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Post-Game Thoughts: 126th Big Game Cal v. Stanford Cardinal Football
Cal controls Stanford throughout
Photo credit: Rob Hwang
In this modern era of college football, many fans understandably bemoan the loss of tradition. Aside from the whole ‘death of the Pac-12’ thing hanging over this entire season, many have found that they struggle to feel a connection to players who come and go through the transfer portal so quickly.
But I was struck by something about this version of the Big Game. In pressers prior to the game, Fernando Mendoza talked about how connecting with the fans at the Bonfire Rally is his favorite tradition. Lu-Magia Hearns talked about how the fans storming the field is his favorite tradition.
And as the clock ticked towards zero in the 4th quarter, much of the Cal bench sprinted towards the fans who had been gathering around the rim of Stanford stadium for much of the 4th quarter, as the Cal student section slowly migrated from the upper deck to the lower deck that Stanford fans had vacated in shame.
And as the field storming party raged on, the Cal players stuck around for a long time, celebrating, taking pictures, chasing the axe, searching for friends in the crowd. After the game, Barrett Miller and Craig Woodson talked about how much it meant to them that Cal fans always take over Stanford Stadium, and the love they feel from Cal fans after a Big Game win.
I hope you feel a connection to this team, these players. A connection to Jaydn Ott’s brash confidence, to Barrett Miller’s gratefulness to be on the right side of the Bay, to Fernando Mendoza’s endless enthusiasm. Because these guys sure seem to feel a connection to us.
10 drives: 4 touchdowns, 4 punts, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 downs), 2.7 points/drive
Removed: the final drives of each half; the first because Cal didn’t have the time/field position to realistically score, the 2nd because Cal intentionally DIDN’T score.
MegaTrond won the matchup of the game
In my PFF preview, I noted that Stanford didn’t have a capable slot cornerback. Well, Cal probably noticed the same thing, because they put Trond in the slot and threw to him all game long, and he roasted Stanford’s slot defenders throughout. 31 snaps in the slot, leading to 7 catches on 9 targets for 136 yards and two touchdowns. If I had to pick just one guy for game MVP/eternal Big Game hero, he’d be my pick . . . but why should we limit ourselves to just one Big Game hero?
The biggest play of the game just might be a preview of Cal’s future on offense
It’s 4th and 7 from the Stanford 31, early in the 4th quarter. Stanford has just kicked a field goal to climb within 6, and Cal fans are disturbed that on-field dominance hasn’t translated to the scoreboard. Cal has driven 44 yards but they have a tough conversion, and failure will give Stanford life.
Cal has Trond run a skinny post from the slot. Stanford’s slot corner anticipates that Trond will run some kind of route that lands around the distance to gain, and is flat-footed with Trond goes right past him down the field. Fernando stands calmly in the pocket and hits Trond for the first down.
Is this play remarkable? For some teams, maybe not. But for Cal, in a critical moment, to trust that a) their line will hold in protection for a downfield throw and b) their QB will make that downfield throw and then c) they do exactly that . . . that kind of trust and confidence and then actual execution has been rare during the Wilcox era.
The next step will be executing plays like that more consistently, and against better defenses than Stanford’s defense. But an offense that can do things like that while also having Jaydn Ott in the backfield? That’s a dangerous offense.
A Big Game master class performance
If Trond is Big Game hero #1, then Fernando Mendoza and Jaydn Ott are not far behind. Ott didn’t quite reach the lofty heights of Shane Vereen’s 42 carry, 193 yard herculean effort from 2009, but 36 carries is still massive. Meanwhile, Mendoza absorbed a number of cheap shots and overcame his own head scratching interception to make every play in the 2nd half to earn the win.
A Big Game disaster class performance
Has a player ever committed three penalties, all of which came from illegal hits against the same player three times? Stanford partisans might try to find reason to quibble with all three calls, but Tristan Sinclair will nevertheless go down in Big Game memory as the guy who got called for three 15 yard penalties, got ejected, and then watched the guy he tried so hard to hit lead Cal to victory.
11 drives: 1 touchdown, 3 FGA (3-3) , 6 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 1.4 points/drive
My god was it a slog for Stanford to score. Six drives were functionally three-and-outs. One field goal drive required three 3rd down conversions and only covered 27 yards. Stanford managed one actually good drive of football in the entire game.
One deep shot, one freak play, and a whole bunch of QB draws
Stanford got one touchdown on a play where Tiger Bachmeier got a small step on Craig Woodson and Ashton Daniels made an inch perfect throw. Unfortunate, but you tip your cap.
