By King Jemison
It’s been a disappointing season for Stanford football. Last week’s 48-17 win over Oregon State makes it look a little better, but the Cardinal are still just 6-4 on the year, with a 4-3 record in Pac-12 play. Those four regular season losses are the most since 2014, and with three games left to play, it could easily become the worst season for Stanford since 2008 in Jim Harbaugh’s second year. The Cardinal came into the season with high expectations which their 4-0 start only elevated, but since then, they have not managed to live up to those expectations.
Meanwhile, Cal has exceeded its low expectations and could have its best season since 2008.
The Bears come into Big Game 6-4 with wins over Washington and USC. Last week’s victory over the Trojans snapped a 14-game losing streak against the Trojans. Head coach Justin Wilcox has Cal bowl eligible for the first time since 2015 thanks to a dominant defense, and for the first time in a decade, the Big Game is essentially a toss up.
Stanford is riding an eight-game winning streak over Cal, the longest in Big Game history. But this year’s matchup seems like the perfect storm for a streak-busting Bears victory. Stanford has underachieved; Cal has overachieved. Stanford is in a down year; Cal is in a major “up” year. Stanford may be experiencing a program decline, while Cal is absolutely a program on the rise. Plus, the game will be played in Berkeley. Is this the year that the tables turn and Cal regains control of the Axe?
Stanford certainly hopes not. A Big Game victory would cure (almost) all the ills of a subpar season for the Cardinal, but a loss would make it perhaps the worst season of the David Shaw era. The fact that both Cal and Stanford enter Big Game with identical 6-4 records would have seemed nearly impossible at the start of the season, but now all that matters is that the Cardinal leave at 7-4. Here’s three keys to a Big Stanford victory on Saturday.
1) Make it the KJ Costello game
The 2017 Big Game was the Bryce Love game, as he finished with 101 yards and busted a key 47-yard touchdown on an otherwise quiet offensive night for Stanford. The 2016 Big Game was the Christian McCaffrey game thanks to his 284 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. The 2013 Big Game was the Ty Montgomery game with his five total touchdowns. The 2010 Big Game was the Andrew Luck game. Over the past eight years of dominance over Cal, Stanford’s best players have consistently had huge performances to lead the Cardinal to a victory. Who’s next? If he’s able to play, JJ Arcega-Whiteside would be a prime candidate. As would Bryce Love, who is looking healthier every week. But for Stanford to move the ball on Cal’s stingy defense in 2018, it might have to be the KJ Costello game.
Costello has quietly been the second-best quarterback in the Pac-12 and a Top 15 QB in the nation. He leads the Pac-12 in yards per attempt and passing efficiency, and he’s second in passing yards and completion percentage. Costello’s 23 passing touchdowns puts him at 14th in the country, his 8.65 yards per attempt ranks 15th nationally and his 285.4 yards per game has him at 16th. In his first full season as the starter, Costello has gone from adequate to outstanding, a jump that should not get lost in the midst of a mediocre season. He has the talent and presence to become the next Stanford star to have a breakout Big Game, but will the Cal defense let him?
The Bears have the second ranked total defense in the Pac-12, and it has been absolutely incredible over the past month. Cal held Oregon State to seven points on October 20th, Washington to 10 points on Oct. 27, Washington State to 19 points on Nov. 3, and USC to 14 points last week. The Bears went 3-1 over that stretch, with the only loss coming by six points to eighth-ranked Wazzu on the road.
Cal’s Jordan Kunasyk and Evan Weaver make up perhaps the best inside linebacker duo in the country with their 222 combined tackles and 18 combined tackles-for-loss. The Bears secondary is holding opponents to a Pac-12 best 183.8 passing yards per game. Justin Wilcox’s defense can shut down Stanford, but Costello has shown he can tear up even the best defenses when given the chance. His 347 yards against Washington’s superstar secondary proves that point. Stanford needs Costello to have a big Big Game. If he doesn’t, the historic winning streak may well come to an end.
2) Don’t let it become the Patrick Laird game
The Bears don’t have much on offense. They rank last in the Pac-12 and 102nd nationally in total offense. Even in their impressive wins over Washington and USC, the offense only scored a combined 19 points. But what they do have is Patrick Laird. The senior has 771 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, and he’s also added 269 yards and three touchdowns receiving. Though his numbers aren’t gaudy, Laird always carries the brunt of the load for Cal offense. His 111 total yards against Washington provided the only offense for the Bears in a tight defensive struggle. Laird’s 241 total yards and three touchdowns against Oregon State spearheaded Cal’s most impressive offensive explosion of the year. In big wins and big offensive performances for the Bears, Laird is almost always the catalyst. Plus, Laird was fantastic in Big Game last year, providing 200 of Cal’s 337 total yards. If the Bears are going to move the ball on Stanford, Laird will almost certainly be the reason why.
Stanford’s run defense has been pretty solid this season, making up for the porous pass defense that ranks 108th in the country. The Cardinal are allowing 147.4 yards per game on the ground, putting them at fourth best in the Pac-12, but Lance Anderson’s bunch has given up big games to some of the better running backs they’ve faced. Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams had 161 yards against Stanford, Utah’s Zack Moss had 160 and Washington’s Myles Gaskin had 148 to help usher in three of the Cardinal’s four losses (Washington State literally never runs the ball, so they don’t apply to the trend). If Laird becomes the next running back to gash the Stanford defense, Cal could become the next opponent to ride that huge rushing performance to a victory over the Cardinal.
3) NO DEFENSIVE POINTS (for Cal, at least)
Even with Patrick Laird, the Bears probably don’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up with the Cardinal. Quarterback Chase Garbers has just two games with more than 200 yards through the air, and the Cal offense is only averaging 3.8 yards per play over the last three games. But the way the Bears could put up enough points to beat Stanford (and the way they managed to knock off Washington and USC) is by scoring with their defense.
Evan Weaver’s 37-yard pick six provided the decisive points in Cal’s 12-10 victory over Washington. A safety on the first drive of the second half keyed the Bears’ 15-14 win over USC. Overall, the Cal defense has three touchdowns on the season, and they lead the Pac-12 with 14 interceptions and 18 turnovers. The matchup with Costello could very well play into the Bears’ hands, as the aggressive QB has a Pac-12 worst 10 interceptions. In what will likely be a tight, low-scoring game, a defensive score could be all that Cal needs to pick up a win.
Whether or not Cal scores a defensive touchdown, their dominant defense has made the 2018 Big Game a much more interesting matchup than in years past. The Bears will have every chance to win, and although Big Game features two teams with no chance at a Pac-12 title, the stakes for both programs are enormous. For Cal, a victory would snap the longest losing streak in Big Game history and make 2018 their most successful season in a decade. For Stanford, a win would prevent 2018 from going on the books as as utter failure. For both, a loss would be devastating. Does that make Stanford-Cal 2018 the Biggest Game?
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu