Nah, blame the Stanford defense. They were the ones who crossed the Bay and sucked every ounce of air out of Strawberry Canyon. On this day, a Cal team that had been averaging 220 rushing yards over its last three games was held to a grand total of three.
Punt, punt, punt, field goal (goal line stand), fumble, fumble, punt, punt, time expired, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, interception. That summary of Cal's home performance made Stanford's pedestrian road offensive displays look like juggernaut's work in comparison.
It was an emphatic tour de force on both sides of the line of scrimmage, far more dominant at the point of attack than the 21-3 final score would indicate. Three more quarters of offensive mediocrity prevented the Cardinal from creating massive separation on the scoreboard.
At the very least, those unfavorably comparing Stanford to a Big Ten team can slow their roll. What's happening on The Farm is more closely resembling SEC-style football (dominant defense, questionable offense) than anything else. While Cal gashed Ohio State for 224 rushing yards on the road earlier this season, they ran into a three-yard brick wall at home against Stanford. Their offensive front melted, and there never really was a chance at an upset even when the Cardinal couldn't move the ball, either.
The Bears entered the game having surrendered an NCAA-worst 29 sacks, but they were feeling better about themselves seven days after their season's first sack-free effort against Washington State. The good feelings lasted until the fourth play of Saturday's contest, when Chase Thomas ripped through the offensive line, separated Cal quarterback Zach Maynard from his football, and provided a glimpse into what would be 56 more minutes of terror up front.
Maynard ended up going down four times. Stanford's smothering effort featured 11 tackles for loss, four of which came from Thomas, who was also the defensive standout against Cal in last season's 31-28 victory.
That was one of very few similarities between the 2011 and 2012 versions of Big Game, though. This time, Maynard's play no longer resembled Andrew Luck's. Last season's efficient performance vanished. It turned into a bloodbath of poor footwork and wobbly throws in the face of overbearing pressure from Stanford's front seven. Receiver Keenan Allen, one of the Pac-12's most explosive targets, never had time to get open - he finished with only two catches for 10 yards before garbage time. The Bears finished 1-for-14 on third down, averaged 3.9 inches a carry, and controlled the ball for only 23 minutes of the game. Fatigue, the Achilles heel for the Cardinal D the previous three weeks, was never an issue.
Shayne Skov's explosiveness appears to have fully returned, especially if his lightning bolt sack of Maynard is any indication. AJ Tarpley's (6 tackles) physical play continues to solidify his recently earned starting spot, while Usua Amanam is bringing the heat at an all-conference level from the nickel back position. After another backfield blowup Saturday, the Bellarmine man has ransacked backfields for 7.5 tackles for loss through only seven games. Thomas, meanwhile, leads the team with 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage, so an abusive 20 TFL season is a distinct possibility.
Offensive Improvement: A Flash in the Pan
After two pathetic road offensive efforts at Washington and Notre Dame, there was a need for Stanford to make significant changes - particularly in the playcalling department. David Shaw and Pep Hamilton showed improvement right out of the gate, but concerns reignited when their attack again sputtered down the stretch. This time, of course, those struggles weren't as damaging.
The Cardinal's return to a diversified backfield was most significant. Six different players rushed the ball for Stanford, with the mix and match beginning early out of a previously unused formation. Remound Wright got his first carry to the right side with Drew Terrell, Kelsey Young, and Ryan Hewitt lined up as triple receivers to the left. The innovative set sucked three Cal defenders away from the run . Schematically, it was certainly a marked improvement from the Cardinal's obtuse bunch formation that had severely limited blocking angles and play-fake possibilities.
Most importantly, it provided a beautiful change of pace that lulled the Bears to sleep before Stepfan Taylor's first strike. Stanford borrowed a page from Greg Roman's San Francisco 49ers playbook early on, stabbing Cal with a rarely used 39-yard quick hitter that immediately blasted the hole. The Cardinal's bread and butter has been - and still is - Power, but Hamilton did well to avoid that slow-developing play early on when Cal was geared up for it. Taylor's knifing run set the tone for a brutalizing physical effort. Thanks to this early Stanford ingenuity, the Bears were toast even before they were worn down, and No. 33 finished with 189 yards on 28 carries (6.8 per).
Predictably, early rushing success forced Cal to sell out against the run, a move that let Zach Ertz roam free downfield - a la Levine Toilolo, Arizona style. After a lousy 4-for-10 first quarter, Josh Nunes couldn't miss his big tight end as he amassed several yards of separation in an empty secondary. Stanford's quarterback delivered a 9-for-14, 137-yard second stanza that opened a 21-3 halftime gap.
In another refreshing wrinkle, redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan actually passed out of his usual running formation and hit Toilolo for a nine-yard touchdown. In fact, the Cardinal's biggest play of the game was another example of newfound creativity that had been absent in the team's two disappointing losses - particularly on the goal line against Notre Dame. A 68-yard Nunes-to-Ertz completion actually originated in the bunch formation with the tight end lined up in the backfield. Cal was certain that Stanford would go to its usual first down Power run, but Ertz slipped out of his spot behind the line of scrimmage and found wide open territory to haul in Nunes' pass and run all the way to Hayward.
But despite Ertz's career-high six-catch, 134-yard performance, Stanford's offense still stalled in the second half. The team's last seven possessions were devoid of a score, and Nunes' play quickly regressed to its formerly subpar level. No. 6 ended finished 16-for-31, throwing for only 77 yards and one interception outside of the Cardinal's big second quarter. To be fair, Taylor was taking care of the bulk of the production in the second half. But Stanford's 4-for-14 third down struggles continued to mirror the offense's disturbing lack of efficiency.
In a game where the defense heroically dominated, the attack's performance was adequate. It could even be mistaken for glamorous, considering the fact that the offense found the end zone and outscored its defense on the road for the first time in almost a year (November 5, 2011). But against conference big boys Oregon and Oregon State, offensive flashes in a pan won't be enough. They certainly didn't do the job for the Cardinal in Seattle and South Bend. Shaw's club needs a consistent 60 minutes of chain-moving, clock-churning production from its offense. Already seven games in, such a consistent effort is still a rarity - and against a physically capable defense, it still hasn't come.
Willamson Off the Mark
The struggles of Jordan Williamson, who missed two more field goals from 34 and 40 yards out, are also disturbing. The truth now isn't pretty: a ground-and-pound team can no longer rely on its kicker, and Shaw demonstrated as much in the second quarter by calling timeout to pull Williamson back and punt instead of booting a 52-yard field goal in perfect conditions. It was the first time in the sophomore's career that Shaw had not expressed confidence in him.
Stanford, once guided by its surgical passing efficiency and weighed down by a scuffling defense, is suddenly pushing forward with the opposite strengths and weaknesses. The 2012 version of Big Game solidified the defense's monstrous presence, but - despite a few encouraging signs - passing consistency is still holding this team away from its potential. The offense, stockpiled with future NFL talent, produced consistently on the ground Saturday. But it's still far away from the promised land of the complete package with the Beavers and Autzen Stadium both looming.
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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