By David Cohn
Stanford’s battle with Cal this Saturday will be a clash of polar opposites – Cal ranks first in the Pac-12 in scoring offense while Stanford ranks 12th, and Stanford ranks first in scoring defense while Cal ranks 12th. With that in mind, we asked football writers Joseph Beyda, David Cohn and Michael Peterson:Is this year’s Big Game more likely to be a high or low scoring matchup?
Joseph: I think this weekend’s game is bound to be a high-scoring matchup. Cal scored 71 points in its two games against USC and Oregon, who have two of the top four scoring defenses in the Pac-12. Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff also averaged nearly 320 passing yards in those two games, proving that his record-breaking season for the Golden Bears last year wasn’t just a fluke.
Meanwhile, we’ve grown accustomed to the Stanford offense finding ways to keep itself off the board, but its struggles have come almost entirely against teams that are known for their defenses: USC, Notre Dame, ASU and Utah. On the other hand, the Cardinal lit up Washington State and Oregon State, who boast the ninth- and 10th-best scoring defenses in the conference, respectively.
But it’s not just the stats that convince me we’re bound for a shootout on Saturday. This game is also the biggest chance for senior receiver Ty Montgomery to flex his muscles, which Cal just couldn’t deal with in 2013. He had more offensive touchdowns in last year’s Big Game (five) than he does through 10 games this season (four). Montgomery’s ability to contribute in 2014 has been limited by Stanford’s spurts of ineffectiveness on offense, and against the worst defense the Cardinal have faced since UC Davis (doesn’t that feel like it was ages ago?), Stanford should hold on to the ball long enough to maximize the involvement of its best player.
Michael: If Stanford needed to score at least 24 points to win a game, would you trust it do that? The Card will certainly need to put that many points on the board to beat the Bears, so that is the question ruminating in the minds of all Stanford fans right now.
Outside of traveling to Eugene to face Oregon, this could be the Card’s biggest defensive test this season. In the five games Stanford and Cal have played against mutual opponents this season, the Bears have scored 183 points, while Stanford has been limited to only 118. Cal’s offense can score right along with the best in the country, and the Bears just last week put 30 points on USC at the Coliseum, dwarfing Stanford’s subpar 10-point performance against USC at home earlier this season.
Fortunately for the Card, the outstanding play of their defense has helped keep the overall margin in those five mutual games to +16, while Cal’s horrific defensive play resulted in a -35 margin. And, like Joey shared, Stanford’s offense tends to click against mediocre defensive units. Stanford’s speed on the perimeter will likely be too much for Cal to handle, like it was for Washington State and Oregon State. The added motivation of playing for a bowl game and for the Axe should be enough to stir up what has recently been an uninspired offense.
The Big Game will probably turn into a “mini-shootout,” in that it will seem as a shootout to Cardinal fans, and probably a low-scoring game to Cal fans. However, given the inconsistency of Stanford’s offense and the dominance of the Card’s defense, it could just as easily finish 10-7. If I was a betting man, I’d slightly favor the likelihood of a high-scoring contest.
David: I believe this year’s Big Game will be a relatively high-scoring affair, as Michael alluded to, with both teams having the potential to put up at least 30 points on their respective opposing defenses. Cal’s defense has struggled mightily again this season; while the unit is probably improved from last year’s disaster, the Golden Bears are still 122nd nationally in points allowed, yielding nearly 40 points per game. Even the weakest offenses in the Pac-12, including Washington and Oregon State – which both torched the Bears for 31 points apiece in their respective matchups – have looked strong against Cal’s defense.
As such, I believe Stanford’s offense is fully capable of putting up 30 points against Cal on Saturday; the question with this unit has consistently been whether the execution and play-calling will be there so that the offense can sustain drives long enough to put points on the board. Quite simply, Stanford’s offense has derailed too easily on too many drives this season.
On the other side of this matchup, despite the all-around strong play of Stanford’s defense this year, I believe that the Bears can very easily score 25 points or more against the Cardinal. Stanford has already yielded 25+ points on the road twice to two elite offenses in the Pac-12 (26 points to Arizona State, 45 points to Oregon), and the California offense is elite; Cal ranks fourth nationally in passing yards with over 350 yards per game, and ninth in scoring with over 40 points per game. Quite simply, the only thing that has stopped Cal’s offense this season is Cal: The only time in which the Golden Bears have been held to fewer than 30 points was a three-fumble performance against Washington.
Joseph Beyda, Michael Peterson and David Cohn have unanimously decided that the Cardinal and Golden Bears will light up the scoreboard. However, the question remains whether the Stanford offense can step up to the plate and keep up with a high-octane Cal offense and whether Cal’s offense has what it takes to go up against the staunch Stanford defense. Share your predictions with the trio at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu, mrpetes ‘at’ stanford.edu and dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu.