According to Stanford head coach David Shaw, playing in the Big Game for the first time can be a shock to the system for the Cardinal freshmen.
“You have to try to warn them, but they won’t get it,” Shaw said at his Tuesday press conference. “You’re going to feel it before the game ever starts.”
Shaw went on to say that the veterans are more prepared for the intense atmosphere that will be present in Stanford Stadium on Saturday evening, and they will do their best to share that knowledge with their younger teammates.
“The older guys know there’s going to be more emotion in this game. There’s going to be a lot of passion in this game,” Shaw said. “You have to come out and be able to control that passion and play well.”
One of those older guys, junior safety Frank Buncom, talked about his emotions and the overall feel on campus leading up to Saturday night’s game.
“It’s huge. It’s an honor to be a part of such a storied tradition,” Buncom said. “You can see the excitement on campus this week.”
On the field, Stanford has won its last seven meetings against Cal. Especially after such a huge victory over a Top-10 opponent in Washington last week and with a Top-10 opponent in Notre Dame waiting for the Cardinal next week, the Big Game could turn into a trap game if Stanford is not careful. However, Shaw said his team is completely focused on the task ahead this week.
“We haven’t earned the right to look past anybody. We’re still looking for our own consistency,” Shaw said. “This is a rivalry game, it’s a home game, we’re playing for the Axe, we’re playing for the seniors. I think we have a lot to play for this week.”
“You’re definitely never going to look past a rivalry game,” Buncom added.
On the injury front, Shaw assured the media that junior running back Bryce Love made it out of the Washington game okay despite playing on an injured left ankle. Love will spend most of his preparation time this week in rehab but should be able to at least partially participate in practice as well.
Meanwhile, Shaw designated senior tight end Dalton Schultz and freshman wide receiver Connor Wedington as questionable for the Big Game Saturday. Both sustained relatively minor injuries against the Huskies last Friday. Freshman offensive tackle Walker Little, who had risen to a starting position on the offensive line before his injury against Washington State, remains out this week and is doubtful for next week’s game against Notre Dame.
Even without Little, Shaw praised the play of Stanford’s offensive line against Washington, especially going up against Husky defensive end Vita Vea, whom Shaw called, “the best defensive lineman we’ve seen all year.” In particular, the coach pointed out the performances of senior guard Brandon Fanaika, sophomore guard Nate Herbig, senior center Jesse Burkett and sophomore tackle Devery Hamilton.
“We rotated guys. They all played well,” Shaw said. “It’s hard to say who played the best because they all played at a really high level.”
The offensive line’s effectiveness against Washington allowed Stanford to be more aggressive in the passing game and take more shots downfield. Sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello’s downfield accuracy and junior wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside’s tremendous big-play ability have only given Shaw more reason to throw the ball deep more often.
“We need to be able to throw the ball downfield, particularly with (Costello),” Shaw said. “He throws a really good deep ball, very catchable.”
About Arcega-Whiteside, Shaw said, “The guy’s a playmaker. We need to give him those opportunities.”
Despite the improvements shown in the passing game, the biggest playmaker for the Cardinal continues to be Bryce Love. In light of his ankle injury and the constant attention he receives from defenses every week, Shaw says he is even more impressed with his star running back as the Heisman contender continues to put up stunning numbers.
“I don’t need to talk about any specific awards, but what he’s doing I’m not sure anyone else is doing at any position,” Shaw said. “Injured, still effective, still leading the nation in like five or six different categories when everybody knows he’s getting the ball. That’s rare and not comparable to other positions with what’s going on in college football right now.”
In continuing to play through a painful injury, Love has shown some of the trademark resiliency of David Shaw’s teams in the past. This year’s entire team has followed suit. After being left for dead in the wake of the Week 3 loss to San Diego State, Stanford is one win over Cal and one Washington State loss in the Apple Cup away from winning the Pac-12 North and playing for the Pac-12 Championship.
“You have to be resilient. You have to be able to fight back,” Shaw said. “I’ve lost count of how many times our bandwagon’s been empty, and our guys fight back. Biggest thing for me about the season is you always need to be improving. You have to find those next challenges and play better this week than you played last week.”
If the Cardinal are able to continue their upward trend and match their coach’s standards, they could be looking at another Big Game victory and another trip to the Pac-12 Championship.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu