The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In a season marked by questions, inconsistency, and trepidation, the Cardinal discovered on Saturday afternoon in Berkeley that they still own the Golden Bears. This year's win should come as no surprise. Even considering a 7-1 advantage for Cal from 2002 to '09, Stanford has still thoroughly dominated this series over the past 52 years. Starting with a 20-7 win in 1962, Stanford holds a 32-19-1 record in Big Games over those five decades and change, and nothing we saw on Saturday indicated that any of that might change in the near or distant future.
Coach David Shaw seemed intent on sending a message with his offensive playcalling on Saturday, as he went with a wildcat look featuring Stepfan Taylor on the first play of the game. Taylor gained four yards, which is probably what he would've done if handed the ball out of a standard set, but that play call seemed to be telling the Bears and their defense that they would have to be on their toes all game long.
That first drive ended three plays later when Josh Nunes fumbled the ball on a scramble, but Shaw's creativity continued when he sent in Kevin Hogan at quarterback for the first play of the next series. Two weeks ago I wrote a piece here asking Shaw to use Hogan a handful of times during the game, and during his post game presser on Saturday evening, Shaw revealed that they've been working with the Hogan Package in practice since the spring and broke it out this week because it was finally ready. (You can listen to him talk about it here.) He also promised that it would be a part of every game plan from here on out.
When the Hogan Package enters the game, it appears we can look for one of two things. The first is a read-option run, in which Hogan reads the defensive line and decides between handing the ball to his tailback or keeping it himself. (In some looks, there will be a second runner in the backfield for a more traditional option look.) The second look will be a designed roll out where Hogan will again have a decision to make, whether to pass or simply keep rolling into a run.
On this first play, Hogan simply handed the ball to backup tailback Remound Wright for a six-yard gain. That yardage was nullified by a Levine Toilolo holding penalty, but it gave the Cal coaching staff one extra thing to think about.
The drive continued with a nice 17-yard pass to Drew Terrell, then a long 39-yard rush from Taylor, and the Cardinal arrived in field goal position before stalling at the California 23.
You know how they say that once an actor wins an Oscar, his name seems to change to Acadamy Award winner ______ ______ for the rest of his career? It certainly looks like something similar is happening with The Struggling Jordan Williamson. He yanked his forty-yard field goal attempt a bit to the left, and the ball passed directly over the top of the left upright. By rule, a miss. He would pull a shorter kick more severely in the second quarter, but after the game Shaw expressed confidence in his kicker and explained that SJW has a problem most weekend golfers will understand. He can't keep his head down. When it comes up, he hooks it. (Here's Shaw's deeper explanation, along with that vote of confidence and an explanation of the official's call on the first miss.)
Even with these early struggles on the offensive side of the ball, the Stanford defense was dominating while they were on the field. After getting fifteen free yards from a Stanford personal foul on their first snap, Cal was held to a total of thirteen yards on their first three offensive possessions. More impressive than those numbers, however, was the quality of the defense the Cardinal was playing, harrassing Cal quarterback Zach Maynard each time he dropped back to pass and stoning running backs Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson whenever they touched the ball.
When the defense ended Cal's second possession after three plays (the first of five three-and-outs on the day), Terrell set the Cardinal up deep in Cal territory with a 37-yard punt return. A key pass interference penalty on an eventual 3rd and 9 gave Stanford a 1st and goal from the seven, and Taylor took care of the rest. He took a hand off from Nunes, made one defender miss in the backfield, skipped past another at the line of scrimmage, then zigzagged the rest of the way into the end zone for his sixth touchdown this season, the 33rd of his career. (Speaking of Taylor's career, he would gain a career-high 189 yards, pushing him past Toby Gerhart and into second place on Stanford's all-time rushing list, just 417 yards behind Darrin Nelson.)
The Cal offense finally managed to get on the board early in the second quarter, but only thanks to a nice punt return by Keenan Allen that set them up on the Stanford 25 yard line. They'd eventually find themselves with a 1st and goal at the two, but the Cardinal defense stood strong, pushing them back two yards before forcing the Bears to settle for a field goal that cut the lead to 7-3.
