Defensively, Stanford has done an excellent job of getting after opposing quarterbacks, notching 20 sacks on the season. Meanwhile, the California offensive line has given a whole new meaning to poor offensive line play. Golden Bears quarterback Zach Maynard has been sacked 29 times already this year. He was on pace to be dropped 58 times at midseason.
There is some good news in Berkeley, though: Jeff Tedford's squad played its first sack-free game at Washington State in last week's 31-17 win. The return and re-conditioning of senior right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin, who protects the left-handed Maynard's blind side, has been a big factor in that improvement.
Still, there is lingering vulnerability here that Stanford can - and must - exploit. Otherwise, stud wide receiver Keenan Allen (52 catches) will play a wonderful complement to the mobile Maynard (230 positive rushing yards), who statistically outperformed Andrew Luck in last year's Big Game. Between Allen, Isi Sofele, C.J. Anderson, and Brendan Bigelow, the Bears have ample athleticism to derail the Cardinal, but only if Maynard has time to throw the football.
Decent Play from Nunes
Assuming Stanford's defense exploits Cal's pass protection issues, Josh Nunes will again have a legitimate shot to at least lead his team to a touchdown in a hostile environment. He's failed to get the job done twice now, so David Shaw's hope is that the third time is the charm.
It'll all start with avoiding ugly, telegraphed throws to double-covered receivers. Last week, Nunes zeroed in on Kodi Whitfield and Levine Toilolo before throwing short into a pair of costly first quarter interceptions. It gets worse: Stanford's excellent pass protection was not the cause of last week's picks, and Cal's secondary is better and more experienced than Notre Dame's. Cornerbacks Steve Williams and Kameron Jackson have intercepted three passes apiece, leading a ball-hawking patrol that has picked off six passes over the course of Cal's last two games. They spearheaded the Bears' four-interception, six-turnover abuse of UCLA, which turned into an ugly 43-17 Bruin loss at Memorial Stadium.
The guess here is that Nunes will continue to enjoy good protection from his men up front (though Cal has recorded 18 sacks on the season), so it'll again be up to him to prevent Stanford's gigantic tight end talent from going to waste downfield. A completion percentage above 55 with no interceptions should be enough to push the Cardinal through to victory. The problem is that Nunes hasn't been able to give his team that kind of statistically decent performance against a respectable defense yet.
Control the Ground Game
As mentioned earlier, Maynard outplayed Luck last season. But Stanford prevailed 31-28 because they succeeded in running the football while stopping the Cal ground attack. Despite Maynard's 20-of-30, 280-yard performance, the Bears mustered only 2.4 yards per carry on the ground. The Cardinal, meanwhile, averaged 4.3 yards and controlled the tempo of the game as a result.
Again, it's a potential domino effect: a workmanlike performance from Nunes will put Stanford in good position against an average Cal run defense that is giving up over 148 yards per game. Ground attack diversification beyond primary threat Stepfan Taylor can help as well. Last year, Stanford's opening touchdown came courtesy of a 34-yard Ty Montgomery reverse. Although the receiver is doubtful for this installment of the Big Game, Kelsey Young and Jamal-Rashad Patterson are two of several other change-of-pace threats that can propel Stanford to similar running success.
The Bears counter by complementing Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson with speed demon Branden Bigelow, who has carried 23 times for 277 yards this season (a hefty 12-yard average per carry). It seems that Tedford has underutilized Bigelow, whose quickness to the outside is the hallmark of many players who have given Stanford fits in the past. Control of the ground in this Big Game may well depend on which team uses its bonus running options best. Last year, that nod went to Stanford: the Cardinal rushed with eight different players, while only four Golden Bears recorded carries.
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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