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Big Game, v. 115.10.20: A Q & A on the Cardinal with Rule of Tree

Week 8 of the season. Up next, the Stanford Cardinal in the 115th edition of the Big Game! Stanford comes in after falling on a controversial series of plays at the end of their game at Notre Dame; Cal comes in looking to build on their longest win streak of the season. To find out more about the Cardinal, we sent questions over Go Mighty Card and Rule of Tree, Stanford Cardinal fan sites. Thanks to both for their time and efforts; as always, Go Bears!

Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

1. Nunes. Is he any good or not? We can't tell.

Go Mighty Card: Wow -- it didn't take you long to get to the million dollar question. I think the best answer is that there are definitely some things that he's good at, and some that he's not so good at. In the first couple games it seemed like he was just plain nervous, as he missed some throws that my seventh grade daughter could have completed -- ten yard screen passes that only travelled five yards. But when he had to open up and make a deep throw, he was right on the money. Just as fans were starting to call for his head, he came up with that brilliant game against Arizona as he put up a stat line that would've looked next to Andrew Luck's name: 21 for 34 for 360 yards and two touchdowns, plus three rushing touchdowns. But just when we all thought he had turned the corner, he came up with a fairly mediocre game against Notre Dame last week. That's a long answer, but here it is in a nutshell: at this point, no one really knows what we're gonna see from him from one week to the next.

Rule Of Tree: You and me both. Just when I thought some sort of light went off and he figured out how to deliver the ball with some accuracy, he came back and stunk up the joint against Notre Dame. His receivers, if you can call them that, haven't helped matters with their drops, but he's missed a lot of wide-open throws. Nunes has displayed good decision-making for the most part and he's been surprisingly effective with his feet. He's also yet to lead Stanford a touchdown on the road. I haven't been in favor of making a QB change to this point, but if Nunes struggles badly against a decent Cal defense, I might be on board with seeing what Brett Nottingham or Kevin Hogan can do. Back-to-back games against Washington State and Colorado would help smooth the transition, but as one of our writers pointed out, midseason quarterback changes rarely turn out well.

2. How will the team respond to last week's loss?

Go Mighty Card: From a fan's point of view, last week's loss was the worst in memory, much worse than last year's Fiesta Bowl. There's nothing worse than battling for almost four hours, only to have the game stolen from you by the officials. (And make no mistake, that's definitely what happened.) It will be interesting to see how the players respond. Coach Shaw has always preached the importance of looking only at the next game on the schedule, or even the next play in front of you, so hopefully the players will focus on that and get past what happened at South Bend. As ridiculous as it is that we're playing Big Game in October, it just might be the best thing for this team. If they were playing Washington State or Colorado, I think there'd be a fairly decent chance that they come out flat. That won't happen against Cal.

Rule Of Tree: If the Cardinal imagines that Zach Maynard is the replay official who upheld the call on last week's gut-wrenching final play, Stanford should score enough defensive touchdowns to blowout the Bears no matter how Nunes plays. I think Stanford will play pissed off (for greatness!). Losing to Notre Dame sucked, but losing to Cal would suck more, especially this year, when it would effectively put an end to Stanford's hopes (however slim) of winning the Pac-12 North -- in October. (I can hear you laughing; must be a new feature of SB Nation United.) The coaching staff and players will say they've got to put last week's loss behind them, but they've gotta be angry, and I think they'll take some of that frustration out on Cal. Does playing angry improve one's accuracy or ability to catch the ball? We'll see.

3. What Stanford player on defense should Cal fans look out for?

Go Mighty Card: If you had asked me this question in August, there answer would either have been Chase Thomas or Shayne Skov, but I think the best and most consistent player on the defense has been outside linebacker Trent Murphy. He's been piling up tackles, but no player has lived up the defensive mantra (and Twitter hash tag) of #partyinthebackfield like Murphy. He's been wrecking havoc behind the line of scrimmage all season and unleashed some vicious hits on several different quarterbacks. Also, there was his impressive sixty-yard pick six that should've sealed the Washington game. He's been great.