More Cardinal creativity was on display on Stanford's next possession. On 1st and 10 from the Stanford 25, tight end Zach Ertz lined up in the backfield as a fullback before motioning out to a more typical slot position. That motion made it appear that the Bears were in a man to man defense, as the safety immediately followed Ertz and lined up across from him, but there was a break down in that coverage as soon as the ball was snapped. Ertz beat his defender easily with a simple sluggo move (faking the slant, then streaking towards the corner) and found himself all alone five yards behind the defense. Nunes hit him in stride, and Ertz looked ready to score until he was finally tracked down at the seven.
The Hogan Package came in on 2nd and goal, but this time Hogan rolled out to his right and made a perfect throw to Toilolo for the touchdown and a 14-3 Cardinal lead. (I like the Hogan Package. I like it a lot.)
At this point, the Cal offense entered self-destruct mode. On the third play of their ensuing possession, running back Brendan Bigelow fumbled the ball away at the Stanford 48. Cal's next possession ended when safety Jordan Richards stripped Keenan Allen and Devon Carrington recovered the fumble at the 20 yard line. Nunes cashed in that turnover on the very first play, hitting a wide open Ertz on a slant pattern for Stanford's third touchdown of the day and a 21-3 lead.
More than eight minutes remained in the second quarter, but neither team would score again. The Stanford offense would squander several opportunities, but the Bears would be simply overwhelmed by what could be the best defense in the history of Stanford football. Cal head coach Jeff Tedford supported this idea by saying that "[Stanford's] defense is as good as any defense we have played in this conference for years."
After yet another three-and-out for the Stanford defense, the offense took possession at their own 35 and marched all the way to the Cal 11 before Taylor took a six-yard loss on a wildcat play that looked to be a designed pass. SJW missed his second field goal attempt from 34 yards, and the Cardinal had nothing to show for their drive.
The Bears had five possessions in the second half, and the first four possessions looked the JV offense scrimmaging against the varsity defense. Cal actually lost three yards on their first possession and eight more on their second. Poor Zach Maynard had absolutely no shot at this point, as the Stanford linebackers took turns taking runs at him like bulls on the streets of Pamplona, and Maynard didn't even have a rolled up newspaper to defend himself. The pounding he took at the hands of Shayne Skov, Chase Thomas, Trent Murphy, and defensive end Ben Gardner was merciless and unrelenting.
Cal's final chance came when they took possession on their own 10 with 9:18 to play. A quick score at this point would've made the game interesting, and Maynard responded by orchestrating the Bears' best drive of the day, moving the ball 78 yards (exactly doubling their previous best) in 4:04.
But Coach Tedford found himself at a crucial decision point when Trent Murphy sacked Maynard on third down, putting the Bears in a 4th and 11 hole at the Stanford 12. The decision should have been clear. Trailing by 18 points, the Bears needed three scores -- two touchdowns (including one two-point conversion) and a field goal -- to tie the game. It didn't matter which order they got those scores, it only mattered that they got them. If Tedford was actually coaching to win the game (and with 5:18 remaining, he should've been), he would've taken that field goal and moved on.
Instead, it looked like Tedford was trying to mitigate the damage of a blowout loss. He was trying to save his job. So instead of keeping his team in the game as long as possible, he decided to go for the touchdown. Keenan Allen was the best player on the field for the Bears, so it was no surprise when Maynard looked to him here. Stanford cornerback Wayne Lyons was certainly expecting it, and he stepped in front of Allen for the first of what promises to be many interceptions in his Stanford career, ending the Golden Bear threat and any chance of victory.
How good was the Stanford defense? Here are few numbers to chew on. The #partyinthebackfield boys tallied 11 tackles for loss, including four sacks, and forced two fumbles and an interception. That's nice, but here's the most impressive statistic. Cal hasn't been a good running team this year, they've been great. Over their previous three games against Arizona State, UCLA, and Washington State, the Bears had run for 159, 186, and 318 yards -- an average of 221. Against the Cardinal defense? Three. Three total yards rushing. Isi Sofele rushed 10 times for a total of 13 yards, C.J. Anderson gained 5 yards on 7 carries, Brendan Bigelow rushed twice for nothing, Bryce Treggs had one carry for a five yard loss, and Zach Maynard's four sacks pulled his rushing total down to negative ten yards. If that's not domination, I don't know what is.
Big Game in October might have felt different than the November setting we're used to, but the result was the same. After Stanford's 21-3 victory, the Axe will stay in its rightful place for another year.
[Photo Credits: Marcio José Sanchez/AP Photo]