Was it because the Big Game had, for the first time, been moved
forward to the sunny skies and warm weather of mid-October?
Nah, blame the Stanford defense. They were the ones who crossed the
Bay and sucked every ounce of air out of Strawberry Canyon. On this
day, a Cal team that had been averaging 220 rushing yards over its
last three games was held to a grand total of three.
Punt, punt, punt, field goal (goal line stand), fumble, fumble,
punt, punt, time expired, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs,
interception. That summary of Cal's home performance made
Stanford's pedestrian road offensive displays look like juggernaut's
work in comparison.
It was an emphatic tour de force on both sides of the line of
scrimmage, far more dominant at the point of attack than the 21-3
final score would indicate. Three more quarters of offensive
mediocrity prevented the Cardinal from creating massive separation
on the scoreboard.
At the very least, those unfavorably comparing Stanford to a Big Ten
team can slow their roll. What's happening on The Farm is more
closely resembling SEC-style football (dominant defense,
questionable offense) than anything else. While Cal gashed Ohio State for 224 rushing yards on the road earlier this season, they
ran into a three-yard brick wall at home against Stanford. Their
offensive front melted, and there never really was a chance at an
upset even when the Cardinal couldn't move the ball, either.
The Bears entered the game having surrendered an NCAA-worst 29
sacks, but they were feeling better about themselves seven days
after their season's first sack-free effort against Washington State. The good feelings lasted until the fourth play of Saturday's
contest, when Chase Thomas ripped through the offensive line,
separated Cal quarterback Zach Maynard from his football, and
provided a glimpse into what would be 56 more minutes of terror up
Maynard ended up going down four times. Stanford's smothering effort
featured 11 tackles for loss, four of which came from Thomas, who
was also the defensive standout against Cal in last season's 31-28
That was one of very few similarities between the 2011 and 2012
versions of Big Game, though. This time, Maynard's play no longer
resembled Andrew Luck's. Last season's efficient performance
vanished. It turned into a bloodbath of poor footwork and wobbly
throws in the face of overbearing pressure from Stanford's front
seven. Receiver Keenan Allen, one of the Pac-12's most explosive
targets, never had time to get open - he finished with only two
catches for 10 yards before garbage time. The Bears finished
1-for-14 on third down, averaged 3.9 inches a carry, and controlled
the ball for only 23 minutes of the game. Fatigue, the Achilles heel
for the Cardinal D the previous three weeks, was never an issue.
Shayne Skov's explosiveness appears to have fully returned,
especially if his lightning bolt sack of Maynard is any indication.
AJ Tarpley's (6 tackles) physical play continues to solidify his
recently earned starting spot, while Usua Amanam is bringing the
heat at an all-conference level from the nickel back position. After
another backfield blowup Saturday, the Bellarmine man has ransacked
backfields for 7.5 tackles for loss through only seven games.
Thomas, meanwhile, leads the team with 10 stops behind the line of
scrimmage, so an abusive 20 TFL season is a distinct possibility.
Offensive Improvement: A Flash in the Pan
After two pathetic road offensive efforts at Washington and Notre Dame, there was a need for Stanford to make significant changes -
particularly in the playcalling department. David Shaw and Pep
Hamilton showed improvement right out of the gate, but concerns
reignited when their attack again sputtered down the stretch. This
time, of course, those struggles weren't as damaging.
The Cardinal's return to a diversified backfield was most
significant. Six different players rushed the ball for Stanford,
with the mix and match beginning early out of a previously unused
formation. Remound Wright got his first carry to the right side with
Drew Terrell, Kelsey Young, and Ryan Hewitt lined up as triple
receivers to the left. The innovative set sucked three Cal defenders
away from the run . Schematically, it was certainly a marked
improvement from the Cardinal's obtuse bunch formation that had
severely limited blocking angles and play-fake possibilities.
Most importantly, it provided a beautiful change of pace that lulled
the Bears to sleep before Stepfan Taylor's first strike. Stanford
borrowed a page from Greg Roman's San Francisco 49ers playbook early
on, stabbing Cal with a rarely used 39-yard quick hitter that
immediately blasted the hole. The Cardinal's bread and butter has
been - and still is - Power, but Hamilton did well to avoid that
slow-developing play early on when Cal was geared up for it.
Taylor's knifing run set the tone for a brutalizing physical effort.
Thanks to this early Stanford ingenuity, the Bears were toast even
before they were worn down, and No. 33 finished with 189 yards on 28
carries (6.8 per).
Predictably, early rushing success forced Cal to sell out against
the run, a move that let Zach Ertz roam free downfield - a la Levine Toilolo, Arizona style. After a lousy 4-for-10 first quarter, Josh Nunes couldn't miss his big tight end as he amassed several yards of
separation in an empty secondary. Stanford's quarterback delivered a
9-for-14, 137-yard second stanza that opened a 21-3 halftime gap.
In another refreshing wrinkle, redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan actually passed out of his usual running formation and hit
Toilolo for a nine-yard touchdown. In fact, the Cardinal's biggest
play of the game was another example of newfound creativity that had
been absent in the team's two disappointing losses - particularly on
the goal line against Notre Dame. A 68-yard Nunes-to-Ertz completion
actually originated in the bunch formation with the tight end lined
up in the backfield. Cal was certain that Stanford would go to its
usual first down Power run, but Ertz slipped out of his spot behind
the line of scrimmage and found wide open territory to haul in
Nunes' pass and run all the way to Hayward.
But despite Ertz's career-high six-catch, 134-yard performance,
Stanford's offense still stalled in the second half. The team's last
seven possessions were devoid of a score, and Nunes' play quickly
regressed to its formerly subpar level. No. 6 ended finished
16-for-31, throwing for only 77 yards and one interception outside
of the Cardinal's big second quarter. To be fair, Taylor was taking
care of the bulk of the production in the second half. But
Stanford's 4-for-14 third down struggles continued to mirror the
offense's disturbing lack of efficiency.
In a game where the defense heroically dominated, the attack's
performance was adequate. It could even be mistaken for glamorous,
considering the fact that the offense found the end zone and
outscored its defense on the road for the first time in almost a
year (November 5, 2011). But against conference big boys Oregon and
Oregon State, offensive flashes in a pan won't be enough. They
certainly didn't do the job for the Cardinal in Seattle and South
Bend. Shaw's club needs a consistent 60 minutes of chain-moving,
clock-churning production from its offense. Already seven games in,
such a consistent effort is still a rarity - and against a
physically capable defense, it still hasn't come.
Willamson Off the Mark
The struggles of Jordan Williamson, who missed two more field goals
from 34 and 40 yards out, are also disturbing. The truth now isn't
pretty: a ground-and-pound team can no longer rely on its kicker,
and Shaw demonstrated as much in the second quarter by calling
timeout to pull Williamson back and punt instead of booting a
52-yard field goal in perfect conditions. It was the first time in
the sophomore's career that Shaw had not expressed confidence in
Stanford, once guided by its surgical passing efficiency and weighed
down by a scuffling defense, is suddenly pushing forward with the
opposite strengths and weaknesses. The 2012 version of Big Game
solidified the defense's monstrous presence, but - despite a few
encouraging signs - passing consistency is still holding this team
away from its potential. The offense, stockpiled with future NFL
talent, produced consistently on the ground Saturday. But it's still
far away from the promised land of the complete package with the
Beavers and Autzen Stadium both looming.
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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