By George Chen
Stanford has made a habit of limping into Big Games the past three years.
In 2011, the Cardinal begrudgingly got back on the field for Cal a week after losing to Oregon in one of the biggest games in college football that year. A season later, Big Game took place following Stanford’s controversial 20-17 overtime loss at Notre Dame. And in 2013, the Cardinal had to bounce back a week after seeing their national championship hopes derailed at the hands of USC.
As Stanford (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) faces Cal (5-5, 3-5) in the 117th rendition of Big Game this weekend, the storyline fits with the three-year trend. But things are also a little different this time around. Instead of only limping into Berkeley, the Cardinal are bleeding from every orifice, having lost three of their last four games including most recently a double-overtime heartbreaker to Utah.
Cal can smell the blood.
“We haven’t earned the right to be overconfident about anything,” said head coach David Shaw. “We’re trying to scrap and claw for a win…This is our closest rival. Our seniors haven’t lost a Big Game and have the desire to keep the Axe, and that’s where our focus is. Winning one more game gets us bowl eligible, but at the same time, winning this game has a chance to be special.”
The 2014 Big Game will feature a battle of the worsts: Stanford’s offense vs. Cal’s defense. The Cardinal have averaged 23.9 points per game while the Bears have given up 37.9 points per game, both of which are rock-bottom in the conference. Stanford’s red-zone woes have been well-documented, but some of the Bears’ defensive performances have been equally laughable — Cal has given up over 20 points in one quarter five times this year, including 36 in the fourth quarter against Arizona back in September. Against Pac-12 opponents, the Bears have allowed opponents to score at least two touchdowns in one quarter 13 times, almost forty percent of total quarters they’ve played in.
In light of Stanford’s recent struggles in both the running and passing game, it’s difficult to envision the Cardinal putting up 63 points like it did last year, when wideout Ty Montgomery scored 5 touchdowns and made the Bears defensive backs look like junior varsity benchwarmers. But if there’s any consolation in last week’s loss to Utah, it’s that true freshman halfback Christian McCaffrey has been getting more touches. The versatile McCaffrey had eight carries for 77 yards and three catches for 10 yards against the Utes, by far the most Shaw has involved him in the offensive gameplan this year.
“We’ll continue to do a lot of things with Christian [McCaffrey], both as a runner and a receiver,” Shaw said. “He’s got great versatility…We still don’t want to completely overload him — we want to be very specific with what we give him. He’s proven to be effective in just about everything we’ve done with him, so his role will continue to expand.”
On the other side of the ball, Cal’s offense has been impressive to say the least, as it’s ranked behind only Oregon in the conference when it comes to points scored per-game (40.7). The major catalyst for the Bears’ success on offense in the past two years has been their quarterback Jared Goff, who’s had an outstanding season statistically with 30 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Goff has benefited from a more balanced Cal offensive attack this season, especially with running back Daniel Lasco averaging 5.3 yards per carry and being used as a dangerous target out of the backfield.
“[Cal’s offense] is very good,” said senior outside linebacker Kevin Anderson. “They’re the fourth-best passing team in the country and they can also run the ball well. It’s going to be a challenge this week.”
None of the players on the current Cardinal squad know what it’s like to lose Big Game or to relinquish the Axe. On Saturday, they’ll look to keep it that way.
“In this program we pride ourselves on playing for tangible evidence,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Jeff Trojan, “so [playing for the Axe] is something we’re excited for.”
Saturday’s Big Game is slated for a 1 p.m. kickoff time, with television coverage on Fox Sports 1.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.