Post-Game Thoughts: Cal v. Stanford Football 125th Big Game
Behind a strong defensive effort and heroics from Daniel Scott, Cal comes back to retain The Axe
For approximately 46 minutes of football on Saturday, it looked like Cal was going to lose the Axe*. Six times, the Bears had driven into Stanford territory, but those six scoring opportunities only resulted in six points. Stanford led 17-6, and David Shaw likely felt confident in his team’s ability to sit on that lead for the remaining 14 minutes of the game.
But then Jeremiah Hunter returned a punt 22 yards to midfield, Cal finally got Jaydn Ott going on the ground as part of a 53 yard touchdown drive, and that set up one of the greatest game-swinging plays in Big Game history.
For Cal fans who lean towards the ‘DOOM’ side of Bears fandom, this is a play worth reflecting on. Daniel Scott did a good job shooting a gap and sticking his arm in, but Cal was lucky that Ashton Daniels fumbles. Cal is lucky that the ball bounces up into the hands of Jeremiah Earby, rather than rolling low to the ground. When Stanford tackles Earby, Cal gets WILDLY lucky that Earby’s fumble bounces right into the arms of an in-stride Jackson Sirmon for the touchdown.
Think about how many different ways this play could have turned out. It could have been a garden variety one yard run. Cal could have fallen on the football, leaving the Cal offense with 38 yards to drive to take the lead. The fumble could have bounced out of bounds, giving Stanford the ball back.
Instead, it was the critical touchdown of the game, that gave Cal control. A single play that may well have been the difference between an explosion of joy not seen at Memorial Stadium since 2008, or an off-season of 100% pain and misery.
*My wife, who dies inside when she sees my reaction to Cal losing the Big Game, insisted that she was 100% sure Cal would win the whole way
12 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 FGA (2-2), 6 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 downs), 2 points/drive, 1.1 points/drive
For transparency, I am not counting Cal’s final 9 yard touchdown drive following Daniel Scott’s interception. If you count that on the ledger, then you can peg Cal’s offensive production at 20 points on 13 drives, bumping them up to 1.5 points/drive. But I’m OK crediting the majority of that score to the defense.
On the ‘new look’ offense
Cal’s game plan following the dismissal of Bill Musgrave seemed relatively straightforward: Our strength on offense is our WRs, so let’s get more of them on the field, throw them the ball more, and see what happens. Cal used their tight ends less - prior to this game, Cal used an average of 1.6 tight ends per offensive play, vs. 1.2 tight ends/play against Stanford. And I suspect that if Sturdivant hadn’t gotten hurt the number would have been closer to one tight end/play. Even when Cal did use a tight end, they tended to split them out wide, and didn’t target them even once with a pass, using them more frequently as blockers. Frankly, a couple times I think the refs might’ve been justified in calling offensive pass interference
That game plan had to shift when 1. Cal took the lead and 2. J. Michael Sturdivant suffered an injury that kept him out for the remainder of the game. Cal quite rightly focused on running the ball through Ott at that point, and had enough success that it perhaps called into question whether Cal should have gone so pass heavy to start the game. Except Ott’s 5 carries in the first three quarters gained a total of 5 yards, so it’s not like Ott obviously had space to run wild that Cal was ignoring. One suspects Cal’s later success running the ball may have had more to do with Stanford fatigue.
The thing is . . . I think the game plan more or less worked, except that Cal’s receivers uncharacteristically didn’t make plays. There were a few straight up drops, plus a number of other plays where the Cal receiver had a chance to make a contested catch and couldn’t come down with the ball. If a few more of those plays (most obviously Sturdivant’s potential deep touchdown catch in the 1st half) are made Cal probably builds a lead in this game via offense.
Two plays that could have made this much less stressful
On first and goal from the 5, Jack Plummer had nowhere to go. Jadyn Ott was covered in the flat to the left, Elijah Mojarro was bracketed on the goal line, Mavin Anderson was well covered running a post into the corner of the end zone, and Plummer probably didn’t have a sight line to anybody on his right after stepping up into the pocket.
I can guess what Plummer was thinking - ‘if I put this ball into the upper corner, it will give Mavin a chance at a play.’ But that has to be a perfect placement and even then it’s a low percentage play. On first down, the right call is a throwaway or perhaps a scramble attempt. Instead, an interception and no points on a good drive.
On first and 10 from the Stanford 20, Stanford’s DE beats Cal’s LG, and a dude is immediately in Plummer’s face, and he lofts up a jump ball. Stanford’s CB is in much better position. Again, I get why Plummer threw this ball - he had about a second to make a decision, and wanted to give his WR a chance at a jump ball. But again, on 1st down you’re better off just eating the sack here.
Still, this shouldn’t overshadow a strong bounce back game from Plummer, who was money when he had a clean pocket and gave his WRs chances to make plays all game long.
13 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 8 punts, 2 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 interception), 2 points/drive, 1.3 points/drive
Removed: Stanford’s two play drive to end the first half, and Stanford’s utterly pointless sicko drive to end the game with a field goal.
The psychology of sequencing and game situation made me think at the time that Cal wasn’t playing particularly well on defense - because Cal allowed Stanford to score touchdowns on the first possession of each half, because Cal was perpetually behind. But the reality was that due to Cal’s pass heavy (and incompletion heavy) offensive game plan, the Cal defense had to defend a ton of possessions, and ended up CREATING as many points via turnovers (14) as they allowed pre-garbage time (17). Say what you will about the Stanford offense (they bad) it’s still a huge, game winning performance.
After allowing 126 yards in 17 plays (and 10 points) on Stanford’s first two drives, Cal allowed 237 yards across 54 plays (4.4 yards/play) and allowed exactly one drive of consequence.