Rule Of Tree: Ben Gardner. He's among the Cardinal's leaders in TFL (7) and sacks (4) and had the big hit on Everett Golson in the end zone that led to Stanford's only touchdown against Notre Dame. He's grown back the mullet that he rocked for most of last year. If Gardner has his way, Saturday will be business up front and party in the backfield.

4. What Stanford player on offense should Cal fans look out for?

Go Mighty Card: Here's another problem question. Two weeks, the answer would've been easy -- Levine Toilolo. Coming off a game with more than a hundred yards receiving and two separate forty-yard receptions against Arizona, it looked like he had finally broken out. But then he was shut out against Notre Dame. Hopefully he'll be back this week. But the player I'd really like for you to have to watch out for is sophomore running back Kelsey Young. He's probably the fastest player on the offense (wide receiver Ty Montgomery might be an eyelash faster), and fans had envisioned him being used like Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, but it hasn't happened. Right now he's good for two or three plays a game, but I wish he'd see the ball more.

Rule Of Tree: Levine Toilolo. The 6-foot-8 tight end didn't have a catch against Notre Dame, which can't happen again if the Cardinal offense is to improve this week. Toilolo's size has made him Nunes' go-to target on fade routes that have most often resulted in incompletions, and while it was refreshing to not see Stanford break that play out against Notre Dame, the Cardinal has to find other ways to get him the ball. He had three catches for 50 yards and a touchdown in last year's Big Game and is averaging 21 yards per catch this season. With Ty Montgomery likely out, Toilolo becomes an even more crucial part of the passing game.


5. How in the world does your defense shut down USC, then give up a billion yards and points to Arizona?

Go Mighty Card: Stanford has beaten USC four times in a row because we match up perfectly with them, both on offense and defense. I think we know exactly what the Trojans plan on doing offensively, so nothing comes as a surprise. In his post game presser, Coach Shaw explained that they wanted to force the Trojans to pass -- and this was back when everyone in the nation assumed Barkley would throw for 4,000 yards and waltz to the Heisman. We own USC, and I don't think anyone can dispute that. Arizona's spread offense, on the other hand, will always give us fits. Wildcat quarterback Matt Scott threw the ball a ridiculous 69 times, and Arizona ran more than a hundred total plays. Stanford struggles with fast-paced spread offenses, so this really wasn't much of a surprise. It should be noted, however, that the defense came up with two huge stops on Arizona's final two possessions to win the game.

Rule Of Tree: The Trojans attacked the Cardinal defense with mostly short and intermediate pass plays and Stanford was able to limit the big plays to Robert Woods and Marqise Lee with solid tackling. Matt Scott was able to stretch the defense by beating the Cardinal over the top on several plays. I think a bigger factor was the pace at which RichRod's offense played. The Wildcats ran 103 plays against Stanford, while USC ran 68.

6. What are the defense's weaknesses?

Go Mighty Card: I kind of covered this up above, but there are also concerns about the secondary. The front seven is phenomenal, but there's some youth and inexperience in the defensive backfield. The strategy on defense is to allow completions in front of the secondary and come up and make the tackles. The good news is that Wayne Lyons, Jordan Richards, Ed Reynolds, and Terrence Brown have shown themselves to be the best tackling Stanford secondary in quite some time, but there have been times when they've allowed receivers to get behind them, most notably against Arizona. If this unit plays well, the defense is pretty hard to beat.

Rule Of Tree: Stanford still struggles defensively against speedy, up-tempo offenses, as evidenced by the Arizona game. The Cardinal has three new starters in the secondary this season, and while that unit has played well for the most part, they're still prone to making mistakes. The front-seven has been solid, but Notre Dame found some success with the wheel route to a RB out of the backfield.

