A year ago the Pac-12 Network seemed like a dream come true. Conference comissioner Larry Scott promised that every Pac-12 football and basketball game would be broadcast nationwide, and he delivered a contract that would funnel a quarter billion dollars to the conference's member schools each year.
The reality has been different. The Pac12-DirecTV impasse means that hundreds of thousands of Stanford fans -- myself included -- don't get to watch every game, and Big Game has inexplicably been moved to the middle of October. It is what it is.
This edition of Big Game probably comes at the perfect time for the Cardinal. After the disappointment of the Robbery at South Bend, there would normally be worries about an emotional hangover, so it's fortunate that the team has had the Axe to think about all week as they prepared to travel across the Bay to play the Cal Bears.
The Bears have had an up and down season, losing their season opener in disappointing fashion to Nevada, narrowly missing a huge road upset at Ohio State, and then crushing UCLA at home more recently. Cal hasn't beaten Stanford since 2009, when this year's seniors were freshmen, so I'm guessing they'll be even more motivated than usual to beat the Cardinal and reclaim the Axe.
To learn some more about the Bears, how their season has gone, and what they anticipate for the future, I contacted the good folks over at California Golden Blogs, and three of their experts were happy to answer a few questions. (You can click here to check out my responses to their questions. For even more, you can also check out Pacific Takes, where I helped out with a midseason look at the Cardinal.) Enjoy...
A couple of weeks ago, when Cal was sitting at 1-4 with very few signs of life, this was looking like a lost season. After a huge win over UCLA at home and a win on the road against Washington State last week, things are looking up. How is the fan base feeling nowadays? What's the temperature of the seat in Coach Tedford's office?
The fanbase I think is waiting to react one way or another based on the result of the Big Game. Beating UCLA bought Tedford some good will, but let's be clear: beating Stanford is the alpha and the omega. If Cal had been beating Stanford consistently over the last few years Tedford's seat might not have even gotten hot in the first place. I don't know what the current temperature is, but if Stanford wins again it will get turned up to boil.
Calls for Tedford's head seem to have slowed but I think there is still a general sense of angst amongst the Cal faithful. Should the Big Game be a blowout loss and the season ends on a downslope, I don't think anyone would be surprised to see Tedford replaced. So I'd say the while the temperature of the the seat is cooler than it was 2 weeks ago, it's still warm.
Nick's got it about right. The UCLA game prevented the season from spiraling down the drain completely, but the bottom line, at least for me, is whether we can turn around the poor start and at least manage to reach a bowl game, and can we beat Stanford and Washington in the process. That's probably my only minor disagreement with Nick. Stanford may be the alpha, but this year at least, Washington is the omega. We have a bone to pick with the Huskies.
Since Stanford fans have been arguing about what to do at the quarterback position, let's look at the Cal quarterback. Here's what I've been hearing about Zach Maynard: He's incredibly talented, but he's been a bit disappointing. His numbers, though, look pretty good. If the Cardinal were getting that type of production from Josh Nunes, they would likely be 6-0 and ranked in the top five. So what's the deal with Maynard?
Look, I think I appreciate Zach Maynard probably more than the average Cal fan does. I think he's got a bit of that gunslinger mentality, and he's usually been pretty good about bouncing back after making a mistake. I think he's got some good tools, as long as the playcalling is suited to his skillset. But I must say, this is the first time I've ever heard the phrase "incredibly talented" used in the same sentence with Zach's name and not have it refer to his brother Keenan instead. That's not to say he's a bad QB, but let's be real here; he's got a ceiling. There's a reason why Tedford repeatedly invokes the phrase "game manager" when he is discussing Maynard's performances. He's not a star that can put the team on his back by slinging 40 yard passes down the field or scrambling for long touchdowns, but when he's at his best, he facilitates the offense well, makes good decisions, buys some time and yards with his feet when he needs to and makes the right reads and is generally accurate enough with the ball. He can put the team in position to win, or at least not lose the game by himself generally.