Cal’s secondary dominates Stanford’s WRs
Two stats of note:
Per PFF, Cal pressured Tanner McKee on 7 of his 52 drop backs
Per PFF, Tanner McKee had an average depth of target of 5.1 yards
In short: Cal’s secondary, getting very little help from their pass rush, didn’t allow Stanford to get ANYTHING down the field. Stanford only attempted two passes that went 20+ yards down the field, and one of them was Daniel Scott’s game clinching interception.
It’s fair to point out that some of Stanford’s dinking and dunking was probably game plan, and some of it was Stanford being both untalented and beat up at WR/TE, but still. Cal held Stanford to 5.6 yards/attempt, which is quite bad, despite not really getting much pass rush. It’s been a rough season for Cal’s secondary, but they came up biggest in the Big Game.
A dominating performance
Punting: Cal averaged a net of 44.3 yards/punt, Stanford a net of 38.5
Kickoffs: Cal had one long kickoff return to midfield; Stanford attempted multiple returns and started from an average of their own 24, including a Cal kickoff that was pushed back 15 yards.
Field goals: well, both teams went 2-2 on a pair of long kicks . . . but Cal’s kicks game when it mattered
Multiple huge plays here to help swing a close game. Stanford’s punter has a HUGE leg, but he outkicked his coverage and Jeremiah Hunter earned it all back in returns, including a huge 22 yard return that set up Cal’s first touchdown.
Cal obviously badly needed both of Dario Longhetto’s field goals, including a career long.
Ashton Hayes had a great kickoff return that should have led to points but DID tilt field position in Cal’s favor in a way that mattered down the line.
And Cal’s coverage unit were all excellent, stoning a number of attempted Stanford returns.
Add it all up and Stanford started exactly ONE drive with better field position than their own 29 yard line, and that was after a turnover on downs rather than a special teams play. Cal’s average starting field position (with Scott’s interception removed) was the 29 yard line, and Stanford’s was the 21. For an offense as bad as Stanford’s, they really rely on good field position to make something happen. Cal’s special teams gave the defense a little bit of room for error.
lol David Shaw
10 utterly pointless injury-risking plays, only to kick a game ending made field goal. I hope nailing a 61 yarder convinces their kicker to go pro early.
Random non-football Big Game thoughts
I know I say this every year, but it’s important enough to repeat every Big Game: It remains a vital and joyful signpost of community, family, and friendship. For as much as we bemoan a lack of interest in Cal football for the rest of the season, the way the entire Cal community turns out for the Saturday before Thanksgiving warms my bitter heart.
Stanford’s fan showing was pathetic. They didn’t quite fill two full sections of Memorial Stadium, which I think would be roughly 2,500 people, and a meaningful chunk was the Stanford band. That plus random Stanford fans and I’d guess that Stanford maybe had ~4,000 in attendance? I don’t think the game was actually a sell out, but to the extent that it was close it was entirely Cal fans who made it happen. Our rivals have given up on the rivalry and it goes well beyond the fact that their team is bad, something that never stopped either fan base in the past and certainly didn’t stop Cal fans this year.
I don’t know when the Axe ‘face-off’ tradition got started, but is there some rule that every member of each school’s axe committee has to have a stony poker face? I mean, Stanford’s folks should be looking sad, what with the losing and all, but shouldn’t our folks have a smug grin on our faces? Is that unsportsmanlike?
Cal closed off the south tunnel (I assume to accommodate the Pac-12 network on field broadcast), meaning that fans could only leave the field via north tunnel, or go back up the stairs. This led to an annoying situation where fans trying to come down to the field via the stairs ran into fans trying to come back up the stairs, for reasons I cannot fathom. I guess we need more practice rushing the field, but remember Cal fans: go down the stairs, then out via a tunnel.
Next Friday, Cal will play a largely meaningless game against their 2nd biggest rivals, who are in the process of abandoning the West Coast. The UC regents meeting in December is probably more consequential than the football game, though UCLA is heavily favored to prevail in both. Regardless, a long and perhaps frustrating off-season is nearly here.
Beating Stanford was emotionally joyful and will tamp down on outright fan anger over the off-season but doesn’t change the basic reality of the program right now. This is still a team that failed to manage a winning conference record for the 13th straight season, and a head coach who failed to make a bowl game for the 3rd time in 5 full seasons.
I suspect that most Cal fans would prefer a change at head coach, and those who DON’T support a change at head coach do so more in fear of an athletic director hiring somebody worse. But because of an ill-advised contract extension from that same athletic director, Justin Wilcox will have a 3rd opportunity to hire an offensive coordinator.
Which means that Wilcox will have another opportunity to prove the haters wrong. There are many obstacles. To turn things around, Cal is going to need to hit the transfer portal hard at a number of key positions, turn around a 2023 recruiting class that is looking ROUGH, and convince everybody who is currently on the roster to stick around after a challenging season. The off-season to-do list is long, daunting, and difficult.
But at least we will enter that off-season with The Axe. There have been worse winters in Berkeley.
This was a game that was best experienced in person. Both offenses were bad and the football was often nearly unwatchable. But the stadium was packed, the energy high throughout, and we witnessed a wild play sure to be discussed in Big Game lore. It's up there with Mikey Mo picking off Luck in the end zone and, of course, the famous event that's now enshrined in statue form.
I was skeptical when they announced the game had sold out but the seats were occupied enough that I was standing on mine throughout. And it wasn't even due to the cool mini axe giveaway that most people didn't seem to know about. It's a reminder that there's interest in Cal Football if only we can cultivate it with better play and fan outreach.
Nick, I agree 100% with these sentiments: "It remains a vital and joyful signpost of community, family, and friendship. For as much as we bemoan a lack of interest in Cal football for the rest of the season, the way the entire Cal community turns out for the Saturday before Thanksgiving warms my bitter heart."