Post-Game Thoughts: 124th Big Game
Cal wins back The Axe in a historically one-sided Big Game
Just look at the full panorama and try to pick out anybody wearing red (photo courtesy @aee2005)
There’s something so satisfying about winning at Stanford Stadium. I remember all of them vividly.
Geoff McArthur catching 16 passes in 2003. Chanting ‘UC Davis’ non-stop in 2005. Shane Vereen and Mike Mohamed spoiling the Luck/Harbaugh love-fest in 2009. The streak-snapper in 2019. Add another to the memory banks (file tag: joy).
Maybe it’s the reward for the trial of navigating the long drive over to the peninsula, trying to find your way in and out of the eucalyptus grove, being told to turn around because this lot is by reservation only, being gouged $40 because they know they can get away with it.
And it’s not like winning in Berkeley isn’t great. It’s a gigantic party just for Cal fans, after all.
But when we win in Palo Alto, it’s still a party for Cal fans, except it feels like we’re also ruining their party at the same time, in the most disrespectful way possible. This time around, the Write For California crew was in section 118 in the corner, across the end zone from the Cal band. It’s technically a Stanford section of the stadium, so it was a delight to stand and yell and cheer while surrounded by hundreds of Stanford fans, sitting on their hands for nearly three quarters before leaving in humiliation, not getting a chance to enjoy a single moment of the game.
Everything we did was joyfully disrespectful. Things like chanting ‘punt’ every time Stanford faced a 4th down, or chanting ‘Shane Vereen’ at the Pac-12 Network’s on-field set-up 10 rows below us. The students did their part, chanting various dismissive curses at Stanford, then taking over the lower bowl for the entire 4th quarter in anticipation of the inevitable field storming to come.
It was a lifeless performance from Stanford fans, but to be fair it was roughly what the Stanford team deserved with a similarly lifeless on-field performance. 1st quarter turnover shenanigans aside, this was a Stanford team that came into Big Game with little going their way and left Big Game having barely put up a fight. As my wife noted:
They knew they were going to lose, and then Cal gave them what they knew was coming.
10 drives: 5 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2-2), 1 punt, 2 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 interception), 4.1 points/drive
Realistically speaking, the only team on Saturday with any hope of stopping the Cal offense was Cal.
Cal failed to score on just three drives. One on a fumble, one on an interception (after gaining 80 yards!) and one on a late 2nd quarter drive in which the Bears maybe weren’t trying that hard to score.
Hell, even one of Cal’s two field goal drives wasn’t a touchdown due to self-sabotage, as two penalties turned seven points into three.
But when you gain 10.1 yards/play, a ton of points is the inevitable outcome of that level of dominance. 41 points was somewhere near the minimum total that Cal could have wrung out of their offensive production, and it was poor field position that allowed Cal to rack up a Big Game record 636 yards of total offense.
A dominant performance against a unit with no answers
With the possible exception of USC, Stanford has the worst defense in the conference, and they’ve been blitzed in four of their last five games. Knowing that, Stanford employed an aggressive, risky defense that put a ton of pressure on their safeties and linebackers.
Throughout the game, Stanford played either with just one safety deep, or even with no safeties deep. They were pushing defenders forward and into the box, wary that Cal would run the ball for 5-10 yards over and over and over again. And to a certain extent, it worked. Stanford was able to stack up a number of Cal runs for short gains.
But they were punished for it on nearly every big Cal play, from Trevon Clark’s easy slant for a touchdown to every run where even the slightest missed gap or slipped tackle meant that there was nobody else left to stop Cal from getting off to the races.
In a way I admire Stanford’s courage, because it would have been easy to play a softer defense that would have probably slowed the game down and kept it closer. Mostly, I’m just glad that Cal punished Stanford’s aggression early and often.
11 drives: 1 touchdown, 1 FGA (1-1), 5 punts, 4 turnovers (2 interceptions, 2 downs), 0.9 points/drive
Stanford had some early success, but the Cal defense clamped down in the red zone early and then clamped down entire for the middle 3rd of the game and by then it was over, cosmetic touchdown notwithstanding.
A dominant performance against a unit with no answers
Stanford entered this game knowing that their running game was broken and that Cal’s defense was too good to bother trying. So Stanford didn’t really bother trying, choosing to drop back to pass 53 times vs. 21 rushing attempts.