We wish we knew. He is a great athlete and a decent QB. He plays best when throwing quick slants and screens and keeps the defense honest with his running ability. The OLines also has a huge impact on his game, as any time he's spending the whole game running for his life or getting up off the turf he tends to begin to rush things and make bad reads (which is totally understandable).
He depends on his teammates to keep his jersey clean, which I guess is kinda obvious and true for every quarterback. But it seems particularly true for Maynard, who doesn't have the greatest pocket awareness despite his mobility. Accuracy will always be an issue for Zach. Sometimes he'll hit every throw you expect him to hit along with a few other tough ones. Sometimes he'll airmail an easy throw to the running back in the flat. At this point that's probably just the reality Cal fans have to live with.
I'm looking at Keenan Allen's statistics right now, and I feel like there must be a misprint. I've got two questions about him: one, what are his strengths and weaknesses as a receiver; and two, will he or won't he make it to 100 receptions this year?
KA21's strength is his size and ability to adjust to the ball when it is in flight. He's not the fastest guy on the field by any means, but he is quick and athletic so he'll make people miss in small spaces. His biggest weakness is probably his speed and the fact that he sometimes seems to slip on the field and fall down, for no apparent reason.
Strengths: Body control, hands, route running, catch radius.
I don't know if the rest of the country realizes this, but it seems like Cal always has a game-changing running back who carried most of the load for his team. This year it was supposed to be Isi Sofele, but he's been splitting carries with C.J. Anderson. How do these two backs complement each other? How do you expect the Cal running game to fare against Stanford's front seven?
I'd argue that it's actually a 3 person rotation, with CJ, Isi, and Bigelow. CJ is a bruiser that runs between the tackles and wears people down. Isi does well following blockers, finding gaps, and making people miss. He also seems to catch a lot of balls out of the backfield. And Bigelow has speed to burn and just never quits. Each one of these guys brings a different dimension to the field and seem to work well together to keep the defense from keying in on one particular style. I think the Cal running game may struggle a bit since the OLine hasn't been the best (though much improved in the last 2 weeks), but I would not be surprised at all to see someone rip off a big run or two.
Isi is the smaller, quicker back who can squirt through tiny holes and make plays on the outside. C.J. is more of a bruising, between the tackles type of runner. It's also worth mentioning that Brendan Bigelow has been a bit more involved in the offense for the past couple weeks, and he's the game-changer back with his speed and elusiveness in the open field.
I'll let you in on a secret. The Stanford offense has struggled on the road, and even though some of the blame falls on Josh Nunes, I think our problems have been due to an inability to run the ball as effectively as we have in the past. How do you expect the Cal defense to do against the Stanford running game? Which names from the front seven do you expect we'll hear most often on Saturday?
I fully expect Cal to commit strongly to stopping Stepfan Taylor, and that will likely mean seeing plenty of safety Avery Sebastian in the box in run support. Cal tends to substitute a lot on defense and play a number of guys, but in addition to Avery, expect to hear from outside linebacker Chris McCain. He's one of the few guys on defense who seems to play every down, and he's a big, physical prescence on the edge.
I think the Cal defense will actually fairly pretty. Of the front seven, Chris McCain will be front and center, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Deandre Coleman in the middle of things and I'm guessing Kendrick Payne steps up too(no real reason, just a hunch).
Much was made over the departure of Tosh Lupoi during this past off-season, particularly in its impact on Cal's recruiting. How has that loss affected the defense on the field, if at all?
Hard to say. Cal's defensive line play hasn't been quite on the level that many people expected, and it could be argued that losing Lupoi as a coach is a reason for that. I think a more likely explanation has been a series of nagging injuries that have limited the linemen are various points throughout the season and impacted their ability to prepare during fall practice, but it's possible that Lupoi's departure has hurt more than just recruiting.
Yeah, the jury's out on the actual performance aspect. The D-line has definitely not been as strong as we were hoping at the beginning of the season, especially with talented veterans like Deandre Coleman, Aaron Tipoti, and Kendrick Payne returning, but several guys have been banged up, and presumably as they're getting healthy again, they're starting to play better of late. Also encouraging is that some talented young guys like Villiami Moala and Todd Barr are starting to make their presence felt. Maybe by the end of the season they'll be the unit we hoped they would be. Really though, the loss of Lupoi has only so far clearly hurt us in the recruiting department, and that effect won't be seen for a few more years if at all. Though, it did make us feel really angry and betrayed, so that will make the Washington game fun.
