The Cardinal might get to the Rose Bowl even if it loses to Cal, but the only way for Stanford to retain hope of an automatic berth in a BCS game is to beat Cal and Oregon State in its two final games. The bowl ramifications begin what they are, it is enough to know Stanford obviously would like to beat Cal for several reasons:
--Winning the Big Game is always a big deal, and the Cardinal has not had much success against Cal in recent years.
--Stanford's postseason possibilities improve with a win.
--The Cardinal still has a chance to earn a share of the Pac-10 championship, and it needs a win to keep that hope alive.
Stanford is 9-1 and Cal 5-5 heading into the game, so it would seem the Cardinal would have a relatively easy time extending its five-game winning streak. But the game is at Cal, and that changes the perspective on the game completely.
Cal is a much better team at home than it is on the road, especially defensively.
On the road, Cal has not put up much resistance. Its defense has given up 144 points in five games away from home and has lost four of them.
However, the Bears have won four of their five home games this season, and they have yielded just 27 points in those five home games when their defense was on the field (three of the opposing touchdowns scored at Cal were on a punt return, a blocked punt and a fumble return).
The difference in Cal's defensive success at home was demonstrated in Cal's 15-13 loss to Oregon on Nov. 13, when the defense gave up just one offensive touchdown to the Ducks, the nation's highest scoring team (the Ducks' second touchdown came on a punt return). And Oregon's only offensive touchdown came after the Ducks recovered a fumble on the Cal 29-yard line.
Stanford's balanced offense has been strong all season, but it struggled a bit in the 17-13 win over Arizona State on Nov. 13, and it will have to deal with the Cal defense in Berkeley, where the Bears' defense has been outstanding.
However, Stanford's offense may match up better with Cal's defense than Oregon's did. Cal's four outstanding defensive efforts were all against spread offense. Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State and Washington State all run versions of spread offenses, and because of its defensive speed, Cal's defense was able to shut down those defenses, two of which were on the road and two of which were at home.
USC runs a balanced power offense, and it ran all over the Bears, putting up 42 points in the first half, passing and running against the Bears' defense with virtually no resistance. Stanford's offensive style more closely resembles USC's than it does Oregon's.
The Cardinal relies on being physical up front and running straight ahead, hoping to overpower opponents. Quarterback Andrew Luck then can effectively run play-action passes as a prototypical drop-back passer. That is the kind of offense that has given Cal the most problems.
NOTES & QUOTES
--Stanford would probably get a Rose Bowl berth if it finished 11-1 and Oregon faces either Boise State or TCU in the national championship game. The Rose Bowl is obligated to take a team from a conference that does not receive an automatic BCS berth if the Pac-10 champ is in the national title game. But that obligation is wiped away if a non-automatic qualifier plays in the national championship game.
Stanford could even get to the Rose Bowl if finishes 10-2 if Oregon plays Boise State or TCU in the national title game. Oddly enough, if Stanford ties Oregon for the Pac-10 title, Stanford's Rose Bowl chances disappear. In that scenario, a one-loss Oregon team would not play in the national title game, but would earn the Pac-10's Rose Bowl berth because it beat Stanford in the head-to-head matchup. If Boise State or TCU does not play in the national championship game, the higher ranked of the two will play in the Rose Bowl instead of Stanford if Oregon is in the national title game.
--If Stanford wins, its 10-1 record would be its best record over 11 games since 1940, when the Cardinal went 10-0.
--Stanford has won five straight games, its longest winning streak since 1996. A win over Cal would give Stanford its first six-game winning streak since 1991.
--Stanford has lost seven of its last eight games against Cal and has lost four in row in Berkeley.
--The Cardinal has scored 398 points through 10 games, the fourth-highest single-season total in school history.
--Sixteen Stanford players have scored touchdowns this season, tied with Central Florida and Utah for the most in the country.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford leads Cal 55-46-11 (last meeting, 2009, 34-28 Cal).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Stanford's offense has been impressive all season, although it was limited to a season-low 17 points in the Nov. 13 victory over Arizona State. The Cardinal still averages 39.8 points, which ranks 10th in the country. Although Andrew Luck may be the best quarterback in the country, the Cardinal's strength is its power running game. The Cardinal's offensive line is among the best in the country, and tailbacks Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney are all effective runners. Stanford has a wide array of capable of receivers, from a number of effective tight ends to wide receivers Ryan Whalen, Chris Owusu and Doug Baldwin. Owusu's status for the game is uncertain, however.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Cardinal defense had some problems midway through the season, but it has been outstanding recently, yielding just 30 points over the past three games combined. The Cardinal does not have a particularly fast defense, and when opposing skill-position players get the ball in space, Stanford has some problems. But the Cardinal's strong pass rush has helped its pass defense considerably. The Cardinal defensive backs are much better than they were a year ago, partly because of the improved pass rush.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "(Cal defensive coordinator) Clancy Pendergast has done a magnificent job with the defense, especially at home. I think Cal is the best team in the Pac-10 when playing at home." -- Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, on Cal's defense.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Stanford at Cal, Nov. 20 -- Stanford (9-1) needs to win to improve its hopes of a BCS game berth, and the Bears (5-5) need a win to become bowl eligible. Cal has won seven of the last eight meetings with Stanford, including a 34-28 upset victory last season at Stanford, when Cal LB Mike Mohamed intercepted an Andrew Luck pass to end Stanford's late scoring threat. The rivalry dates back to 1892, and some strange things have happened in what is known as the Big Game. The winner gets to keep The Axe for a year.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford needs to overpower Cal's defense with its physical offensive line. Cal has been great defensively against teams that rely on spread formations and speed, but it has not been as effective against powerful, straight-ahead teams. RBs Stepfan Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson need to have big games. If Stanford supplies a running threat, QB Andrew Luck should find holes in the Cal secondary. Defensively, Stanford must make inexperienced Cal QB Brock Mansion try to beat them. He has not been accurate enough to provide enough offense in his two college starts. If Stanford can apply a pass rush to Mansion, he is unlikely to produce the big plays Cal needs to win.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
OLBs Thomas Keiser and Chase Thomas -- The two outside linebackers have combined for 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for losses. If they get penetration as they should, they could record some sacks and possibly create a turnover or two.
QB Andrew Luck -- Luck never seems to make a bad decision, and he does everything required of a quarterback. He even provides a running threat, which makes him difficult to sack and makes him dangerous on the option. His accuracy and ability to read the field are his biggest assets, though, and if he has time, he should be able to pick apart the Bears secondary.
TB Stepfan Taylor -- Taylor was limited to 39 rushing yards in 16 carries in the Nov. 13 game against Arizona State, but his rugged inside running style behind Stanford's physical offensive line should be effective against Cal's defense. He may catch a few passes as well.
--WR Chris Owusu missed his fourth game of the season against Arizona State with an undisclosed injury, and his status for the Nov. 20 game against Cal is uncertain.
--Stepfan Taylor needs 151 rushing yards to become first Stanford sophomore to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Darrin Nelson in 1978.
--K Nate Whitaker has 88 points this season, the ninth-highest single-season total in Stanford history. He needs only two more points to tie for eighth on the Cardinal single-season scoring list and just four to move into sixth place.