Cal junior quarterback Brock Mansion versus Stanford's secondary
When looking straight up at the quarterback matchup, most would assume that Stanford's sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck – whom many project to be a top NFL draft pick in April – has the clear edge over Mansion.
But, oh, the beauty of rivalry games.
History has shown us that, when rivals take the field, you can throw out all the record books and prestige with the quarterbacks. In 2005, for instance, converted fullback Steve Levy led the Bears to victory over Stanford.
Granted, that Stanford team struggled to a 5-6 finish, while the current Stanford team is ranked sixth in the country.
But all that means is that Mansion will have to step up and play the best game of his career. On the year, Mansion's numbers are not spectacular: 36-of-77, 381 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. But, with that said, Mansion also led the Bears to their one road victory at Washington State, and played just well (or mediocre) enough to keep the Bears within striking distance against No. 1 ranked Oregon.
Luckily, for Mansion, he'll be facing a Stanford secondary that has been hot-and-cold all year: Stanford has given up an average of 200 yards per game through the air and 13 total passing touchdowns, but has had their bumps in the road at times.
"It's going to be very important for [Mansion] to keep his composure and for him just to play within himself and not try to do too much," said head coach Jeff Tedford at Monday's Big Game Media luncheon. "He's still learning there's no doubt about it. Brock has a lot of confidence, Brock has a lot of composure, and I'm sure he will prepare very well this week with the game plan, and go in and do his best to execute it."
A strong performance by Mansion provides the Bears with their best chance to win – you can bet that Stanford will consistently load the box in hope of containing junior running back Shane Vereen, who still haunts the Stanford defense. Look for Tedford and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to get Mansion in a rhythm early by hitting freshman wideout Keenan Allen, in hopes of opening up the rest of the offense. If Mansion can perform, the Bears have a legitimate chance at the upset.
California's defensive line versus Stanford's offensive line
Last week, California's defensive line played their best game of the year, winning one-on-one battles at the line of scrimmage and consistently thwarting Oregon's East-West ground attack.
Against Stanford, the Cal defensive line is going to need to replicate that effort if they want to slow down Stanford's own prolific offense.
But while California matched up well with Oregon's speed, they have a completely new animal to defend against with Stanford's physical, downhill rushing attack.
Despite losing Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal have just been as prolific running the football with sophomore Stepfan Taylor, who has 849 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. As a team, Stanford averages 213 yards on the ground, and a lot of credit has to be given to the offensive line.
And as Mansion must perform well to open up running lanes for Shane Vereen, Taylor and the rushing attack must perform well to open up passing lanes and play-action for Luck. To thwart Stanford's offensive strategy, the defensive line must play fast and physical. As is the old saying in football, the true battle will be in the trenches.
"I think all games are won or lost up front on both sides of the football," said Tedford. "They have a very physical offensive line. It's going to be a great matchup there, but that really where all games are won and lost, is in the trenches."
In any football game, special teams and field position are critical components to winning and losing. In last week's 15-13 heartbreaker against Oregon, the Bears gave up a crucial punt return for a touchdown late in the first half. You can never point to one play in the first half and claim that that play was the difference-maker, but one can only wonder how the outcome of the game would have been different if Oregon did not pick up free points on poor coverage.
Granted, Stanford's strength is not in the punt return game, but in kickoff returns. Junior Chris Owusu is always dangerous, with three career kickoff returns for touchdowns. Cal fans are familiar with Owusu, who had a couple of big returns in last year's Big Game. Owusu only has had 17 attempts this season, but the point remains that he is always dangerous.
Stanford sophomore Drew Terrell has not been spectacular returning punts this year: he has 15 returns for 120 yards. But he does have a 34-yard return, which would almost be giving up points when you consider how prolific the Stanford offense is. Cal junior punter Bryan Anger needs to punt the ball well, but he also needs the California coverage unit to quickly get down the field and make sure that the Cardinal have a long way to go to the end zone.
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