Cal football relying on offense to beat Stanford in Big Game

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Ethan Epstein/File

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For the past six years, the Big Game has been more dull repetition than bitter rivalry.

Stanford, Cal’s historically biggest foe, has won every year since 2010 and by a whopping average of 23.2 points — including a 63-13 drudging in 2013, Sonny Dykes’ first season with the Bears. As much as Cal football (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) might want to advertise the rivalry year in and year out, the reality is the Cardinal (7-3, 5-3) have needed to focus more on defeating the likes of USC and Oregon, not their struggling cross-bay opponents.

“There’s so much tradition and so much pageantry and so many great players that played in game. We’re excited for itza. We know this is a big thing to a lot of people,” said Cal quarterback Davis Webb. “That’d be a pretty cool legacy to leave to be a part of the team that was able to beat Stanford.”

When Stanford visits Berkeley on Saturday, it will be heavily favored to take home the ax for the seventh straight year. Cal and the Cardinal will be entering the matchup on polar ends of the spectrum, having lost three and won three, respectively. Though both began the season 4-3, the talent and coaching disparity has begun to make itself known.

At first glance, the two teams appear to be mirror images of one another. Cal is 21st nationally in scoring offense, averaging 37.8 points per game, while Stanford ranks a dismal 109th, tallying only 23.1 points. On defense, the Cardinal have been stout as per usual, surrendering only 19.4 points a game, while the Bears field the worst in the country, at a heinous 45.6 points.

The prospect of slicing through the Bears’ appalling defense must be making Stanford fans salivate, especially when considering their star player.

In some ways, the game will begin and end with Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. After getting banged up in a 42-16 loss to Washington State on Oct. 8, the junior running back missed the team’s next game against Notre Dame. McCaffrey, however, returned with a bang, averaging 167.7 yards in Stanford’s past three games. With McCaffrey looking like his usual patient, shifty, unstoppable self and Cal’s defense yielding 283.4 rushing yards per game, Saturday could be an unforgiving afternoon for the Bears.

The only silver living for Cal may be that the Cardinal’s offense is almost entirely one-dimensional. The quarterback vacuum left by Kevin Hogan has produced an offense even more dependent on the ground attack than ever before. But the Bears have faced talented running backs that carry much of the offensive load before, including D’Onta Foreman, who is leading the FBS in yards per game and tore through Cal’s defense for 157 yards and two touchdowns.

If the Bears hope to have any chance to hold the ax, their offense will have to pick up the inevitable slack. Though Stanford’s defense has been slightly less dominant than in previous years, it still boasts a great deal of talent, particularly on the defensive line. Solomon Thomas, who Dykes expects to be “probably a first round draft pick” is one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the country and will likely have a field day against Cal’s offensive line, especially playing alongside tackle Harrison Phillips.

Cal will thus have to look to Webb and his receiving corps Saturday, which has shown some ability to beat the blitz this season. If Webb can find his rhythm with Chad Hansen and the dynamic freshman duo of Melquise Stovall and Demetris Robertson early, the Bears might have a chance — however slim — to top Stanford.

Michelle Lee covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_e_lee.