The 116th Big Game
Back in 2006, Stanford entered the Big Game with a 1-10 record, while heavy favorite Cal was 8-3. Seven years later, the tables have turned: The 8-2 Cardinal is set to host the 1-10 Bears. Cal sits in the conference cellar in several categories, including scoring offense (23.9), scoring defense (44.4), and total defense (522.9 yards per game). If one uses statistics to make a judgment, Sonny Dykes' injury-plagued defense is the worst in Cal history.
It all adds up to a golden opportunity for Stanford to right the ship after a particularly demoralizing loss at USC. The Cardinal are favored by more than 30 points, and their tremendous advantage on both lines of scrimmage is expected to physically overwhelm this patchwork Cal squad. Still, Stanford must be wary in this rivalry game setting: Back when the tables were flipped the other way in 2006, the Cardinal made a game of it against the heavily favored Bears, losing 26-17 only after threatening to take the lead with under five minutes to play.
"We aren't very fond of each other," Stanford wide receiver Jeff Trojan says motivation won't be a problem. "They stole our axe and I don't like them for that."
Stanford came out of Los Angeles in good health, though kicker Jordan Williamson (leg muscle strain) was unable to play after being unable to drive through his kicks during pregame warm-ups. Williamson has since visited a doctor, and his condition has improved enough for David Shaw to expect him to resume kicking at Wednesday's practice. His availability Saturday is still in question.
Tyler Gaffney, Ty Montgomery, and Alex Carter were all scheduled to be held out of the Cardinal's Tuesday practice. Gaffney refused to take a break, though, so he participated. Montgomery and Carter are both expected to be full-go on Wednesday.
Safety Zach Hoffpauir has returned to practice from injury. Shaw was pleased with his performance. Hoffpauir's return means that Ikenna Nwafor is the only Stanford player other than Williamson and Ben Gardner who remains out of practice action. He has a chance to return for the bowl game.
Stanford isn't out of the running for its fourth straight trip to a BCS bowl, but the Cardinal will need some outside dominoes to fall in their favor. Oregon likely won't lose, but if Shaw's club is able to beat Cal and Notre Dame, it will finish in the Top 14 of the final BCS standings. That would make the Cardinal eligible for an at-large selection (likely to the Orange or Fiesta Bowl). For Stanford, the hope is that there will be as few eligible Top 14 teams competing with them for an at-large bid as possible. No. 19 Wisconsin, No. 10 Oklahoma State, and No. 20 Oklahoma may all need to suffer another loss to keep the Cardinal safe in the 14-team bubble. The Badgers play on the road at 8-2 Minnesota this weekend, while Oklahoma State hosts undefeated Baylor. Oklahoma visits the Cowboys December 7.
Stanford's BCS chances will also increase if another at-large spot opens up. That can happen only if both Northern Illinois and Fresno State lose. It's imperative that both of these teams lose or both of them win out, though. A result in the middle is not ideal, as the Cardinal may need the buffer that both teams can provide if they keep winning: At No. 15 and No. 16, both Northern Illinois and Fresno State can potentially keep other threatening teams out of the eligible Top 14.
Red Zone Struggles
Stanford's 20-17 loss at USC was a story of blown opportunity for the visiting team. While the Trojans scored 17 points on their three trips inside the 20 yard line, the Cardinal scored only 10 points on four red zone possessions Saturday. A blocked field goal denied Stanford once. Later, Dion Bailey intercepted Kevin Hogan's throw to stonewall another golden Cardinal opportunity.
In an opening statement at his Tuesday press conference, Shaw asserted that playcalling was not the culprit behind the Cardinal's troubles in the red zone.
"Some of you guys can say what you want, like, 'It's all on coach Shaw,'" he said. "That's fine. That's my position. That's where I am. But to think the game goes down to red zone playcalling, where we've been close to tops in the nation for years running -- we've been very good -- but we can't throw a slant on third down, so every incompletion and interception turns into 'we should should just run the ball.' That makes no sense."
But the fact is that Saturday's offensive struggles in the red zone have not been confined to Stanford's game at USC. As the table below illustrates, the Cardinal's offensive productivity near opposing end zones has not been ranked near the top of nation since Andrew Luck was on The Farm. Stanford finished fourth nationally in red zone touchdown percentage in 2011, No. 12's last season. The ranking dropped to 67th last season before tumbling to 100th place following the Cardinal's tenth game of this 2013 campaign.
||Red Zone Scoring %
||Red Zone TD%
||Red Zone TD% National Rank
||Points Per Red Zone Possession
Obviously, 100th place is significantly below the national average in red zone touchdown percentage, so the search for answers begins. Throughout this free fall, Stanford's offensive line has remained regarded as one of the best in the conference, if not the entire nation. Excellence at the primary running back position has also remained constant in the transition from Stepfan Taylor to Tyler Gaffney. The loss of tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo has certainly been a blow, but the Cardinal has simultaneously grown more talented at the receiver position, and that's led to greater aerial productivity on the whole.
So what gives?
Naturally, many have questioned how the Cardinal have used their personnel inside the 20 yard line this season. Even after Shaw discounted criticism of playcalling Thursday, questions persisted. One reporter asked about the use of the Wildcat formation on first and goal from the six yard line against USC. The Trojans stuffed Gaffney for a four yard loss, setting the table for a pair of passes, the second of which ended in Bailey's interception two plays later.
"When we hand it off to Kelsey Young and it gains 15 yards, [the Wildcat is considered] great," Shaw said. "When we do it in the Rose Bowl and it leads to a long play that leads to a touchdown, it's great. We do the Wildcat against USC two years ago, reverse pass to Ty Montgomery, big play, and it's great. Wildcat is part of what we do. It's been very efficient. We missed a block. It's OK. The world doesn't come to an end. When a play doesn't work in a game that you lose, [people always blame] playcalling: 'Why'd you do this, why'd you do that?' We did it because we thought it was going to work."
It's important to note, though, that the Wildcat variation that failed for Stanford on Saturday was significantly different than the ones Shaw cited as examples of past success. This one was a straight Gaffney run that made no effort to throw the defense off balance, while his mentioned successful Wildcat plays all involved downfield passes or Young movement in motion -- two twists that can be considered impractical in the red zone, where less space is available for plays to develop.
Shaw tends to chalk up Stanford's struggles to a lack of execution in the red zone, though he did take responsibility for the play call that resulted in the Bailey interception during his postgame press conference. The Cardinal had tried the same slant pattern out of an identical formation earlier in the game, and USC was waiting in the bushes for it after Stanford merely flipped the route to the other side of the field. After the game, Bailey indicated that he knew what play was coming -- he didn't even cover his assigned man on the play.
"When you have a close game, you can't miss a field goal, you can't have it blocked, you can't turn it over in the red zone," Shaw said. "That's what it comes down to. It's not which plays we called and which guys we used. Sometimes things work; sometimes they don't. If you want to win games, they've gotta work more often than they don't."
Unfortunately, the bleak reality is that things haven't worked nearly as often for Stanford in the red zone as of late, and that's why this team is on the outside looking in at the BCS picture after opening the season with legitimate national title aspirations. It would behoove the Cardinal to fix these problems, and past success suggests that a bruising running game complemented by short playaction passing threat is the best way to do so. Nothing extraordinary is needed: Stanford's offensive line has proven good enough to get the job done when on an even playing field.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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