Big Game Preview

It's time to get down to it - what is it going to take to come out on the right side at the end of the 106th Big Game. Cal fans dizzy from their unprecedented 6-6 success are talking much trash, but the game will be played on the field. That is where we turn our attention. What exactly are the strengths and weaknesses of our flea-infested foes? Read on for some answers...

105 times before, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley have met one another in a football game to determine which institution will have dominion of the Axe.  For those who don't know (and eternal damnation be visited upon you if you do not) the Axe currently resides in the East Bay, courtesy of a 30-7 egg which the Stanford Cardinal laid at Memorial Stadium one year ago in the 105th Big Game.

Yearning for a triumphant return to the verdant fields and tree-lined lanes of Stanford University, the Axe will enter Stanford Stadium on Saturday as temporary property of the California Golden Bears.  If Stanford can contain the Bears' suddenly explosive offense, however, come Saturday's conclusion the Axe will once again be housed within the glorious walls of the Arrillaga Athletic Center, where it has spent seven of the last eight years in peaceful repose.

Of course, there is more riding on this year's Big Game than just Bay Area pride.  For both of the competing squads, bowl game appearances are contingent on winning the Big Game.  Cal will be unable to attend a bowl if it drops this Saturday's tilt to the Card because a team cannot be bowl-eligible if it has a losing record.  Conversely, if heaven forbid Stanford loses to the Bears then it will be eliminated from bowl contention even if it does beat the 'Rone-coached Notre Dame Fighting Irish the following week.  So expect even more than the usual intensity on the field this weekend - it should make for a helluva Big Game, a battle which will do justice to one of the most storied rivalries in college sports.

Indeed, this weekend's upcoming throwdown is so important for the outcome of the 2003 season that the usual preview gimmick which everyone has come to expect (or hate, more likely) will be dispensed with for the duration of this article.  Whenever Stanford faces Cal, it's a blood-and-guts, hard-nosed, back-to-basics affair, and that's what we strive for here as we look at what the Golden Bears will bring to the table this Saturday:

A Smoking Offense

Make no golden bones about it, the Cal offense is potent.  Last week against the Washington Huskies, the Bears absolutely exploded for a school-record 729 yards.  And that was without their top rusher, Adimchinobe Echemandu, who apparently was not needed as Cal's backup tailbacks (mostly junior college transfer J.J. Arrington) gobbled up 381 yards on 35 carries.  While Echemandu can lay claim to being the statistically best of all running backs in the Pacific-10 Conference who aren't named Steven Jackson, it doesn't exactly ease Stanford's anxiety to know that one of the finest backup runners in the nation also wears blue and gold.  Arrington averaged 13.2 yards per carry last week against Washington, totaling 185 yards and scoring a touchdown, proving that his transition from College of the Canyons is, to the chagrin of the rest of the Pac-10, complete.

The transfer will once again defer to the regular starter on Saturday, though, as Echemandu will return from resting his ankle sprain, eager to torch the Cardinal defense for over 100 yards.  If he does so, the Nigerian native will vault himself into sole possession of third place on Cal's all-time list for most 100-yard rushing games in a season, with six such century clubs to his name in 2003.  He will, however, have to face a stingy Stanford run defense, which currently ranks 22nd in the collegiate game with an average allowance of 113 yards per contest.  Echemandu (who, naturally, prefers to be called "Joe," perhaps in reference to his slick and elusive predecessor, Joe Igber) has proven that he can slice and dice even the best of opposing defenses.  He piled up 147 yards against USC back in September, which was for him a career best performance until he dropped 201 against poor old Arizona.  If the Trojans, who are in the hunt for a national championship, struggled to bottle up Echemandu, then Stanford will definitely have its hands full trying to stop the Etch-man, as he is sometimes known.  And with the Stanford offense's recent propensity to fail at scoring points, the onus on Stanford's run defense to perform at its highest level will be even heavier on Saturday.  If Cal establishes that it can run the ball at will against Stanford, they won't have to go to the passing game at all, as they will just be able to use Echemandu, supplemented with Arrington and the rest of the tailback corps, to grind the Stanford "D" into the stadium turf.

Of course, if the Cardinal defense plays up to its potential and frustrates Echemandu, the Cal offense will turn to its leader, another junior college transfer student, to lead the way toward Stanford's end zone.  Aaron Rodgers, the Golden Bears' sophomore quarterback and Butte College alumnus, has picked up right where first-round NFL draftee Kyle Boller left off last season.  Rodgers, in his first season as a Bear, has already put his personal stamp on the Berkeley record books, with his eye currently on the lowest-ever interception mark for a Cal QB.  Only four times all year have opposing teams been picked off balls thrown by Rodgers.  Considering that he has thrown the ball 277 times coming into the Big Game, it might be a good idea for Stanford's defensive backs to play a bit more conservatively, contenting themselves with breaking up passes rather than going for the big pick and getting burned for touchdowns.

