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Instant Replay: How Stanford didn’t run up the score

Due to Thanksgiving Break, today’s edition of Instant Replay does not have graphics.

Saturday was a good day to be a Stanford fan.

The Cardinal won the 116th Big Game handily and showed the world why the trophy is called the “Stanford” Axe. The offense was the prettiest it’s been since Andrew Luck’s graduation and, after a few early hiccups, the defense was stout, as usual. The ensuing BCS standings ranked Stanford as the No. 8 team in the country. Unlikeliest of all: Thanks to Arizona’s shocking beatdown of Oregon, the path to the Pac-12 championship and the Rose Bowl became clear for the one contender in the Pac-12 North that actually took the Rose Bowl seriously.

Saturday’s Big Game was a historic result – literally the biggest victory in the 116-year history of the rivalry. A lot of people said afterwards that Stanford ran up the score, but watching from the stands, I never got the feeling that David Shaw wanted to humiliate the Golden Bears. We need to remember that the Cardinal is a top-10 squad and Cal, crippled by injuries, is possibly the worst team in big-time college football.

Cal knew that it had to take chances to be competitive; it onside kicked after its first touchdown, after all. Cal defensive coordinator Andy Buh wanted to stop the run and hoped that Kevin Hogan would be inconsistent. It was the right strategy, but it nevertheless failed miserably.

It was apparent from the start that Cal was going to sell out against the run. Against an aggressive team, at some point you have to go deep, and Stanford went deep. Cal exhibited miserable discipline and awareness on defense, and even though it has had devastating injuries on defense, injuries do not excuse its performance on Saturday. Cal defenders would often run into each other. Cal couldn’t stop a switch route to save its life. Fundamentals-wise, this was the worst defensive performance by a BCS team I’ve seen since Nebraska’s epic implosion against Wisconsin in 2012. Stanford didn’t need to want to run up the score in order to break records; it simply could not avoid doing so.

Stanford scored nine times (yes, this is not a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off joke), with every score a touchdown:

  1. End-around to Ty Montgomery. Stanford faked power right, Cal bit and Montgomery took the ball left for an easy touchdown.

  2. Simple vertical switch routes – one receiver crossed over the path of another, basically setting a downfield screen. Cal failed to stop the switch routes, and Montgomery was wide open. For what it’s worth, his switch partner Devon Cajuste was wide open too. If Hogan had known that Montgomery would have as absurd a day as he ended up having, he might have thrown the ball to Cajuste instead.

  3. Quick slant to Montgomery in the red zone. With safety help just above him, Cal’s cornerback correctly funneled Montgomery inside, but Cal’s safety inexplicably sat back in coverage.

  4. Play-action tunnel screen to Montgomery. This was exactly the same play as this one against Arizona State. I am proud to say that I saw this one coming. To be honest, it was actually kind of obvious. The way Cal’s linebackers and safeties were responding to Stanford’s interior run game, that screen was bound to get at least 20 yards, and it ended up going for 72. At that point, Montgomery had scored four touchdowns on four touches.

  5. Deep bomb to Michael Rector. I’d be willing to bet that at least two-thirds of Rector’s routes are verticals. Rector is a good receiver and solidly beat his man in a footrace, but Cal had to have seen that one coming. I’m assuming that the Bears did and just couldn’t keep up with Rector, because that wasn’t the only play in which Rector set Cal’s secondary on fire.

  6. Sideline fade to Montgomery. This was actually a great play on Montgomery’s part. He found himself on an island with a Cal cornerback and no safety help whatsoever; knowing that the slant was the obvious play call, Montgomery faked the inside-breaking route and then darted outside on the fade. Hogan, who looked like an NFL player on Saturday, made an absolutely gorgeous throw to complete the score.

  7. A Gaffney direct snap out of the Wildcat. Coming this late in the game, the play call could be construed as a giant middle finger from David Shaw to the proverbial “haters.” Cal shouldn’t take it personally. The Bears should be more irritated about this: Cal overcommitted to Kelsey Young’s sweep motion, and for Gaffney, “room to run” would be an understatement.

  8. Kelsey Young motions into a sweep, and this time Cal doesn’t commit to it enough. This is probably the most controversial play of the game, as Cal fans raged about Shaw calling a “reverse” while up by 36. Followers of Stanford football should find this rage absurd. If he is on the field, Kelsey Young will almost certainly run a sweep, just like Ricky Seale will run the option and Michael Rector will go vertical. (This is all just setting up for Young running shallow crosses against Notre Dame, isn’t it?) Cal knew the sweep was coming; Cal had to stop it and couldn’t. End of story.

  9. Evan Crower connected with Francis Owusu for the final score. Good throw, good catch, good execution, bad defense. I’m not sure Cal cared at that point.

The story of the game was this: Cal sucked. Cal sucked like a team that is bottoming out and installing new schemes is supposed to suck. The score was ugly, but let’s remember that Stanford started putting in its backups as early as the third quarter, and as a coach you have to at least try to score, even with your second team. The backups play hard on the practice field, and what we call “garbage time” means a lot to them.

Stanford gave Cal chances. A lot of times it would run into the middle of the line twice in a row and set up third-and-long, only for the deep bomb to come open. Most of Stanford’s pass plays have at least one deep route built in, which forces teams to respect the possibility of a bomb. It was a good strategy; Cal couldn’t stop the bomb.

The Cardinal didn’t try to exploit its advantages any more than it needed to; the game was over by the half. But the Cardinal couldn’t simply run on third-and-long either. If you won’t try to score, or at least go through the motions of it, you might as well take knees the entire time – and that’s even more insulting than throwing the ball on every down. After Saturday’s carnage, I wouldn’t hold it against the Berkeley faithful if they considered that fact a distinction without a difference.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Winston Shi

Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.