What worries you the most about the Cal defense? Where are the weaknesses?
The biggest weakness early in the year seemed to be at safety, but that situation has improved since Avery Sebastian was elevated to starter. For now I'll go with difficulty creating pressure without blitzing. Granted, that's a problem plenty of teams have, but it's something Cal fans thought would be a strength before the season started.
Defending the Tight End and reading/defending the running QB seem to be the Achilles Heel that continually plague the defense. Those worry me greatly.
Finish these sentences for me: "If Cal loses on Saturday, the rest of the season will..." and "If Cal wins on Saturday, the rest of the season will..."
Loses ...be hard to consider a success and probably end on a down swing. Win...be pointed in the right direction and primed for a huge turnaround and bowl game. And will be a success because we have the Axe.
If Cal loses on Saturday, the rest of the season will... possibly continue the death spiral we all feared was imminent when we were 1-4. If we don't beat Stanford, Utah, and Washington, then we have to upset either Oregon at home or Oregon State on the road to reach 6-6, and both teams are undefeated and ranked in the top ten right now.
If Cal loses on Saturday, the rest of the season will...potentially be a lame duck death march.
Here's a fun one for you. If you could write the script for Big Game -- not necessarily this Saturday, but any Big Game -- what would be your dream situation and result?
Cal is undefeated, ranked in the top five and brutally curbstomps a winless Stanford team to clinch the Rose Bowl and/or a national championship game. There isn't a single red-clad Stanford fan in attendance at the game, the outcome of which is never in doubt at what is essentially a Golden Bear coronation ceremony in anticipation for a Pac-12 title game in Memorial against USC, whom we have blown out once already this year at the Coliseum, where the Trojans looked completely overmatched.
The most unimaginable outcome has already happened, so it's tough to think of anything zanier than The Play, which was a dream b/c Cal won in a demoralizing fashion that will be forever replayed on highlight shows. So I'll just go with a 77-0 epic beatdown that causes Stanford to disband their athletic department in shame.
Stanford enters the Big Game tied for 1st in the North with Cal. Led by future 1st round draft pick quarterback (insert generic uber-talented rich white kid from an affluent suburb), Stanford needs just one more win to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game. In a physical, hard-fought contest, the game is tied late in the 4th quarter. Driving to get into field goal range, Stanford throws an interception that gets returned 70 yards for what turns out to be the winning score.
Who's your favorite Stanford player of all time, and who is your most hated? (And don't say that you hate them all; you must answer both parts of the question or you'll lose points.)
Hmmmmm. Brian Johnson is my all time favorite Stanford alum, but you're presumably asking about a football player. Also, I started rooting for Brian Johnson well before I knew his college affiliation, so that might not count anyway.
Probably John Lynch is my favorite, but after the fact, when he was with the Tampa Bay Bucs. Most hated would probably be a toss-up between Elway and Luck.
Favorite... Stanford... player? Does not compute. I guess Jim Plunkett won a couple of Super Bowls for the Raiders, so I'll go with him as my least hated. As for most hated, well, I suppose technically Jim Harbaugh doesn't count since he's not a player, but he's by far my most hated person affiliated with Stanford. Without sinking into namecalling territory, let's just say... I have a strong visceral aversion to his personality.
Okay, so who wins on Saturday? How will the game play out, and what's the final score?
I think the final score will be something along the lines of 20-17. A slow, bruising game with lots of questionable offensive execution and lots of good plays from the defenses. As always, turnovers will be key but will be even more magnified because the game will be low-scoring. Special team play will also be crucial.
Close game that Cal wins with a dominant 4th quarter running the ball down your throat. 7-0 final score (not really, but I'm horrible at predicting. I do think it will be within a touchdown either way though).
It will be a tough, slugfest of a game that will be decided by a few crucial plays or miscues, with perhaps a key fumble or an interception sealing the deal, much like 2009.