And so Stanford’s offense was entirely reliant on Tanner McKee throwing dimes against Cal’s secondary. And to his credit, he made a number of great throws, including more than a few darts that slipped in between defenders in zone coverage over the middle of the field.
But McKee didn’t have the time to go further than 10 yards downfield often, and I couldn’t help but suspect that his leg injury was bothering him whenever a Cal pass rush forced him off his spot. Because while McKee had some excellent throws, he also had more than a few throws that weren’t anywhere close. McKee was particularly bad when pressured, and while Cal wasn’t able to get pressure much (PFF credited Cal with 9 pressures), that was in part the function of a Stanford game plan aiming to get the ball out quickly.
Lu-Magia Hearns plays big
Based on the target numbers, Stanford probably came into this game with a plan of throwing at Cal’s 5’10’’ true freshman. Nine times Stanford threw to a receiver Hearns was covering, and seven of those times Hearns was defending a dude who had 4 or more inches on him.
And Stanford gained 43 yards on those 9 plays (a lame 4.8 yards/attempt) with one interception and one failed 4th down. Stanford’s best, first choice strategy failed spectacularly.
Gonna be fun having Lu around for three more years.
A rough field position day that didn’t really matter
Stanford had a couple of half decent kickoff returns that may have led Cal to do pop up short kicks to the up backs later in the game. Meanwhile, Nikko Remigio probably erred in trying to return a couple of punts that he should’ve let bounce into the end zone.
The result? Cal’s first 8 drives on average started on the 14 yard line. Yuck.
This might have been a decisive negative factor in previous Shaw vs. Wilcox matchups, but Cal’s offensive domination was so one-sided that bad field position just meant that Cal had the space to gain that many more yards.
Who are you and what have you done with David Shaw?
David Shaw went for it on 4th and goal TWICE?! We were so flabbergasted in the stands that we assumed that Stanford didn’t have a healthy kicker, which made Stanford’s field goal to end the 2nd quarter all the more confusing.
Oh wait, there he is!
Shaw’s decisions to go for two were 100% correct; his defense is awful and the only chance Stanford had to keep up was to convert every scoring drive into a touchdown. However, in true David Shaw fashion, this was his post-game comment:
Looking back, probably too aggressive . . . first few drives we got down there inside the five yard line, went for it on 4th down, knowing that they’re a good football team, knowing they were going to come back . . . too aggressive on my part.
I mean, I guess Stanford could’ve kicked field goals and lost the game 41-16 instead.
The true David Shaw came out at the end of the 4th quarter, when Stanford was down by 17 and elected to punt on 4th and nine from the Cal 41. Was a conversion there likely? No, but down three possessions, they had no choice. Instead, Stanford gave up.
Who are you and what have you done with Justin Wilcox?
A WR double pass, an end around reverse, a WR screen into a lateral to a running back, and a halfback pass?!
This development reminds me of two general complaints I’ve had over the last decade. During the Dykes era, I was constantly frustrated that Dykes never seemed to pull out the stops to beat Stanford (though based on the quality of his trick plays, maybe that was for the best). Meanwhile, I’ve always found the lack of trick plays used under Justin Wilcox perplexing. When your offense struggles, wouldn’t you try to find ways to manufacture big play opportunities?
And so it was joyous to suddenly see both complaints firmly addressed in one absurd game. True, two of the plays weren’t particularly successful, but hitting for big gains 2/4 times is a great success rate.
To be fair, Cal did run a flea-flicker earlier in the year, and Justin Wilcox credited Bill Musgrave for all of them, so I’m inclined to take Wilcox at his word and credit Musgrave for the trick plays and give demerits to Beau Baldwin for the lack of trick plays earlier in Wilcox’s tenure.
And while a part of me would prefer that Cal have saved some of those plays for UCLA and/or USC, I’m not going to begrudge a little bit of grave stomping on Stanford.
Rebuilding the Cal fan base is not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be at all linear. But crushing Stanford on a beautiful fall afternoon with thousands of students itching for a real college experience is a great building block.
Beating Stanford is a necessity because it’s the signpost game that Cal fans will always notice, will always care about, and nailing a Big Game win is how you get everybody who is on the fence to consider paying attention the rest of the season.
That’s what I’m focusing on for now. There will be plenty of time over the next few weeks to talk about the consequences of bowl eligibility should Cal pull off the comeback to go 6-6, or the trajectory of the Wilcox tenure as the focus slowly moves towards 2022.
Because winning The Axe, and the subsequent joy it produces, will never be something any of us will take for granted.