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Stanford football seeks nine straight axes

The Cardinal and the Golden Bears duke it out this weekend in the 121st Big Game

“Well, it’s called the Stanford Axe for a reason,” said offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard. A quarterback during his time at Stanford, Pritchard continued, “It belongs here, so we’re going to do everything in our power to keep it here where it belongs.”

Stanford football (6-4, 4-3 Pac 12) will seek to retain the axe for a ninth consecutive year in the 121st rendition of the Big Game against California (6-4, 3-4) in Memorial Stadium. The Cardinal’s current winning streak is the longest in the series, which Stanford leads 63-46-11.

Stanford won last year’s contest 17-14 on the strength of senior running back Bryce Love’s 101 rushing yards. Despite playing through injuries,  Love managed a 57-yard touchdown run, prompting senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside to comment after the game, “It’s gotten to the point where it’s like, ‘There he goes again, let’s go meet him in the end zone.’”

After a vintage showing from Love last week against Oregon State in which the running back was removed from the game without a setback, and two straight weeks with rushing touchdowns, the Cardinal are hoping to renew the tradition of meeting up with Love in the end zone.

With the emergence of junior quarterback KJ Costello, the passing attack has surprisingly become the strength of the Cardinal offense. He leads the conference in passing efficiency, ranks second in yards per game and completion percentage and third in touchdown passes. “Last year, he was one of the best downfield passers in all of college football, so we knew he had that talent and ability,” said head coach David Shaw. “We’ve just taken more advantage of it.”

The Stanford passing attack would be nothing, however, without the strength of its pass catchers.

After reeling off four touchdowns last week, sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week. “That’s why we recruited him,” said Shaw. “We figured that by the time he was leaving here he’d be among the best tight ends in America.”

Still, Parkinson is not even the best tight end on the Stanford roster. Junior tight end Kaden Smith is first in the nation in receiving yards at his position with 601. “It’s been awesome to see him develop into the number one tight end that he is right now,” said Parkinson. “It’s something I want to develop into next year.”

Smith is questionable for the game, as is the team’s receiving leader Arcega-Whiteside, a Biletnikoff award semifinalist for outstanding receiver in college football. The Cardinal will view this as an opportunity to demonstrate their resilience as well as their depth.

The passing prowess of the offense will face off against the strength of the Bears’ defense, a secondary limiting opposing quarterbacks to 183.8 yards, the lowest in the conference. “They are very talented, and they play very hard, and they have a really good scheme that puts their defense in beneficial situations quite often,” said Costello.

The Bears also have their own reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week, defensive end Luc Bequette, who won the defensive honor for his night of eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble against the USC Trojans. Bequette is joined on the field by the nation’s leading duo in tackles, Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver, on the 16th best defense in college football. “They do a phenomenal job, they really do,” said Pritchard. “It’s both things: they’re good in the back end, and their pass rush is real.”

The Stanford defense, meanwhile, will be tasked with containing Cal running back Patrick Laird. Last year, the Cardinal defense was not up for the task, allowing 200 yards of total offense to Laird. This year, Laird leads his team with 179 carries for 771 yards and five touchdowns, and he is also Cal’s leader in receptions with 43. “He runs hard,” said defensive coordinator Lance Anderson. “You got to get multiple guys there, you got to be good tackling, because he is a quality player.”

Stanford has started six different offensive line combinations in the first 10 games this season. That inconsistency is foreign to a Cal team that has started only six offensive lineman all year.

Turnovers will be also be pivotal in this game. Stanford has not lost when generating a turnover, and Cal has won all four games it has played this season when winning the turnover battle.

While the players acknowledged the added emotion of the rivalry, a common theme was a dual recognition that it’s also another game. “Obviously, the Big Game will have a little extra juice behind it, but we’re going to be fired up as we always are because we’ll be playing another football game with our brothers,” said Parkinson.

This sentiment was echoed by fifth year cornerback Alameen Murphy, who has exactly five tackles in each of his previous contests against the Bears. “It means a lot because it’s the big game, of course, because it’s Cal, but also because it’s the next game. It’s the next chance to turn a six into a seven, that’s what we look forward to the most.”

“It’s another game for me,” said Costello, “but I do know what it means to these seniors and I feel obligated to serve them with a little bit of extra energy come gameday.”

When asked if there would be extra bounce in his players’ steps for Big Game week, Shaw responded, “Gosh, there better be.” Kickoff is Saturday at 4:30 p.m. from Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

 

Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu

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