The Novel: Cal vs Stanford Football (2021)
In which the Bears enjoy Palo Alto, again.
You have to go back to the early glory days of Jeff Tedford, to put into context how historically dominant the 124th Big Game was -- the Bears have only won or kept the Axe six times in the nearly two decades since then, with none of those other victories close to 2004's 41-6 final margin; if you want a comparable blowout win from before that, you'd have to go all the way back to 1975 (48-15), and then to 1920 (38-0).
All of that is to say that you should savor every minute of the beating the Bears meted out, committing it to that special part of your memory box labeled "in case of emergencies", so it can unwrap itself like a gift every time it crosses your mind randomly in the future. Days like Saturday, in which the Bears pulverized their rivals into absolute dust, strangling everything Stanford wanted to do offensively, running the ball behind multiple tight ends to the tune of 352 yards on the ground, and gleefully beginning the Bear Territory chants with five minutes to go, do not happen often.
Wins in this matchup are hard to come by. Wins of this nature, even harder.
The Big Game was played last year too, despite no fans and an ongoing global pandemic. And the Bears, frustratingly, freakishly, unfortunately, lost...on a blocked extra point as the clock ran out. Worse, of course, was that this ending was not the product of a fever dream; it counted -- it must have, since the Axe didn't just walk itself back to Palo Alto of its own accord.
As the clock wound down in Stanford Stadium, the outcome already secure, I found myself recalling the hollowness of this game, a calendar turn ago -- how silly it felt to try to analyze the team, when football should have been the furthest thing from anyone's minds; and then, back before that, to 2019, in what feels like a world ago now. It has been a long time. Many of us have lost -- grown, in that time. Grieved, in that time.
In the WriteForCal family, there used to be one more of us on these trips who will no longer be able to make them, but we tried to bring the spirit of him along anyway.
I am sure we were not alone in our thinking on Saturday -- wishing that another friend, or loved one could be watching the spectacle playing out in front of us. So much of this sport is played in memory, after all: of who we once were at a point in our lives, who we love enough to spend our fall Saturdays with; in the ones still to be made.
That was ultimately why the WriteForCal crew ambled slowly onto the field at game's end; no need to scramble over the fence to the 50 -- though we eventually made it out there (and only one injury, from Trace!) -- because it was, and is, about memories, making chances for those who have yet to have them.
At the last one of these Palo Alto home visits, you could already spot the first rumblings starting to appear in the Stanford foundation; not only did Cal regain control of the Axe for the first time in a decade that day, they punctuated that dramatic victory by celebrating the fact that the Cardinal were going bowlless for the first time in that same timeframe too. Combined with the coup that was Derek Wilkins' commitment, and Wilcox had plenty to sell about a program trending up.
That part hasn't been so clean -- for reasons both in, and out of his control -- but the trend of Stanford slippage is certainly now accelerating, as the Cardinal will be spending the winter at home again.
Let's do a quick check in on how the sock-puppet accounts allegedly rooting for the Cardinal er, fans are feeling about things:
For other signs of impending decline, look no further than the assembled offensive talent wearing red and white -- any pregame prep would have shown that there is not a single skill position player that could reasonably strike fear into the Bears whatsoever; no one worth carrying the mantle of JJ Arcega Whiteside, Christian McCaffrey, Toby Gerhart, or Zach Ertz, names that still dredge up trauma for Cal fans to this day, with the combined 4.0 YPP performance put on by Stanford's skill position players Saturday wouldn't have qualified as a GPA for acceptance at either their school or ours. Two of the Cardinal running backs were either heavily considering, or at one time committed to Cal, and got outgained on the evening by anyone who made it to midfield for postgame festivities:
rex volcanø @RexVolcanothese guys were IN HELL https://t.co/mCx1lC0gnw
And then, the absolute clearest sign that these weren't your Stanford teams of old: David Shaw going for it twice in the red zone, likely knowing they would need to score to keep pace, lining up in power formations, and getting absolutely stuffed both times. In previous iterations, he would have kicked the field goal and sat on the defense; an impossibility when you know they are now bottom of the conference against the pass and the run (5.9 YPC coming into the game), getting embarrassed in space against Chase Garbers, when they used to terrorize the line of scrimmage.
I can't profess to know whether or not they'll let him go -- my guess would be one more bowlless or struggling season at least -- but I do know that 8.9 million is too expensive of a going rate for a coach that still does things like this:
In either case, the Bears can pretty definitively turn the balance of power in the Bay next year. And that 2022 game is at home, not the home away from home.
With the news that Bill Musgrave is in fact being made aware of message board comments by way of Mike Saffell (and other likely GAs and support staff), I would like to jokingly, take some credit for the gameplan through my consistent threats for litigation if he did not run the ball:
Okay, but on a more serious note, it was another excellently called game by the man in charge.
