A Big Game at noon against Cal in mid-October instead of a 12:30 game in late November? What’s going on?
This is the first year the new Pac-12 format and TV contracts caused the 100-plus-year traditional rivalry game to be played in October rather than November. That adjustment was unusual but not a problem for Stanford.
Stanford was delighted to be playing in short-sleeve weather and sunny skies rather than the cold and wet of South Bend like one week earlier. Played in Berkeley’s newly remodeled Memorial Stadium, there were enough red shirts in the stands to make it seem less hostile than the two previous away games at Notre Dame and Washington.
One of the questions was whether enough Stanford offense would show up for us to score our first offensive touchdown of the year at an away game. The answer was yes, but that was definitely not the storyline.
Let’s put the defense into context.
Stanford’s offense against Cal had a lot of penalties, turnovers and missed field goals, and our special teams' play was mediocre. We had opportunities to score a lot more points. The game was more one-sided than the 21-3 final score suggests. There were some offensive stars and notable achievements.
We’ll get to that in a few moments. It would be a mistake to talk about anything before talking about defense.
We’ve been talking all year about Stanford’s great defense. With the exception of the Arizona game, the defense has given us standout performances week after week. This one put all that talent on display front and center. It even got to the point where a number of fans wanted to see Cal get the ball rather than Stanford just to see what the defense would do. When was the last time you heard that?
At the final gun, the stats gave a bit of an indication of what had happened—475 total yards for Stanford, 217 for Cal. Of Cal’s total, passing yards were 214 and rushing yards just 3. Of the 214 passing yards, Cal’s late fourth-quarter drive was for 78 yards. That means it only had 134 passing yards the whole rest of the game.
Stanford had 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage for losses—11! Or how about this for a stat—Cal was 1-of-14 on third-down conversions (and 2-of-4 on fourth-down conversions). It was total domination by Stanford's defense.
An inside look at Cal’s lone scoring drive illustrates Stanford’s defensive might.
Stanford’s offense sputtered (again) late in the first quarter deep in our territory. We punted from our own 15. Cal got a 29-yard return on the punt, giving them 1st-and-10 on the Stanford 25-yard line. A couple pass plays later, it was 1st-and-goal at the Stanford 2. Time for a goal-line stand. Three rushing plays yielded nothing.
It went from 1st-and-goal at the 2, to 2nd-and-goal at the 3, then 3rd-and-goal at the 4, and finally, 4th-and-goal from the 4. Impressive. Finally, Cal’s field goal put the Bears on the board and closed Stanford’s lead to 7-3. But, that would turn out to be Cal’s only score for the day. Stanford’s defense came through again and again.
There has been mention of national-championship level defense on the field. Yes, we would agree. However, without a strong offense to complement the defense, Stanford already lost any chance for national championship consideration. The defense has been consistently strong but cannot win every game without more support from the offense.
Like always, the defensive front seven was terrific. The rest of the defense played well, too. We’re pretty much two-deep at every position, and lots of folks got playing time. Frequent player substitutions kept everyone fresh. It’s hard to pick out stars when the entire unit is so good. We’ll pick some anyway.
LB Shane Skov (No. 11) was in the middle of everything, like always. DE’s Ben Gardener (No. 49) and Henry Anderson (No. 91) were outstanding. Yet, the star among stars had to be Chase Thomas (No. 44). He was a one-man wrecking crew, leading the team with seven tackles; forcing one fumble and recovering another; and most importantly, confusing the Cal defense which could never figure him out.
He attacked from all different places and had four tackles for losses by himself. He caused trouble from the very first possession. His was clearly an All-American performance.
Cal has some big-time offensive players, including QB Zach Maynard (No. 15), WR Keenan Allen (No. 21) and TB Brendan Bigelow (No. 5). This was not their day. This was a day for Stanford’s D.
Did we mention that Stanford had some offense? Overall, it was nothing to write home about, but it did show up. There were some standout individual performances. Clearly, the offensive star was our beloved workhorse, RB Stepfan Taylor (No. 33).
We have been treated week after week, year after year, to outstanding performances from a guy who unquestionably will go down as one of the all-time greats in Stanford football history. On this day, he had a stellar performance. He rushed 28 times for 189 yards, the most ever in his illustrious career.
That was enough to put him ahead of Toby Gerhard as Stanford’s second all-time leading rusher and leaves him about 417 yards short of Darrin Nelson for No. 1. With five regular-season games left and a likely bowl game and an unlikely Pac-12 championship game on the horizon, there’s a good chance Taylor will even pass Nelson.
There’s more to Stepfan Taylor than that. Many people miss the fact that he’s a great blocker, giving his QB extra protection on blitzes and pass plays, and he’s a very good receiver (two catches on this day for 11 yards).
The best compliment came from Coach David Shaw in his post-game interview. After giving Taylor kudos, he said, "And he's the guy you would want your daughter to marry." Yes, Taylor is another quality Stanford personality behind the uniform of a great football player. He should have a productive pro football career next year and will make us all proud.