This will be a fine line for the Stanford secondary to walk on Saturday, however, for if it hangs back in coverage too much then Cal's talented group of pass-catchers will make the Card pay and start dancing all over Stanford's end zones.  The leader of Cal's receiving bunch is unquestionably Geoff McArthur, who is battling Echemandu and Rodgers to see which of these players has the most impressive statistical year.  Currently running (or, technically, receiving) second in the nation behind Larry Fitzgerald of Pitt for most receiving yards, McArthur owes many of his 1,259 yards through the air to the fact that four times so far this year he has earned more than 150 yards receiving.  Both the total receiving yards in a year and the four century-and-a-half single games are school records for McArthur, who before last Saturday's meeting with Washington averaged a ridiculous 40 yards per catch against Arizona State when he caught four passes for 160 yards.

Middle-of-the-Road Defense

Like almost Stanford's entire team, the Cal defense suffers from definite bouts of inexperience, but has improved steadily throughout this 2003 campaign.  The Bears lost nine starters from the squad which strangled the Stanford offense into just seven points in the 105th Big Game, but the nine new faces have over the year begun to grow accustomed to the Bears' defensive scheme.  While Cal surrendered 27 points per game in its first seven outings, in its last five contests the maturing defense has cut that number to just 17.6 points allowed per outing.  It is not the best of signs for Chris Lewis and the boys that Washington's offense, which normally produces upwards of 26 points each game, was held to just a single touchdown last week by the Bears.

A lot of the credit for this rapidly gelling defense has to go to a man who has seen his own play improve considerably in the two years he has spent at Cal: Donnie McCleskey.  Only a sophomore, the 180-pound native of La Puente, CA has emerged as Cal's undisputed defensive leader.  Playing the rover position (akin to a free safety in any normal defensive scheme), McCleskey already has 97 tackles, a couple of interceptions, and 12 tackles for loss to lead the Cal defense in all three categories.  His five-and-a-half sacks trail team leader Wendell Hunter by just a sack and a half.  If McCleskey gets three tackles on Saturady, he will become the first Cal defensive back ever to hit the century mark for tackles in a single campaign.  Continuing with the theme of three, McCleskey needs but three pass break-ups against Stanford to tie Jemeel Powell for the most interruptions in a season.

The rest of the Cal "D" is not as impressive as McCleskey is on his own, yet still has to worry Stanford's offensive minds.  Ranking near the middle of the Pac-10 in nearly every category, the only area where Cal's defense is truly deficient is in the nearly meaningless category of fourth-down conversions allowed.  This could pose a problem for Stanford in that the Cardinal has what is best termed an anemic offense, so facing an average squad like the Bears' might prove to be too much for the Stanford offense to handle.

Weaknesses

It's tough to discover many vulnerabilities among this Cal team simply by examining the stat sheets.  Numbers-wise, the Bears are one of the most impressive teams in the land.  However, in and of itself this is one of the weaknesses of the Bears - games that Cal wins are normally lopsided blowouts, meaning that most of its losses come in close contests.  Four of Cal's six losses that it has sustained so far in 2003 were decided by seven points or less, indicating that the Bears, in typical Cal fashion, quite simply choke in tense circumstances.  While Cal fans will trot out the USC game to disprove this reputation, it is important to remember that the Trojans basically gave that game to the Bears on a platter decorated with parsley, missing a field goal in the second overtime to set up Cal's victory (after the Bears had already failed to ice the game in the first OT).

The take-home message for Stanford is thus to not get frustrated while trailing as long as the score remains tight.  Playing at home, in the Big Game where crazy events are seemingly mandated to occur, and against a Cal team with a history of blowing close ones, Stanford will give itself a great chance to reclaim the Axe if it can keep the score comparable into the fourth quarter.

One way for Stanford to ensure that the score stays even is to run the ball well.  Cal's rushing defense has had some troubles so far in 2003, ranking seventh in the Pac-10 in yards surrendered per game (136.8).  Stanford's duo of J.R. Lemon and Kenneth Tolon absolutely have to break off some significant gains on Saturday if they want to give their team a chance to win it late.  The Card proved that they can indeed be productive on the ground against good defenses when they gained 115 yards against UCLA - ranked fifth in the conference in rushing defense - in their big win at home.

"Home" is indeed a sweet word for the Card.  Of their four wins on the season, Stanford has won three times at home, the only away victory coming in Provo, Utah against BYU.  On the road, Stanford has been just atrocious (35-0 at Oregon and 43-3 at Oregon State ring any bells?), so it most definitely works both to Stanford's advantage and Cal's detriment to be playing the 106th Big Game in Palo Alto.  The Bears are 2-4 when they leave the hilly confines of Memorial Stadium - it remains to be seen if the 43-mile trek down south to Stanford will be long enough of a trip to keep alive Cal's trend of losing two games for each victory on the road.  Regardless, Stanford will be poised to gain the early upper hand in its own stadium.

Keys to the game and things to watch as Stanford and Cal face off for the 106th time:

Be prepared for an offensive assault by the Bears - their offense is too good to bottle up entirely
Echemandu must be held to under 120 yards
Attack Cal's suspect defense on the ground with Lemon and Tolon
Teevens has to get creative - no draw play PLEASE

Cover Geoff McArthur closely - if Cal's other receivers have big days there is not much to do
A
llow Chris Lewis to air it out in the middle of the game - you might be surprised by the results
Leave Cal defeated, distraught, and dejected as we reclaim the Axe and return it home

Sounds simple enough.  Now let's do it.


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