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113th Big Game Recap: Golden Bears Lose To Better Team

We used to have a guy like that. He was dreamier.
We used to have a guy like that. He was dreamier.

(To see the basketball recap, scroll down or click here.)

The Stanford Cardinal dominated the California Golden Bears, taking back the Axe with a final score of 48-14. By the time Andrew Luck flattened Sean Cattouse on a scramble that'll be replayed for ages down at the Farm, I pretty much resigned myself to the fact there would be no upset. The crowd, so energetic a week ago, was flat for most of the game. The secret of Big Game week is Cal crowds are full but rarely boisterous. It's filled with old types from alumni reunions dating back to the 30s and 40s who never make noise unless Cal is ahead or scores. Since the Bears didn't score, we could've played this game at the War Memorial Opera House and there'd have been more noise generated from the alumni. The only thing I heard for most of the game was "All Right Now", which is thankfully so forgettable that I've already forgotten what it sounds like. Props to the students and the Cal Band for staying until the end of a tough one. Wish I could say the same for the so-called Cal fans on the other side of the stadium.

There was one thing I didn't forget. I wasn't kidding when I said this 2010 Cardinal unit reminds us of our beloved 2004 Cal squad: They play smashmouth football in the trenches, dominating guys with a bruising power attack. They make enough plays with a skilled and significantly talented unit on defense to give the ball back to their bruising offense. They don't back down from their opponents and they rampage them until the job is done. They have a Heisman-contending quarterback who is almost a given to be playing on Sundays for the next ten to fifteen years. They have a savvy head coach who took advantage of the national recruiting base the Cardinal have to offer, and now after four years they're reaping the benefits.

Sometimes the perfect storm comes together, and today it didn't drop rain on our heads, but just the worst Big Game of the Jeff Tedford era. Our players didn't stop playing; they just got outplayed. This is the best Cardinal team of the past fifty to sixty years, and after the way they lost last season they were revved up to give it their best effort today. Stanford has a team that is Rose Bowl-deserving, whether they end up going or not (and as a Cal fan, it's my humble and partisan opinion that I could care less whether they go or not). They will likely sink back into the abyss when Luck and Jim Harbaugh both make their respective leaps, but for now let them enjoy the Axe on its brief one year lease to Palo Alto.

I'm not stressing too much about this game, because this one was lost early and lost quickly.  The Cardinal were clearly a bad matchup for us, If it wasn't the Big Game we'd be treating this one like USC 2005--we lost, but at least we knew we lost to someone better than us. Just like we've crushed on the Furd when they had crappy teams and we had great ones, we need to recognize that the tables can be turned and a Big Game like this was possible. I know it sucks because it's THEM, but divorce yourself from the name of the team and you'll see Cal would've had a lot of trouble winning this one. They're a better version of the Oregon State and USC teams that DISMANTLED US, and it would've been tough pulling this one out unless the elements aided us. Seriously, 90% chance of rain? More like 90% chance of thirty seconds of God tinkling on us.

As for Cal? They're a team that's going to need a lot of fixing this offseason, especially if they plan on reaching those heights anytime soon. If there's any silver lining, losing a Big Game by this margin will ensure the necessary changes will be made to steer this program back on the right track. Jeff Tedford has skirted the past two years with decent support from the fanbase, but it's probably eroding at an alarming rate after losing a Big Game like this. While I feel the criticism is probably extreme for this one game (they're the 6th ranked team in the country for a reason, and there's a reason we're 5-6), the blowouts are adding up. You can't keep on losing by four touchdowns or more and expect not to be called out for it. Hopefully these are the lowest of the lows, because if they get any lower the changes will sadly probably start at the top.

It's starting to sound like a broken record, but on offense it begins at the quarterback position. Brock Mansion was a total mess. He fumbled two snaps from his center Chris Guarnero--whether that was on Guarnero or Mansion is up for debate, but that can't happen twice on the first three plays (UPDATE: Tedford told Starkey after the game that Mansion delayed his count to clear the player in-motion, but the center didn't wait; fault seems to exist on both sides here). Stanford took advantage by recovering the second fumble and making it 3-0.

He did recover to drive the Bears into the red zone with throws to Jarrett Sparks and Keenan Allen. And then after missing Shane Vereen on a route to the outside, he tried to make a play to the end zone and threw it right into the hands of Richard Sherman; the Cardinal then drove for their first touchdown of the game. Maybe he thought Giorgio Tavecchio couldn't handle a 42 yard field goal into the wind, but you've got to at least make him try. Mansion threw another interception at midfield to Michael Thomas when he threw across his body (a huge no-no) that set up another Cardinal touchdown to make it 31-0. He doesn't commit those three turnovers...and it's still probably 31-0 because of our defensive issues, but whatever.

That wasn't all Mansion had trouble with. He fumbled the ball again on a scramble that Alex Lagemann recovered. He had several opportunities to scramble for first down yardage, but proceeded to throw the ball on the run (is Andy Ludwig coaching this tendency out of him?). He didn't recognize a blitz that killed one drive. He didn't realize that a receiver was lined up in the backfield for an illegal formation penalty on two occasions. And some of his throws he should've just aimed at the Tree, because he sure wasn't hitting any receivers with those plays.

I felt a little sad for him, because either the coaches don't trust him or he doesn't quite trust himself...or a little of both. Even guys like Kevin Riley or Nate Longshore had pretty good self-confidence for most of their Cal careers here and made pretty good decisions out of the box.  Mansion seems overwhelmed by the offense and can rarely get it going for more than a play or two. Mansion will hopefully get at least a few more games to improve upon his first three performances as Golden Bear starting quarterback, but it's not looking promising. He has all the looks of a quarterback who isn't well-prepared, or just can't handle the gameplan.

