The Big Game between Stanford and California is finally here and it’s to be played on Championship Saturday (a day after the Pac-12 title game) due to the horrific wildfires that ravaged much of northern California. Saturday gives both schools a chance to honor those that gave their lives to protect the surrounding communities.
When it comes to the football part, the Golden Bears (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) got the monkey (more like an 800-pound gorilla) off of their back a couple weeks ago when they ended their 15-year losing streak against USC. Last week, they took care of business at home against Colorado, winning 33-21. Now, with a bowl berth fully secure, Cal has a chance to close out a great regular season by beating its biggest rival.
It has not been a typical season for the Cardinal (7-4, 5-3), who are coming off of a thrilling, 49-42 win at UCLA. Even though this Stanford team features last year's Heisman Trophy runner-up, injuries to Bryce Love and an inability to run the ball consistently has made the offense rely more on the arm of quarterback K.J. Costello.
It's already been a great season for the Bears under head coach Justin Wilcox, but winning the Big Game for the first time since 2009 would really be a statement. Even with the postponement, expect this game to feature plenty of emotion on both sides. After all, a Cal win also would mean a third-place finish in the Pac-12 North, ahead of Oregon (who the Bears beat) as well as a certain other team.
Stanford at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 3 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Stanford -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Cal handle their emotions?
This is going to be an emotional game for both teams. The fires that ravaged the state have had a tremendous impact on Cal and Stanford and their local communities. Justin Wilcox is going to have to have the Golden Bears ready to play, David Shaw always makes sure his Cardinal come prepared and the Big Game isn’t something he plans to lose on his watch. If Cal can keep their emotions in check — read: stay disciplined, keep penalty count low — the Bears can break another streak and pick up their first win in this series since 2009.
One of the keys for Cal in this game is to stick to the formula that has worked so well this season — play stingy defense, maintain possession of the ball on offense and make the most of scoring opportunities. Quarterback Chase Garbers' numbers don't jump off of the stat sheet, but he's been a real spark for this Bears team and has posted a tidy 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last five games. Running back Patrick Laird is the main playmaker, as he's ninth in the Pac-12 with 1,091 yards from scrimmage and has scored nine total touchdowns in 11 games. Neither player is flashy, but each has gotten the job done consistently and will need to do their part if Cal wants to win the Big Game.
2. Can Stanford find a rhythm?
As mentioned, the Cardinal have been a much different team this year as key injuries and an ineffective running game have really impacted the offense. It's just a strange sight to see a David Shaw-coached team ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in rushing offense. Because of this, the offense has funneled through quarterback K.J. Costello, but he faces a stiff test in Cal's defense.
The Bears rank 19th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game (182.5) while Stanford is 19th in passing offense (291.6 ypg). Costello is tied for second in the conference with 28 touchdown passes. Cal is the only Pac-12 team with more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes allowed.
Costello does have JJ Arcega-Whiteside to throw to, who is tied for third in the country with 14 touchdown catches. After missing the game against Oregon State, Arcega-Whiteside was questionable to play against the Bears two weeks ago prior to the postponement. Last week, he caught seven passes for 106 yards and three touchdowns in the win over UCLA, so it appears that the Cardinal's top target is ready to go. With Bryce Love still a threat in the backfield even though his numbers are way down compared to last year, this could be the game that Stanford features a more balanced offensive attack to try and keep a stingy Cal defense off balance.
3. The turnover battle
If there is one area where these two teams struggle, it's maintaining possession of the football. Cal comes in tied at 71st in the nation with a dead-even differential and this is only after forcing five turnovers in last week's win over Colorado. The Bears are among the nation's best in creating turnovers (23, tied for 16th nationally), which is a hallmark of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's system, but they also have given it away 23 times, the most of any Pac-12 team. It doesn't matter how much havoc you are creating on defense if the offense continues to give the ball right back.
Stanford hasn't fared that much better in this department as the Cardinal are at plus-one for the season. Stanford has only turned it over 14 times, which is impressive considering the shift to more of a pass-oriented offense (Costello does lead the Pac-12 with 11 interceptions), but the defense has generated just 15 takeaways. Not surprisingly, the Cardinal are minus-nine in their four losses.
Rivalry games like the Big Game are often won by the team that makes the fewest mistakes or provides their opponent the opportunity to make a game-changing play courtesy of a costly giveaway. Emotions will be running high for both teams, but the one that channels theirs the best or at least doesn't let them get in the way of execution, will likely be best positioned to get the W.
Cal is a team that has managed to fly under the radar despite being very good. The Golden Bears would probably be getting more attention if their offensive capabilities matched their defensive prowess. This is a team that is 108th in the nation in scoring offense but 26th in scoring defense. That sort of disparity is a key reason why the Bears are currently sitting at 7-4 instead of possibly being 9-2 and viewed as more of a threat in the Pac-12 North race. Consider that last week even though Cal scored 33 points against Colorado, the offense finished with just 211 total yards.
The Cardinal aren’t quite the team they’ve been in the past and this has led some to speculate if the program has gotten a little stale. If we’re being honest, Stanford head coach David Shaw would be unemployed for about five minutes should the school decide to go in a different direction. He understands Stanford, the program's strength and weaknesses and how players fit into the overall picture of being a Stanford man.
Had this game been played two weeks ago, it would’ve made sense to take the Cardinal given that the Bears were riding high following their emotional, streak-busing win over USC. But Cal head coach Justin Wilcox has been building this program to enjoy sustained success, not just the occasional signature win. Beating the Trojans was significant, no doubt, but it's just part of the culture and mindset that Wilcox has installed. Cal is here to stay and the Bears are ready to plant their flag as one of the Pac-12's better teams in 2018.
Prediction: Cal 38, Stanford 28
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.