It’s that time of year, Cal fans: Big Game time.
The Bay Area’s most expensive Junior University currently sits at No. 22 in the AP rankings after dropping a close game to Notre Dame last week.
But just like the school they represent, the Cardinal look to be a little overrated.
Which means this underachieving Bears squad just might have a shot on Saturday.
The Cardinal’s strength certainly lies in their defense. Linebackers Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov both project as future NFLers. Both can effectively rush the passer and drop back into coverage. Thomas and Skov will no doubt wreak havoc on the Bears’ running attack.
But the Cardinal’s obvious strengths end there. Their offense is nothing short of atrocious.
Quarterback Josh Nunes is among the worst signal-callers in the Pac-12 this season. Save for a fluky performance against a bad Arizona defense, Nunes hasn’t finished a conference game with more than a 48% completion rate.
His quarterback rating ranks 10th in a 12-team conference. Stop Nunes and one can go a long ways toward neutering the Stanford offense.
Running back Stepfan Taylor is talented but can’t do much when the entire defense knows Taylor’s going to be getting the ball in crucial short-yardage situations.
This exact scenario played out last week against Notre Dame. Faced with a 2nd and goal at the 1-yard line in overtime, coach David Shaw gave the ball to Taylor on three consecutive halfback dives. Each time, the Irish defense snuffed out the run.
With the defense keyed in on Taylor, an improving Cal secondary should easily be able to hold Nunes to his usual levels of production.
The Stanford secondary profiles as an average unit. Although the Cardinal were able to hold USC’s Matt Barkley and UW’s Keith Price to below-average productivity, they’ve also allowed Arizona quarterback Matt Scott to throw for 491 yards.
So why do the Cardinal currently hold a spot in the national rankings? Mostly because of a Week Three upset over then-No. 2 USC, which vaulted Furd up to No. 9 in the country.
Since then, we’ve seen the Trojans look incredibly vulnerable, and the Cardinal also submit a bunch of lackluster and uninspired performances.
They lost to a 3-3 Washington squad with no offensive line and an underperforming quarterback. They allowed 48 points to Arizona at home and barely squeezed out a win in overtime.
In other words, Stanfurd struggles to defeat mediocre Pac-12 teams.
So apparently to the AP voters, a below-average offense and slightly above-average defense with an inconsistent secondary deserves national recognition.
Do not fear the arbitrary number assigned to the front of Stanford’s name, Cal fans.
The Bears’ offensive line looks much improved these past two weeks. The inexperienced group that allowed all those sacks against ASU and USC prevented the Cougars from picking up even one last week.
They also proved themselves capable of opening up giant holes for the Bears’ running back trio.
Isi Sofele, CJ Anderson, Brandon Bigelow, and Maynard combined for 318 yards and 6.4 yards per carry against WSU last week.
The Bears surely won’t accumulate such gaudy running statistics against the Cardinal, but a performance like last week indicates the offensive line has made drastic strides.
They’ll be the key for Cal’s offensive momentum. Strong offensive line play will propel the running attack and keep Maynard comfortable in the pocket. If Cal can score early, the Stanford offense will have difficulty playing catch-up.
And the Axe will return to its rightful place.
Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]