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113th Big Game: California Golden Bears vs. Stanford Cardinal

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In-game threads (click on each quarter thread at the appropriate time)
First quarter thread | Second quarter thread | Third quarter thread | Fourth quarter thread

This is the pregame thread for Cal football discussion only. To talk about other games, check out the early games thread by scrolling down or clicking here.
The Golden Bears look to retain the Axe for the eighth time in nine years under Jeff Tedford. Although Cal wasn't expected to do much this season, a lot can be redeemed in the eyes of fans if Cal achieves a huge upset victory this Saturday. The Bears have generally dominated the Cardinal at home (winning by margins of 23, 35, 9 and 21), but this is arguably one of Cal's weakest units and unarguably Stanford's strongest.

And they will be facing a Cardinal foe that is itching for vengeance. Jim Harbaugh, who could be coaching his last Big Game, probably harbors bitterness about last season when he let Cal rack up 477 yards of offense and dominate time of possession en route to a 34-28 victory. Andrew Luck, who could playing his last Big Game, will want to erase the stain of 2009 (10 completions on 30 attempts plus the game-clinching interception to Mike Mohamed in the closing minutes) and stick it to the sturdy Golden Bears on their home field.

Game info

Time: 12:30 PM PT/3:30 PM ET
Weather: Temperature from 53 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit, 86% chance of rain with thunderstorms possible around 4 PM, winds of about 13 to 15 MPH from the SSW
Radio: KGO 810 AM (San Francisco), need All-Access to stream online, KESP 970 AM (Modesto), KGIL 1260 AM (Los Angeles), KPRZ 1210 AM (San Diego), KTKZ 1380 AM (Sacramento), KALX 90.7 FM (Cal Student radio, which has an online stream), Sirius XM Channels 218 (official Cal feed) and 194.
Gametracker: Click here
Streams: Post in the quarter threads

Unofficial injury report
Chris Owusu (questionable)
Cal: Kevin Riley, Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson, Dasarte Yarnway (out for season), Marc Anthony, Darian Hagan and Jeremy Ross (probable)

After the jump, a final look at the Big Game matchups.

While I'd love for Brock Mansion to break out and have a fine Big Game, I don't consider it likely. However, CalBear81 pointed out that there've been many times in Golden Bear history that a backup or unheralded quarterback has come in and outplayed a good QB or future NFL star donning the reds and whites...

1941 – Stanford’s QB is future 49er star Frankie Albert. Stanford is favored by 12. Cal holds Albert to 4 of 16, for 45 yards. Final score: California 16, Stanford 0.

1956 – Stanford’s QB is All-American, and future 49er star, John Brodie. Cal’s QB is a guy who was third string at the beginning of the season and only became the starter because of injuries to the first two guys. His name is Joe Kapp. Stanford is favored by 14. Final score: California 20, Stanford 18.

1970 – Stanford’s QB is Jim Plunkett, who will win the Heismann Trophy that year and later win two Super Bowls. Stanford is favored by 10.5. Final score: California 22, Stanford 14.

1980 – Stanford’s QB is future two-time Super Bowl winner John Elway. Cal’s QB is J Torchio, a walk-on back-up, playing because of a season-ending knee injury to the starter two games earlier. Stanford is favored by 15. Final score: California 28, Stanford 23.

1982 – Stanford’s QB is John Elway, about to become the #1 pick in the NFL draft. Stanford is favored by 6. Final score: California 25, Stanford 20.

1986 – Stanford’s QB is John Paye. Cal’s QB is Kevin Brown, starting his first game of the year because Troy Taylor’s jaw was broken by USC. The Cal offense had not scored a TD in a month. Stanford was favored by 21. Final score: California 17, Stanford 11.

2009 – Stanford’s QB is Andrew Luck. Stanford is favored by 7.5. Final score: California 34, Stanford 28

I imagine if he puts up J Torchio numbers, I think we'd all be plenty happy. Anything more and we should be ecstatic. If the Bears want to design good pass plays, they should consider moving the pocket to get guys in space or even unleash the trick book (like in the 2008 Big Game, remember the hook-and-ladder and the misdirection tight end touchdown pass?). While the Cardinal aren't the pushovers they were last year, it's amazing how plays like that can make or break a Big Game.

Cal hasn't really run too much misdirection with Mansion the past two weeks, which is surprising because he's pretty mobile and can move out of the pocket this week. It might be a good way to help him get yards. Mansion should be prepared to run with the ball and shorten the field for him. Riley was a decent but not-great scrambler--Mansion has shown he can pick up a bunch of yards if given the chance. He'll need to be ready to take off if the coverage drops back and gives him little to work with.

However, this is a game where we have to rely on Shane Vereen and Isi Sofele to carry us to victory. There aren't any foolproof ways I can see us pulling off the victory, but Cal's offensive line did look okay last week; they proved they could move the ball against Oregon and didn't get completely stuffed. But I think all of us (Golden Bears and Cardinal fans) expect the ball to be on the ground on the majority of plays. Oregon proved that if you could control the ball against the Cardinal defense (hell, even our defense on that final nine minute drive), you can wear them out and open the floodgates. The key just like in the 2009 Big Game is to hold onto the ball and keep the clock moving, especially in what's looking like inclement weather conditions.

If the game is designed around the run, expect more Wildcat. The Cardinal starters are pretty good, but there's a considerable dropoff beyond the starters, and there's no one really good on the bench. The Cal offensive linemen will probably try and go straight at the Furd front seven and see how many yards they can pick up with direct snaps. Also, some direct handoffs/reverses to Keenan Allen, Marvin Jones or Jeremy Ross could stretch the field if the run game is successful inside. But the battle has to be won in the trenches for Cal to move the ball.

The Cal defense will have to stuff the run game, which will be a tough task. Oregon St. and USC, the other two teams with pro-style offenses in the conference, completely dominated the Cal defense once they got the early lead by bouncing away from the contain. Without two reliable outside linebackers, you might need to see safeties like Josh Hill or Chris Conte come up and provide the run stuffing like they did last week. Cal must get the Cardinal in 3rd and long situations or otherwise they will leave themselves at the mercy of their play-action offense.

Again, the Cardinal running backs are not a might impressive bunch, but it's their blocking that's overwhelmed and taken out opposing defenses. Derrick Hill and Cameron Jordan must blow up their side of the field against guys like Chase Beeler, David DeCastro and Andrew Phillips and give breathing room for Mike Mohamed and D.J. Holt to make quick decisions. Owen Marecic is likely going to be a big factor in this one--Mohamed is probably going to be his main target to take out of this one, and #18 has to be ready to play Big Game hero again by evading Marecic's downfield blocks and playing the inside passing lanes.

The big bonus is that the Furd receivers are not on the same level as the Trojan receivers, so a mix of man and zone coverage might be more effective on Chris Owusu (if healthy), Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen. But the key seems to be Luck. If Luck decides to take off and run, will someone be spying him? Or will the Bears live with that risk and play hard to take away his passing ability? It's not likely we'll see many quarterback rushes considering how effective the Cardinal offensive line is in pass protection, so we could see a lot of what we saw last year--eight dropping back into coverage to blanket the field. Expect plenty of nickel and even dime packages to match up against the Cardinal receiving corps.

The big question is can the Cal defense replicate their efforts against Oregon? Do they have anything left in the tank to defend the Axe and adjust back to the smash mouth style of football that they've struggled with all season?

There are no clear answers as to how Cal will stop the Furd. But anything can happen in the Big Game.