Cal football enters Big Game against Stanford as massive underdog

Cal quarterback Zach Kline passed 1-for-3 in the 62-28 loss to USC on Nov. 9.
Michael Tao/File
Cal quarterback Zach Kline passed 1-for-3 in the 62-28 loss to USC on Nov. 9.

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Stanford, that hulking monstrosity of a football team capable of ripping people’s heads off in a single bite, lurks at the final stop of Cal football’s long road toward misery.

It’s the 116th Big Game, but nobody expects anything “big” — besides the final scoring margin.

“We need a little bit of magic,” said linebacker Michael Barton. “In games like this, something spectacular always happens. If the ball rolls our way a few times, we’ll be all right as long as we play sound football.”

Magic aside, the Bears stand no chance in their 1 p.m. Saturday contest at Stanford Stadium. The Cardinal front seven are not genetically engineered, per se, to prey on woeful offensive lines, but they might as well be. While their flurry of ferociously athletic wildebeests eviscerates the young Bear cubs on the offensive line, Cal quarterback Jared Goff will run for his life, striving in vain to identify his receivers. He will fail, and he will fail often. Stanford cannot be stopped, only temporarily satiated. In the end, the beast always gets what it wants.

Its two outside linebackers lead the assault. Trent Murphy, in particular, inflicts his physical dominance on opposing lines, leading the FBS in sacks with 12 and tackles for loss with 18.5. Cal’s tackles, in particular, have struggled with keeping the edge rushers out of the backfield. At this point in the season, Goff is doing his utmost to avoid collapsing like a piece of papier-mache at midfield. Over the past two weeks, the offensive linemen haven’t helped his cause much.

After a blistering start to the season, Goff has fallen like the protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy. His performance bounces erratically from game to game. Against a stellar USC front, he posted a sparkling 71.4 percent completion rate; one week later, against a porous Colorado defense, his stats nosedived, compiling an anemic 3.8 yards per completion. Considering the context, such a performance ranks among the worst turned in by an FBS quarterback on the year — one almost worthy of a benching.

“No one really thinks we have a chance. That’s not what we think inside our team,” Goff said. “We have nothing to lose. We’re just going to go in there and fight our (butt) off.”

A quality running game might relieve some pressure from the embattled freshman signal-caller. Lightning-quick sophomore back Brendan Bigelow finally found a reason to pick up some confidence after a 15-carry, 107-yard performance against the Buffaloes. Replicating that performance — however unlikely — will finally open up the play-action section of the playbook that has been conspicuously absent from the offensive attack.

But like throwing pebbles into a tidal wave, an emphasis on the run game will have, at best, a minor effect. Stanford is angry and riled up after dropping out of national title contention with a loss to USC. It’s foolish to assume the Cardinal will do anything but feast on some easy Bear prey.

“It’s kinda been the perfect storm, where we haven’t got any breaks,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “Good football teams always make their breaks. Right now, we’re not a really good football team.”

Michael Rosen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.

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