers, especially on third down. They are, without question, the top tight end tandem in the country.
TB Stepfan Taylor — Taylor has averaged 109.5 yards a game, although Stanford would like to improve his 4.5-yard-per-carry average. He also is second on the team in receptions with 18.
QB Josh Nunes – He is the key to Stanford’s success. When he played well against USC and Arizona, the Cardinal had success. When he struggled against Washington and Notre Dame, the Cardinal lost. He has completed 53.3 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and six interceptions, numbers that need to improve.
–WR Ty Montgomery is not expected to play against Cal game because of a knee injury.
–TEs Zach Ertz and Levin Toilolo were among the 26 players named to the midseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation’s top tight end. Stanford was the only school to have two players on that list.
–ILB A.J. Tarpley has started the past two games ahead of James Vaughters, who started the first four. It’s unclear which of the two will start against Cal, but both are expected to play a lot.