There’s no such thing as an “unimportant” Big Game, but Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox’s first go-around comes at a particular doozy of a time.
Big stakes for the Bears? Check. They need one more win to become bowl-eligible in a season in which that initially felt like an impossibility, and it’s almost impossible to imagine a sweeter outcome for Cal faithful than clinching a bowl over the Cardinal.
And for Stanford? Absolutely. It’s a crucially important game in a surprising late-breaking race for the Pac-12 North title sandwiched in between their other two biggest games of the season. Recent history doesn’t make things look great for Cal, but with this much on the line, you can just about throw out the record book.
“(The players) are aware of the situation,” Wilcox said. “You can use that emotion in a really good way, and we’re all for that. What’s most important is how we focus and prepare, and they’ve been really good in that regard. There’s definitely a sense of urgency.”
The Bears have dropped the past seven editions of this matchup, and Stanford head coach David Shaw is 6-0, with all but one of the victories coming by double digits. It’s been a brutal stretch for Cal, matched by its winless streak in its last 11 Pac-12 road games.
Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love is trying to put the final touches on a junior campaign that should see him finish, at the very least, as a Heisman finalist. His speed is unparalleled, and if the Bears let him get into the secondary, he’s likely to end up in the end zone. Last year, Stanford had another Heisman-quality running back, and things didn’t end well for Cal. Christian McCaffrey put up an absurd 300 yards from scrimmage, along with three touchdowns, outdoing the 242 yards he put up in the 2015 Big Game. To stand any chance, Wilcox and defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will have to find some way to contain him.
“The x-factor they have is (Love),” DeRuyter said. “He’s special. He’s a guy who can take a 4- or 5-yard gain for most backs and take it to the house. … We’ve got some explosive players in this league we have to worry about.”
The good news for the Bears is that their defense should be well-rested coming of a much needed bye week. Cal has been decimated by injuries all year, and getting a chance to finally take a breath before its biggest game of the season can’t be understated. Defensive linemen Tevin Paul and James Looney have been playing some of their best football of the season as of late, and they’ll need to keep it up. No matter how well they play, the linebacking crew won’t be able to stop the dynamic Love by themselves; the big men up front will have to plug holes before Love ever sees them.
“Obviously, having the bye week and all that, they’ve gotten their bodies back a little bit, their legs are moving better,” WIlcox said. “They’ve been really sharp mentally and physically; it’s been a good week.”
Stanford has long been one of the most physical teams in the Pac-12, but this year, its run defense has taken a big step back. It’s a fairly unimpressive 75th in rush yards allowed, so offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin should be dialing up a lot of looks for both Patrick Laird and Vic Enwere. The offensive line looked good against Oregon State, but it remains to be seen whether that’s just a matter of the Beavers’ poor defensive front. The Cardinal will be a much better test, even in a down year.
The focal point of Stanford’s pressure up front is defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, who leads his team in tackles — an extremely rare feat for a player at his position. He can contribute in a number of ways with his versatile skill set and athleticism.
“He’s like the definition of Stanford,” said Cal quarterback Ross Bowers. “He’s big, he’s physical, and he usually makes the right, smart play. He’s going to be a great challenge for our line to handle, and we’ll just see how many plays we can get by him.”
If Cal needs more motivation, the Cardinal will have the longest winning streak in the history of the Big Game if they manage to take care of business at home. With so much on the line (in both pride and tangible football results), the Bears should at least go down swinging.