The 116th Big Game
Back in 2006, Stanford entered the Big Game with a 1-10 record,
while heavy favorite Cal was 8-3. Seven years later, the tables have
turned: The 8-2 Cardinal is set to host the 1-10 Bears. Cal sits in
the conference cellar in several categories, including scoring
offense (23.9), scoring defense (44.4), and total defense (522.9
yards per game). If one uses statistics to make a judgment, Sonny
Dykes' injury-plagued defense is the worst in Cal history.
It all adds up to a golden opportunity for Stanford to right the
ship after a particularly demoralizing loss at USC. The Cardinal are
favored by more than 30 points, and their tremendous advantage on
both lines of scrimmage is expected to physically overwhelm this
patchwork Cal squad. Still, Stanford must be wary in this rivalry
game setting: Back when the tables were flipped the other way in
2006, the Cardinal made a game of it against the heavily favored
Bears, losing 26-17 only after threatening to take the lead with
under five minutes to play.
"We aren't very fond of each other," Stanford wide receiver Jeff Trojan says motivation won't be a problem. "They stole our axe and I
don't like them for that."
Stanford came out of Los Angeles in good health, though kicker
Jordan Williamson (leg muscle strain) was unable to play after being
unable to drive through his kicks during pregame warm-ups.
Williamson has since visited a doctor, and his condition has
improved enough for David Shaw to expect him to resume kicking at
Wednesday's practice. His availability Saturday is still in
Tyler Gaffney, Ty Montgomery, and Alex Carter were all scheduled to
be held out of the Cardinal's Tuesday practice. Gaffney refused to
take a break, though, so he participated. Montgomery and Carter are
both expected to be full-go on Wednesday.
Safety Zach Hoffpauir has returned to practice from injury. Shaw was
pleased with his performance. Hoffpauir's return means that Ikenna Nwafor is the only Stanford player other than Williamson and Ben Gardner who remains out of practice action. He has a chance to
return for the bowl game.
Stanford isn't out of the running for its fourth straight trip
to a BCS bowl, but the Cardinal will need some outside dominoes to
fall in their favor. Oregon likely won't lose, but if Shaw's club is
able to beat Cal and Notre Dame, it will finish in the Top 14 of the
final BCS standings. That would make the Cardinal eligible for an
at-large selection (likely to the Orange or Fiesta Bowl). For
Stanford, the hope is that there will be as few eligible Top 14
teams competing with them for an at-large bid as possible. No. 19
Wisconsin, No. 10 Oklahoma State, and No. 20 Oklahoma may all need
to suffer another loss to keep the Cardinal safe in the 14-team
bubble. The Badgers play on the road at 8-2 Minnesota this weekend,
while Oklahoma State hosts undefeated Baylor. Oklahoma visits the
Cowboys December 7.
Stanford's BCS chances will also increase if another at-large spot
opens up. That can happen only if both Northern Illinois and Fresno State lose. It's imperative that both of these teams lose or both of
them win out, though. A result in the middle is not ideal, as the
Cardinal may need the buffer that both teams can provide if they
keep winning: At No. 15 and No. 16, both Northern Illinois and
Fresno State can potentially keep other threatening teams out of the
eligible Top 14.
Red Zone Struggles
Stanford's 20-17 loss at USC was a story of blown opportunity for
the visiting team. While the Trojans scored 17 points on their three
trips inside the 20 yard line, the Cardinal scored only 10 points on
four red zone possessions Saturday. A blocked field goal denied
Stanford once. Later, Dion Bailey intercepted Kevin Hogan's throw to
stonewall another golden Cardinal opportunity.
In an opening statement at his Tuesday press conference, Shaw
asserted that playcalling was not the culprit behind the Cardinal's
troubles in the red zone.
"Some of you guys can say what you want, like, 'It's all on coach
Shaw,'" he said. "That's fine. That's my position. That's where I
am. But to think the game goes down to red zone playcalling, where
we've been close to tops in the nation for years running -- we've
been very good -- but we can't throw a slant on third down, so every
incompletion and interception turns into 'we should should just run
the ball.' That makes no sense."
But the fact is that Saturday's offensive struggles in the red zone
have not been confined to Stanford's game at USC. As the table below
illustrates, the Cardinal's offensive productivity near opposing end
zones has not been ranked near the top of nation since Andrew Luck
was on The Farm. Stanford finished fourth nationally in red zone
touchdown percentage in 2011, No. 12's last season. The ranking
dropped to 67th last season before tumbling to 100th place following
the Cardinal's tenth game of this 2013 campaign.
|Red Zone Scoring %
|Red Zone TD%
|Red Zone TD% National Rank
|Points Per Red Zone Possession
Obviously, 100th place is significantly below the national average
in red zone touchdown percentage, so the search for answers begins.
Throughout this free fall, Stanford's offensive line has remained
regarded as one of the best in the conference, if not the entire
nation. Excellence at the primary running back position has also
remained constant in the transition from Stepfan Taylor to Tyler
Gaffney. The loss of tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo has
certainly been a blow, but the Cardinal has simultaneously grown
more talented at the receiver position, and that's led to greater
aerial productivity on the whole.
So what gives?
Naturally, many have questioned how the Cardinal have used their
personnel inside the 20 yard line this season. Even after Shaw
discounted criticism of playcalling Thursday, questions persisted.
One reporter asked about the use of the Wildcat formation on first
and goal from the six yard line against USC. The Trojans stuffed
Gaffney for a four yard loss, setting the table for a pair of
passes, the second of which ended in Bailey's interception two plays
"When we hand it off to Kelsey Young and it gains 15 yards, [the
Wildcat is considered] great," Shaw said. "When we do it in the Rose
Bowl and it leads to a long play that leads to a touchdown, it's
great. We do the Wildcat against USC two years ago, reverse pass to
Ty Montgomery, big play, and it's great. Wildcat is part of what we
do. It's been very efficient. We missed a block. It's OK. The world
doesn't come to an end. When a play doesn't work in a game that you
lose, [people always blame] playcalling: 'Why'd you do this, why'd
you do that?' We did it because we thought it was going to work."
It's important to note, though, that the Wildcat variation that
failed for Stanford on Saturday was significantly different than the
ones Shaw cited as examples of past success. This one was a straight
Gaffney run that made no effort to throw the defense off balance,
while his mentioned successful Wildcat plays all involved downfield
passes or Young movement in motion -- two twists that can be
considered impractical in the red zone, where less space is
available for plays to develop.
Shaw tends to chalk up Stanford's struggles to a lack of execution
in the red zone, though he did take responsibility for the play call
that resulted in the Bailey interception during his postgame press
conference. The Cardinal had tried the same slant pattern out of an
identical formation earlier in the game, and USC was waiting in the
bushes for it after Stanford merely flipped the route to the other
side of the field. After the game, Bailey indicated that he knew
what play was coming -- he didn't even cover his assigned man on the
"When you have a close game, you can't miss a field goal, you can't
have it blocked, you can't turn it over in the red zone," Shaw said.
"That's what it comes down to. It's not which plays we called and
which guys we used. Sometimes things work; sometimes they don't. If
you want to win games, they've gotta work more often than they
Unfortunately, the bleak reality is that things haven't worked
nearly as often for Stanford in the red zone as of late, and that's
why this team is on the outside looking in at the BCS picture after
opening the season with legitimate national title aspirations. It
would behoove the Cardinal to fix these problems, and past success
suggests that a bruising running game complemented by short
playaction passing threat is the best way to do so. Nothing
extraordinary is needed: Stanford's offensive line has proven good
enough to get the job done when on an even playing field.
David Lombardi is the Stanford
Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com
and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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