Cal hosts 117th Big Game vs. Stanford with upset hopes

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Patrick Chong/Staff

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Back in August, when the first college football rankings were released, Stanford found itself at No. 11 in the AP top 25. The Cal football team was nowhere to be seen, predicted by Vegas to finish with just three wins. Yet when the Bears (5-5, 3-5 Pac-12) host Stanford (5-5, 3-4) on Saturday at Kabam Field at Memorial Stadium, both teams will enter at nearly identical rungs on the college football ladder.

Both teams are 5-5. Both teams are unranked. Most importantly, both teams need a win to gain bowl eligibility. Despite each team’s similar standing, Stanford — which holds a four-game winning streak in the series — is favored by 5.5 points as the road team. The Cardinal has lost the same number of games as Cal, but Stanford’s losses aren’t of the same caliber; all five of the Cardinal’s losses this season have come against ranked opponents, and three of those losses were by just three points.

“We’ve played pretty well against good football teams this year,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “Our guys have realized we can play with people, and we’re a couple plays away from beating some pretty good teams. And we’re going to make those plays Saturday in order to have a chance to beat Stanford.”

One key for Cal will be if its porous defense can contain Stanford’s offense. At this point in the season, with just two games remaining, the Bears’ unit is dead last in the nation in defending the pass, ranking No. 128 in passing yards and touchdowns. Luckily for the Bears, the Cardinal averages just 233 passing yards per contest. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has been erratic in his senior season, ranking No. 47 in yards per attempt. He’s also thrown seven interceptions to go along with a 63.8 percent completion percentage.herbivore_240x310

Instead, the strength of Stanford lies in its defense, which only gives up 16.5 points per game. The Cardinal’s success on defense starts with its front seven. Led by linebacker Peter Kalambayi and defensive end Henry Anderson — both of whom have collected at least five sacks this year — Stanford has generated more than three sacks per game. Linebackers Blake Martinez and Kevin Anderson have also contributed nine sacks between themselves.

“Strong, experienced, when you look at their football team that’s what stands out,” Dykes said of Stanford’s defense. “Obviously, they’ve got a really good pass-rush. … A lot of long guys, they use their hands well, they get off blocks probably as well as any football team I’ve seen.”

Whether or not Cal’s offensive line can slow down Stanford’s pass-rush might prove vital to the Bears’ chances at an upset. For the most part, Cal’s line has been solid this season, giving up around two sacks per game. But a theme in a couple of the Bears’ losses this season has been inconsistent pass protection. Against Washington, Jared Goff was brought down four times, fumbling on three of those sacks. And last week, against USC, the Trojans got to Goff four times.

“I’ve watched the film recently, and I can do a little bit better job escaping pressure and helping my linemen out every once in a while,” Goff said.

If the Bears do manage to sidestep the Cardinal, they’ll be bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.

“It would be big,” Goff said. “We got two chances to do it in the next two weeks. Doing it this week would be obviously a lot better.”

But to do so, the Bears will have to reverse a four-year downward spiral. In Cal’s last four meetings against its rival, its been outscored by 105 points. And last season, Stanford dropped 63 points on a lifeless Bears squad.

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.