Grading the Keys: Cal

Stanford nailed two of The Bootleg's three keys with precision so lethal that the third was almost rendered moot. The Cardinal defense is making a name for itself as one of the best in school history.

Key no. 1: Get After the Quarterback
Grade: A+

Zach Maynard was terrible Saturday, but he never had a chance to be good. Cal's train wreck of an offensive line, which entered the game having given up an NCAA-high 29 sacks, was torn apart like one of those paper banners high school cheerleaders hold for their football team to run through after halftime.

It all began on the Bears' fourth play from scrimmage, when Chase Thomas trucked Maynard and dislodged the football. That was the first of Thomas' four tackles for loss, which earned him Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors. Shayne Skov notched his first solo sack of the year in trademarked fashion, exploding through the line of scrimmage to corral the quarterback. Maynard saw him coming the whole way, but still couldn't react in time - that's a good sign that Skov's signature blast-off speed is back.

Stanford sack leader Trent Murphy came around the edge to run his season count to 4.5, while Alex Debniak also flashed his freakish athleticism when he reeled in Maynard. The fifth-year senior, who has battled a bevy of injuries and struggled with the Cardinal's shift to the 3-4 defensive scheme during his career, is finally coming into his own during this club's dominant 2012 defensive campaign. On Saturday, he was an integral part of a relentless quarterback harassment that will become part of Big Game lore.


Key no. 2: Decent Play from Nunes
Grade: C+

Stanford isn't asking Josh Nunes to be great at the quarterback position. This team features a boatload of talent on both sides of the ball; all it needs is an adequate orchestrator that doesn't let all of that size and muscle go to waste.

If only it were so easy. If talent was money, then Stanford took a stack of one hundred dollar bills and lit them on fire for the majority of their games against San Jose State, USC, Washington, and Notre Dame. One of the primary talent-burning culprits, of course, was Nunes' poor play.

After another brutal 4-for-10, one-fumble first quarter, No. 6 acquitted himself well by delivering a solid second stanza that gave the Stanford defense all the separation it needed. Nunes' 8-for-13, 137-yard performance featured a skinny post touchdown strike to single-covered Zach Ertz. It was also highlighted by the big tight end roaming free in the secondary for an easy 68-yard run and catch. The Cardinal's hot start rushing the football (11 carries for 72 yards in the first quarter) forced Cal to sell out against the run, so beating the Bears over the top was the sexy option.

Unfortunately, Nunes (and, occasionally, his receivers) had failed to make stacked boxes pay their toll for a large part of the season, so steady play-action success in the second quarter against a talented secondary was commendable. The Bears came into the game having intercepted six passes over the course of their past two games, but they only picked Nunes off once.

After the second quarter, Stanford's passing game reverted to mediocrity. Outside of that one solid frame, Nunes went 8-for-18 for only 77 yards (he finished 16-for-31). He was a Drew Terrell offensive pass interference call away from being a little more productive on the stat sheet, but the Cardinal still did not come close to scoring in the second half. Either way, all the Farm Boys' defense wanted was a decent performance from their signal caller, and they got enough to work with out of the second quarter - an offensive explosion by 2012 Stanford road standards.

Of course, consistent improvement is needed once Oregon State and Oregon come calling, as 4-for-14 third down efficiency in those games will translate into a pair of blowout losses.


Key no. 3: Control the Ground Game
Grade: A+

Stanford ruled the line of scrimmage with an iron fist. Cal's defense, vulnerable to the run at 148 yards per game coming in, was gashed for 252. The Cardinal showed notable creativity and diversity - six different ballcarriers - in their running attack, and that left the Bears flummoxed before they even had a chance to tire. Stepfan Taylor knifed his way to 50 yards on his first four carries, passing Toby Gerhart for sole possession of second place on the all-time Stanford career rushing list. Taylor is now only 417 yards away from Darrin Nelson's record. With weak Washington State and Colorado defenses next on the schedule, no. 33 can break that record before Oregon State even comes to town.

Stanford's superb defensive effort was punctuated by Ben Gardner's goal-line stuff of Isi Sofele at the beginning of the second quarter. In a vintage performance from one of the nation's best run defenses, the Cardinal collapsed the Bears' of scrimmage and tracked the perimeter well enough to prevent Cal speedster Brendan Bigelow from burning them to the edge. Jeff Tedford's squad, which had averaged 220 rushing yards over its previous three games, was in negative territory up until the second half. Their grand ground total: three yards. Suffocation at its finest.


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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