It was fitting that Taylor got Stanford’s first touchdown late in the first quarter on a fancy seven-yard run that he improvised. His planned route was blocked, so he juked two different players in the backfield and then scooted to his right into the end zone, giving us a 7-0 lead. Then, like always, he seemed to get stronger as the game went on.
It’s been a pleasure watching him play—pushing for extra yards after initial contact, picking holes that didn’t seem to be there, making defenses miss and always giving extra effort on the second or third try (and yes, he was in the end zone last week against Notre Dame on the last play of overtime).
There was more good news on offense.
Though the team’s offense sputtered all day long, we got another standout performance from TE Zack Ertz (No. 86). QB Josh Nunes (No. 6, 16-of-31 for 214 yards, with one interception) was not impressive but did manage several nice passes. Six of them were to Ertz, who gained 134 yards and had one TD. It was a fabulous day for Ertz. His biggest play came in the second quarter, right after Cal’s field goal.
It was a short pass that Ertz turned into 68-yard play before being run down deep in Cal territory. Ertz, like Taylor, contributed way beyond what you see on the stat sheet. His blocking on the left side often contained Cal and gave our running backs the opportunity to make big plays. Like Coby Fleener, last year, we expect Ertz to be a high draft pick in the spring and for his pro career to be a good one.
We were very pleased to see a second quarterback get some playing time.
Backup sophomore QB Kevin Hogan (No. 8) got into the game several times throughout the game. He was often in for just one or two plays but did get a reasonable number of reps. He took the snap two plays after the long Ertz reception.
While on the run to his right side, he threw a strike to 6’8” TE Levine Toilolo (No. 11) in the end zone, stretching our lead to 14-3. That was his first ever Stanford pass and only pass for the day. His final stats looked good: 1-of-1 for 9 yards and one TD—not bad.
Just a few minutes later, the Stanford defense handed the Stanford offense a huge gift. S Jordan Richards (No. 8) stripped a Cal receiver, and Stanford recovered the fumble on Cal’s 20-yard line. On the very next play, Nunes delivered a strike to a wide-open Zack Ertz on a slant pattern just as he crossed the goal line. It was a pretty play and stretched the lead to 21-3.
That came midway through the second period. What we didn’t know then is that there would be no more scoring the rest of the game. There was some movement up and down the field—more by Stanford than Cal—but the turnovers, missed field goals or stout defenses killed all the rest of the drives for the day.
Cal does not have a bad team, but they were overmatched on this day. Stanford’s offensive and defensive lines both had their way. Stanford had many chances to ice the game but failed repeatedly to do so. Despite that, the Stanford defense never gave Cal a chance to climb back in. It was near total domination and was a lot of fun for Stanford fans to watch.
This was Stanford’s third consecutive big-game victory, allowing us to keep the axe once again for another year.
There was another streak on display early in the third quarter. During a TV timeout, a young man decided to run onto the field in his birthday suit. We thought it was interesting that not many folks seemed to care very much. He got to run around quite a lot before eventually being escorted to the sideline by a policeman holding his arm in a very casual manner.
Given the boring performances by the offenses, this was an interesting turn of events. There did seem to be something unusual about this young man, but it is not our place to discuss his shortcomings. After all, this was just a little thing.
There are often interesting extracurricular events at Big Game. For this year, this was it.
The Road Ahead
At midseason, we continue to believe that Stanford is a good but not a great team. That’s what our No. 19 ranking suggests, too. Remember, we are close to greatness. One more completion of a dropped pass against Washington and a little more luck in overtime against Notre Dame and we could be 7-0. Instead, we’re 5-2. That’s not bad but also not great.
The loss last week was a non-conference loss, so we still have a slim chance for a Pac-12 championship or Rose Bowl. We’ll have to get past the two Oregon schools, however, and that’s a very tall order.
There are five regular-season games to go, two at home and two on the road. The first two seem winnable. Here’s the schedule:
- Oct. 27 Wash St. 3:15
- Nov. 3 at Colorado TBA
- Nov. 10 No. 7 Oregon St TBA
- Nov. 17 at No. 2 Oregon TBA
- Nov. 24 at UCLA TBA
Coach Shaw always says there are a lot of things to work on. Regarding defense, we think we’re in good shape. For offense and special teams, not so much. We are at midseason but are not at midseason form. Sure, we’ll take this week’s win. But to end the season strong, we’re going to have to use the soft schedule these next two weeks to make significant improvements on our program, such as:
- Better play by wide receivers (and it will help to get No. 88 Tyler Montgomery back next week)
- Better clock management, especially getting plays in on time to avoid delay-of-game penalties or using time outs to avoid such penalties
- Identification of secondary receivers by the QBs
- Field-goal kicking
Overall, we’re lucky to again have a high-quality football program at Stanford. We went many years where that was not the case. Now, we have the fifth-longest streak in the country for having our team ranked in the top 25 39 weeks and counting. Complain as we might, that’s pretty good. We are fortunate, and we have some more good weeks ahead