Power front and center for the Big Game

Sean Goebel /File

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On the 30th anniversary of a play highlighted by chaos and confusion, Saturday’s 115th Big Game will likely be characterized by the polar opposite.

When the Cal and Stanford football teams clash at noon, it is unlikely there will be many surprises at Memorial Stadium. As in previous years, it will be a matchup defined by physicality. The front seven, said Bears wide receiver Keenan Allen, is “where it’s gonna start, and that’s where it’s gonna finish.”

The No. 22 Cardinal (4-2, 2-1 in the Pac-12) will stick with the power strategy that has led them to two consecutive BCS bowl games and Big Game wins.

“There’s no doubt about it — they lead with the run,” said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. “They’re a power run game … They don’t give up on it. And their defense plays extremely well, which allows them to stay patient with the run game.”

Running behind a big offensive line and two tight ends, senior Stepfan Taylor averages 110 yards a game on the ground. The Bears (3-4, 2-2) will look to match that physicality, especially in the trenches, in which Cal has turned its season around after a 1-4 start.

During the squad’s current two-game winning streak, the offensive line’s improvement has led to more rushing yards from the tailbacks and more time in the pocket for quarterback Zach Maynard. In last week’s road win over Washington State, Cal rushed for a season-high 316 yards, and Maynard did not get sacked once.

“I think the best thing for the pass game is a good run game,” said center Brian Schwenke. “And so by doing that, Zach can drop back there and feel comfortable. If we’re protecting for him and he’s not getting nervous because we’re giving up a bunch of sacks, that’s good too.”

In spite of the line’s inspiring performance in Pullman, Wash., Bears remain the most sacked team in the country.

And Stanford, with its powerful front seven, feasts on quarterbacks. In their beat-down of then-No. 2 USC, the Cardinal sacked Matt Barkley four times and held the Trojans to just 26 yards on the ground, less than a yard per carry.

As such, even with three capable running backs, the Bears won’t be able to run right through a Stanford  defense that allows less than 90 rushing yards a game, the seventh-lowest total in the nation.

“No one just runs up and down the field on these guys,” Tedford said. “You’re not gonna play many better fronts or defenses than this group.

Seniors Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov are among the best linebackers in the nation. But, as Allen noted, the Cardinal leave their stable of linebackers on the field and are therefore susceptible to speed — a Cal set with four or five wideouts could be difficult for Stanford to cover.

Of the Bears’ offensive weapons, no one has been more consistent and dynamic than Allen. The junior has hauled in 52 receptions this season, more than every Stanford wide receiver combined. A projected first-round NFL pick, Allen is just seven catches away from breaking the school’s all-time receptions record.

“This would definitely be the game I would want it to happen in,” he said.

He has yet to beat Stanford. A win Saturday would be the best of his career, he said, but not just because it is the Big Game. The Bears are one victory away from a .500 record, meaning they would only need to split their remaining four games to make the postseason — a destination seemingly out of reach only two weeks ago.

“It’s the win we need for the season,” Allen said, “Not even for the Axe — just for the season.”

Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]