DL Ben Gardner
We present three keys for visiting Stanford to emerge victorious Saturday in a nationally televised Big Game. Stanford needs to get after Cal quarterback Zach Maynard, get decent play from their own quarterback Josh Nunes, and utilize several options out of their backfield.
Get After the Quarterback
Defensively, Stanford has done an excellent job of getting after
opposing quarterbacks, notching 20 sacks on the season. Meanwhile,
the California offensive line has given a whole new meaning to poor
offensive line play. Golden Bears quarterback Zach Maynard has been
sacked 29 times already this year. He was on pace to be
dropped 58 times at midseason.
There is some good news in Berkeley, though: Jeff Tedford's squad
played its first sack-free game at Washington State in last week's
31-17 win. The return and re-conditioning of senior right tackle
Matt Summers-Gavin, who protects the left-handed Maynard's blind
side, has been a big factor in that improvement.
Still, there is lingering vulnerability here that Stanford can - and
must - exploit. Otherwise, stud wide receiver Keenan Allen (52
catches) will play a wonderful complement to the mobile Maynard (230
positive rushing yards), who statistically outperformed Andrew Luck
in last year's Big Game. Between Allen, Isi Sofele, C.J. Anderson,
and Brendan Bigelow, the Bears have ample athleticism to derail the
Cardinal, but only if Maynard has time to throw the football.
Decent Play from Nunes
Assuming Stanford's defense exploits Cal's pass protection
issues, Josh Nunes will again have a legitimate shot to at least
lead his team to a touchdown in a hostile environment. He's failed
to get the job done twice now, so David Shaw's hope is that the
third time is the charm.
It'll all start with avoiding ugly, telegraphed throws to double-covered receivers. Last week, Nunes zeroed in on Kodi Whitfield and
Levine Toilolo before throwing short into a pair of costly first
quarter interceptions. It gets worse: Stanford's excellent pass
protection was not the cause of last week's picks, and Cal's
secondary is better and more experienced than Notre Dame's.
Cornerbacks Steve Williams and Kameron Jackson have intercepted
three passes apiece, leading a ball-hawking patrol that has picked
off six passes over the course of Cal's last two games. They
spearheaded the Bears' four-interception, six-turnover abuse of
UCLA, which turned into an ugly 43-17 Bruin loss at Memorial
The guess here is that Nunes will continue to enjoy good protection
from his men up front (though Cal has recorded 18 sacks on the
season), so it'll again be up to him to prevent Stanford's gigantic
tight end talent from going to waste downfield. A completion
percentage above 55 with no interceptions should be enough to push
the Cardinal through to victory. The problem is that Nunes hasn't
been able to give his team that kind of statistically decent
performance against a respectable defense yet.
Control the Ground Game
As mentioned earlier, Maynard outplayed Luck last season. But
Stanford prevailed 31-28 because they succeeded in running the
football while stopping the Cal ground attack. Despite Maynard's
20-of-30, 280-yard performance, the Bears mustered only 2.4 yards per carry
on the ground. The Cardinal, meanwhile, averaged 4.3 yards and
controlled the tempo of the game as a result.
Again, it's a potential domino effect: a workmanlike
performance from Nunes will put Stanford in good position against
an average Cal run defense that is giving up over 148 yards per
game. Ground attack diversification beyond primary threat Stepfan Taylor can help as well. Last year, Stanford's opening touchdown
came courtesy of a 34-yard Ty Montgomery reverse. Although the
receiver is doubtful for this installment of the Big Game, Kelsey Young and Jamal-Rashad Patterson are two of several other
change-of-pace threats that can propel Stanford to similar running
The Bears counter by complementing Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson with
speed demon Branden Bigelow, who has carried 23 times for 277 yards
this season (a hefty 12-yard average per carry). It seems that
Tedford has underutilized Bigelow, whose quickness to the outside is
the hallmark of many players who have given Stanford fits in the past.
Control of the ground in this Big Game may well depend on which team
uses its bonus running options best. Last year, that nod went to
Stanford: the Cardinal rushed with eight different players, while
only four Golden Bears recorded carries.
David Lombardi covers Stanford
sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal
football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be
heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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