A scene from the 1964 Big Game

7. How have special teams been under Alamar this season?

Go Mighty Card: I talked to Coach Shaw about his interview process as he looked to hire a special teams coordinator. One of the key things he did was show each candidate a tape of Jordan Williamson's miss in the Fiesta Bowl. All the other guys said the same thing you or I would've said: "He hooked it." Pete Alamar actually analyzed the kick, explained what was going on mechanically that led to the hook, and detailed what he'd do to correct the problem. That wasn't the only reason he got the job, but it helped. That being said, Williamson hasn't exactly been automatic this year, but he's been good. (He hit a 48-yarder on a rainy, wet field at Notre Dame last week.) Kick returns have been strong, with Ty Montgomery on kicks and Drew Terrell on punts, and the punting game has been excellent.

Rule Of Tree: Jordan Williamson has struggled at times and had a short field goal attempt against Notre Dame blocked, but it's hard to put the blame on Alamar. The rest of the Cardinal's special teams have been quite good. Stanford leads the conference in punt return average and kickoff coverage. Drew Terrell returned a punt for a touchdown against Duke and has come close to breaking a couple of others.

8. How is year two of the Shaw era going? Miss Harbaugh at all?

Go Mighty Card: After last season's loss in the Fiesta Bowl -- and even after the Oregon loss earlier -- there were whispers that Harbaugh would've won those games. I think that was nonsense. But this year those whispers have grown in number and volume. There's a huge concern growing in the fan base, and I'd say Coach Shaw's approval rating is hovering at fifty percent or lower. (More than anything, I think that shows the increased level of expectations for the program.) People question his choice at quarterback, worry about the bland nature of the offense, and even criticize his interactions with the media. Like it or not, he's the coach for the foreseeable future. It would take a major scandal for him to lose this job. That's okay with me, though. I'm generally happy with the work he's done thus far, and I think he has the program set up for greatness in 2013 and '14.

Rule Of Tree: Year two of the David Shaw Era has featured some bumps in the road, but I think that's had more to do with the Andrew Luck Era ending than not having Harbaugh around. That said, Shaw's playcalling has been predictable at times. It often feels like Stanford's only two plays are a Stepfan Taylor run or pass to Zach Ertz. While Stanford could run the ball down opposing teams' throats last season even when they knew that's what the Cardinal wanted to do, that hasn't been the case this year. It's on Shaw to make the necessary adjustments when teams stack the box. It's on Shaw to make sure Nunes gets the play in time so he's not wasting timeouts or taking delay of game penalties. It's on Shaw to recruit some wide receivers to, you know, catch the ball. I still think the program is in good hands.

9. So, did Stepfan Taylor score against ND or what?

Go Mighty Card: I refuse to justify this question with a response. Everyone knows what happened.

Rule Of Tree: Do I want to punch Brian Kelly in the face?

The finishing touches of the 2002 Big Game

10. How does Stanford really feel about Cal?

Go Mighty Card: My sister went to Cal. My nephew went to Cal. If my children decide to go there one day, I'd let them. (As I'm sure you're aware, not everyone can get into Stanford.) I hope this doesn't turn my regular readers against me, but I don't have a tremendous amount of venom stored up against the Bears. In fact, I was rooting hard for you guys earlier this season against Ohio State. But during Big Game week it's different. No touchdowns hurt like Cal touchdowns, no cheers sting like the roar coming from your end of the stadium after a big play, and nothing -- NOTHING -- is sweet than winning Big Game and retaining the Axe. With Stanford enjoying so much success over the past four years, it's tempting to say there are some games on the schedule that are more important, but that simply wouldn't be true.

Rule Of Tree: We want to beat the crap out of you in sports. Otherwise, you're all right.

11. Who do you want to punch in the face?

Go Mighty Card: This is the easiest question of the bunch -- referee Shawn Hochuli, who oversaw the travesty last weekend in South Bend. Not only the Stepfan Taylor touchdown, but also the late hit penalty on Usua Amanam that helped Notre Dame along as they drove to tie the game in regulation. I'd like to punch him in the face at least five or six times.

Rule Of Tree: Larry Scott (Big Game in October, #IStillDontHaveMyPac12Networks), Brian Kelly and the replay official who upheld the call on Taylor's TD that wasn't.

What are your thoughts? How do you think we'll do this week? Post score predictions below!