Stanford got a field goal when Daniels threw up a prayer in the general direction of tight end Sam Roush, who barely managed to get a foot in. Weird play, whatever.
That was pretty much it for offensive success for Stanford, other than QB draw after QB draw (non-Daniels Stanford rushes: 12 for 34 yards). As the game went along Cal got better and better at anticipating and snuffing those designed QB runs out, and Stanford’s offense died.
Nohl Williams won the other matchup of the game
Williams didn’t spend the ENTIRE game facing Elic Ayomanor, but he had the assignment for the majority of the game. Ayomanor was targeted 5 times when Williams was guarding him, and managed just two catches for 15 yards against Cal’s best cover corner. Ayomanor did manage one long gain when lined up in the slot, but if you can limit your opponent’s best weapon to three touches and 43 yards you’re walking away thrilled.
For a brief second I pondered that the difference would be field goal kicking
Stanford attempted long field goals on 4th and 20, 4th and 6, and 4th and 4. I suspect that if Stanford had a competent offense, Troy Taylor would have elected to go for it on those plays, but they don’t and Josh Karty has the leg to make those kicks.
Cal, conversely, attempted five 4th down conversions, four of which came in plausible field goal range for some kickers. But I am reminded of my personal football maxim:
In a game where both teams had four scoring drives, one team won decisively. Cal scored touchdowns, Stanford scored field goals, Cal has the axe.
An expected but welcome coaching win
Look, bad teams aren’t hard to exploit, but you still have to get your team ready to execute. Cal’s coaches identified the weak points on Stanford’s defense and exploited them. Cal’s coaches identified the strong points on Stanford’s offense and shut them down. Cal’s coaches had their team emotionally ready to give a strong effort without losing their cool and committing a bunch of personal fouls. And Justin Wilcox made the right calls to be aggressive on 4th down, and didn’t let one early conversion failure curb that enthusiasm.
I think the refs made one clear error
I spent some time trying to slog through the NCAA football rule book regarding kick-catch interference. Here’s the rule, highlight mine:
Just for funsies, I looked up the definition of ‘muff’ just to be sure I’m not missing anything. “To muff the ball is to touch the ball in an unsuccessful attempt to catch or recover it.”
If I am reading the rule correctly, unimpeded opportunity protection ends when any player muffs the kick, which is exactly what Stanford’s punt returner did. The ‘protection ends when the kick touches the ground’ clause is invalidated when the receiver muffs it.
I think this was such an unusual play that the refs didn’t know how to interpret an obscure portion of the rule book. Which is unsurprising but still frustrating.
Stanford certainly has an ethos
Stanford invited the mascots of the San Jose Sharks and San Jose Earthquakes to the game. This makes sense; the Sharks have existed since 1991 without a title, have gone 4 straight years without a playoff appearance, and are currently the worst team in the NHL. Meanwhile, in the 16 years since being reformed under the ownership of John Fisher, the Earthquakes have made the playoffs just five times and have advanced a round once.
It also makes sense that each of these mascots along with the tree were absolutely smoked by Oski in the 25 yard dash, because winners win:
Saturday was a cathartic day in many ways. I don’t know what the future will bring. Cal football is on uncertain ground. Who knows how life in the ACC will be? Who knows what conference Cal will be in five years from now? Who knows how much Stanford fans will care about the Big Game?
But I think we can rest assured that some things will never change. Cal fans will show up for the Big Game, we will throw an epic party, and we will bring all of the energy that this game needs, regardless of what Stanford is doing.
Now, this team has the chance to do a few things all at once. If the Bears can walk into the Rose Bowl next Saturday and pull the upset, that will mean the following:
A three game winning streak to end the season to go 6-6 and make a bowl game, an outcome I considered unlikely before the season began and considered even less likely when Cal lost to Auburn at the same time that it became clear that the Pac-12 was going to be brutally difficult.
End the UCLA series for a long time with a win that would put Cal ahead of UCLA in the Pac-12 standings and grant eternal bragging rights over the institution that played a huge part in destroying West Coast football.
Launch Cal into the ACC era with momentum and hype (at least, relative to the usual amount of hype Cal fans feel about Cal football).
It’s a pretty big swing game. It’s a shame that close losses to Auburn and USC mean that the Bears have to gut out another win on the road to get to a bowl, and UCLA is riding in with a healthy Ethan Garbers and a dangerous defense. It’s a tall task.
But the Bears have a chance, and that’s more than many of us expected earlier in the year.
Make it happen Bears, and this season will somehow go down as one of the most special 6-6 seasons in program history. Man, college football is weird.