With the 121st Big Game set for unusually timed action amid conference championship week in college football, the Cal football faithful have once again embarked on the overly familiar task of explaining why this will be the year that Stanford finally falters.
Some of the practical stakes associated with the game have been diminished by the Bears having already made themselves eligible for a bowl after a highly impressive three weeks, but that has done little but rile up fans and whip up dreams of storming the field after denying the Cardinal their ninth straight victory.
“It’s one of the greatest rivalries in college football, and I want (the players) to enjoy that and appreciate it,” said Cal football head coach Justin Wilcox. “It’s about (if) you can harness that energy in the right place and bring it to practice and take it to the game in the right way.”
Cal and Stanford both come into the game at 7-4 — for the former, a pleasant surprise, and for the latter, a discouraging state of affairs. But despite the somewhat unimpressive record, Stanford head coach David Shaw still has his team playing his patented style of buttoned-down, physical football, and both ESPN and Football Outsiders rate Stanford as one of the top-25 teams in the nation.
Stanford’s offense has stayed consistently humming this season despite a muted season from last year’s breakout star running back Bryce Love, who like Cal’s lead tailback Patrick Laird hasn’t been able to consistently impact games the way both of them did in their massive junior campaigns. Stanford’s junior quarterback K.J. Costello has been given the reins of the offense in his second year starting and has impressed in getting the ball to a deep stable of large, physical wide receivers.
“They must have all been really good basketball players because they know how to post up,” said Cal defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “The quarterback does a really nice job of putting the ball where they’re always open. … We’re going to try to make it difficult for them, but not many people have.”
With the Bears’ highly impressive secondary, the Cardinal will need their senior 6’3 wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to put on a show like he did against UCLA last week, going for more than 100 yards and three scores. Even more important than him leading his team in yards from scrimmage is that he’s been the go-to guy for his team in the end zone, tallying 14 scores so far.
The Cardinal have continued to make opposing running backs’ lives difficult with stout effort, but they’ve been more vulnerable in the pass game than in previous years, currently sitting outside the nation’s top half in opposing yards per attempt and passer rating. Cal’s offense, however, is among the nation’s worst in those two categories, and the game may come down to whether or not quarterback Chase Garbers can make Stanford pay with a sustained passing attack.
“They know exactly who they are, and they stay consistent to that — no doubt about it,” said Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. “But those types of teams can also sting you when they do find little wrinkles or new ways to beat you — they’re very well-coached in that way.”
Cal did manage to move the ball on Stanford last year, averaging nearly six yards per play and putting themselves in threatening positions again and again. But having to settle for field goals while only having six drives in the entire game made it an uphill struggle, and the loss was sealed after Ross Bowers was picked off trying to go way downfield for a home run play.
Having put the clamp down on many of the Pac-12’s best teams in the latter half of the season, there’s little reason to think the Bears defense won’t make this a competitive edition of the West’s longest-running rivalry.
As has been the case all throughout the season, Cal’s fate will come down to whether or not the offense can rise to the moment. Against their dreaded rivals at home, it’s hard to imagine a better test of that ability.