This starts with the way he deployed certified Big Game Legend Chase Garbers: empowering him to run circles around this version of the Stanford defense unathletic enough to catch him, and having him throw within himself, things that are, and have always been the best way to use Garbers. Outside of the one pick, it was well managed by Chase, who didn't need to do too much himself. (Aside: I understand he has eligibility remaining, but it is my expectation right now that he moves on after what has been a terrific career; the next really good Cal team might be in 2023, assuming they have a second year starter at that point. Trying to take advantage of these underclassmen aging up by then involves having a QB on that same timeline, not breaking in a new starter.)
Cal Football @CalFootballThe longest pass play in Big Game history. @ChaseGarbers x @trevon2221 #GoBears https://t.co/CpYuQikMiJ
There were a shade too many passes for my liking in the first half, but in the second, Musgrave settled into keeping the ball on the ground -- even without Damien Moore, who I have heard got hurt after the first carry; but a benching wouldn't have surprised me given his ball security issues this year -- and utilized big tight end formations, and six total backs on his way to 352 yards. He gets the credit for the plays they ran -- outStanfording the school that has built their identity on it, pulling guards and tackles into space, keeping the Stanford defense overpursuing and otherwise; the line gets the rest for the way they bullied the Cardinal in space until they folded, particularly with McKade Mettauer.
Top three Cal runs by direction:
off left end, outside of the tight end: 6-123-2 TDs
off right end, outside of the tight end: 10-107-1 TD
QB scramble: 4-48
[Postscript edit: I could have talked about a ton more things — this column isn’t called the Novel for nothing — but did want to return to share some love specifically for Marcel Dancy, who has always answered the bell when given a chance. That there haven’t been more of them for him is due to a loaded depth chart, rather than anything ability related. Thrilled for him to have that Big Game moment, which will now go alongside several other ridiculous, gamebreaking runs he has unspooled in his time here. Wonderful player, wonderful story.]
And the really impressive thing: dipping into the playbook for aggressive gadgets, particularly late in the game to seal the victory. Throwing a halfback pass up big in the 4th quarter is a statement, with the hook and lateral to Remigio being an excellent way to keep Stanford off balance, when they were expecting runs.
Two Cal skill position plays threw passes, but the backup QB did not. It doesn't mean anything important, it's just something I noticed.
Overall, not a thing to complain about except the early execution -- get the turnovers out of the way, and you end up with probably 50 points. I'll take the Big Game records for yardage and such, though.
It's now been over a month's worth of improvements for Peter Sirmon, and perhaps, after a slow start, they are getting into form under him -- the biggest test is next week, with a UCLA team fresh off of putting up 63 points, but they have truly improved regardless of competition: the Bears are now the top team in the conference by points per game, second by yards per carry allowed, fifth by passing YPA allowed, and second in QB Rating allowed. Even if many of those teams from the last month and a half -- Colorado, Arizona, Stanford, and Oregon State -- aren't necessarily that good, improvement is improvement, especially when it has come from so many young guys stepping up and forming the cornerstones of next year's Cal defense.
Mo Iosefa struggled very early in the year, but was outstanding in the half he was allowed to play, showing more shades each week of the impact player we identified he could be in the spring; Nate Rutchena is just always in the right place at the right time, this week to 10 tackles. Those two, along with Trey Paster and Femi Oladejo give the Bears four legitimate inside linebacker options that let them match up with anything offenses want to play, particularly when we are a bit short on defensive linemen and use a lot of 2-4-5 base. You want to go Big? Oladejo and Iosefa. You need pass coverage? Pick any two of Paster, Rutchena, and Iosefa. You want...you get the point.
Making it possible for Mo, Rutchena, and Goode to run around so wildly, are guys like JH Tevis and Luc Bequette holding it down on the defensive line. They don't grade out well on PFF, but they wouldn't be able to get Goode and Mo into space.
Similarly, the Bears have unearthed a gem in Lu Hearns, who I cannot say I imagined becoming a lockdown corner on the outside as a true freshman, at his current weight -- but he's getting better every week; he attacks every ball ferociously if it's near him at all, and recorded four pass break ups against Stanford. You have to figure that he will be a big part of the plans next year, regardless of if that's on the inside or outside. Gamble, his possible partner as of right now if no one moves, has also improved dramatically and is already a bit more built, when people were hellbent on pointing out his struggles (fairly), and he scored a pick that I had no idea happened when I was lost in my own thoughts.
Shout out to Kaleb Higgins getting some snaps in his debut too -- I believe he has a big future to play in the secondary, with his natural physical skills and length.
Special teams aren't really needed in a game like this, which is all the better for everyone: the Bears only punted once, and Dario Longhetto was only called on for two field goals, the longest of which was 34 yards. They needed to be a shade more active against the possibility of an onside kick, but that too, was settled fairly quickly.
Nikko, you don't have to return everything. I promise.
Every week remaining is the biggest game remaining, since there is no longer room for error -- if the Bears hope to play again in December -- but if they can get past UCLA, there are strong odds that they can beat a wounded USC team with very little to play for...well...