Quibble with Andy Ludwig's playcalling all you wish, but his biggest issue seems to be his inability to properly prepare his quarterbacks for gametime.  Mansion doesn't look prepared to throw anything but checkdowns or safety valves, and he never makes good decisions with the ball. Tedford should seriously reconsider taking back control of the quarterback coaching duties that he gave up in 2007 and let Ludwig handle the playcalling exclusively; for all his other foibles he is very good at getting the most out of his quarterbacks. At least when Tedford was in control, we had the semblance of a passing attack year-in, year-out. He certainly can't return Ludwig back to his current position without placing himself at serious risk.

(It figures that the best pass of the game was thrown by Allen on a Wildcat direct snap where he evaded three Cardinal defenders and threw a touchdown to Marvin Jones. The dude's got natural awareness of the field. I'd suggest starting him at quarterback if I wasn't afraid Ludwig would ruin everything about his game.)

Shane Vereen, last year's Big Game hero, managed only 63 rushing yards on 15 carries and 24 receiving yards on three catches. He was not a factor in this one and the Cal run game never got going. I would've liked to see Cal throw out the usual playbook and try running the ball right back at the Cardinal, but instead we stubbornly stayed true to the same old gameplan of run-pass balance even though Vereen and Keenan Allen proved they could pick up yards with their feet.

Steve Marshall's offensive line didn't give up any huge sacks or big defensive plays, but Chris Guarnero was off his game--he had a high snap or two, was involved in those two botched exchanges with Mansion, and false started to force Cal back into 2nd and 20 early on. Cal benched Guarnero for a series...but oddly also benched Brian Schwenke and Matt Summers-Gavin with Richard Fisher and Justin Cheadle, who promptly managed to spring Vereen for two net yards on three carries. There was a lot of mixing and matching for most of the game on the O-line, and other than giving up a blind side sack to Mansion (which Mansion should've read), they didn't play too badly. Which is a kind way of saying they played bad. Ludwig, Marshall, and wide receivers coach Kevin Daft all have to be seriously evaluated for the offensive woes. It's too bad Tedford is a classy guy because I'd just line them up on Tightwad Hill, shoot them out of the cannon, and onto the next freighter bound for somewhere far away, like Fiji.

As for the defense? I emphasized over and over that Cal would not match up with the Furd as well as they did with the Ducks. Those big bruisers weren't going to let the three defensive linemen, even those of Cameron Jordan and Derrick Hill's caliber disrupt them. When the Cardinal proved they could run the ball and get into manageable second and third down situations, they went to the play-action game. Jordan and Hill were barely mentioned in the game as the Cardinal linemen focused their efforts on shutting them down.

Cal didn't have Marc Anthony or Darian Hagan available after the Oregon game (you know, thanks to those illegal picks that Ducks fans keep on claiming aren't dirty plays), which put us at a disadvantage from the start. This forced Bryant Nnabuife and Steve Williams into corner coverage with Josh Hill moving into the nickel back slot while Sean Cattouse slid over to starting safety. The result was a disaster. Luck picked on Nnabuife and Hill relentlessly (at least once or twice on scores) and did a little bit of work on Cattouse; the Cal secondary got penalized for pass interference twice, setting up two scores and a big early lead for the Cardinal. Safeties were trying to play man coverage on Cardinal wide receivers, and Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen and Zach Ertz all got their chances to feast on the mismatches thanks to perfect throws by Luck.

Sorry, but despite what you saw last week, Cal's defense isn't a deep squad--they maximized their abilities against Oregon and quickly caved in once the Cardinal punched them in the mouth early. The dropoff from the starters to the backups at this stage of the season is precipitous. It showed as Luck found the mismatches and exploited them expertly. He attacked the short flats with screens when Cal played to stop the run. He stepped up into the pocket when pressure came and delivered his throws. When the coverage was blanketed, Luck took off for that epic gain. Whenever the defense made a play to slow down the Cardinal attack, Luck had an answer.

Going to the 3-4 might be a long-term viable recruiting strategy, but in the short-term the results have been deadly. Cal has been weak at linebacker the past two years and strong down the defensive line, and I feel this defense could have been a lot more consistent this season with a four defensive linemen look. D.J. Holt and Mike Mohamed have to keep on playing snap after snap after snap with no legitimate backups behind them. Should it be a surprise they get fatigued when the offense they're playing starts rolling? There's a good chance our recruiting classes over the next few seasons will ensure we're never in this type of situation again, but we've had to ride through some rough patches in waiting for a justification of this defensive alignment. We might not get our answer for a few more years...

On special teams, Bryan Anger's punts were beautiful, which could mean his Heisman campaign is back on track.  Allen was a decent kick returner, although I'll probably be happier when the young burners like Tevin Carter and Kaelin Clay can claim those spots rather than risking a clear future #1 receiving option like Allen.

Football might be about passion and energy and enthusiasm and all that other stuff, but sometimes it comes down to matchups and personnel; in both cases the Cardinal have the advantage thanks to their national recruiting base, a skillful coach in Harbaugh, and one of the best college quarterbacks of the decade in Luck. And in the 113th Big Game, it was a colossal mismatch of a physical offensive front meeting a not-so-deep defensive unit, and a disciplined defense meeting a lost quarterback. It should be clear that we matched up poorly against this team though (for those wondering why the Furd is a worse matchup than Oregon, the Ducks are small and athletic, our defense is small and athlete, but the Furd's offense is bruising), and it was very unlikely we were coming out of this one with the W.  So let's just recognize that the other team was better (as it turns out, by a wide margin) and move onto the next opponent. And get ready to take the Axe back next year.