With Big Game Week coming to a close, it means the football season is coming to a close (unless it’s a particularly unusual October). But I know you guys are all thinking that Big Game Week isn’t quite complete without our enemy Q&A, so let’s get to it.
The California Golden Bears will look to lock up bowl eligibility and free the Axe against the Stanford Cardinal, but let’s first learn all about these Taco Bell–dwelling Trees. We managed to find not only one, but two whole Stanfurd fans! Let’s get into it with Charlie Foy of Rule of Tree and Hank Waddles of Go Mighty Card.
1. Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?
Rule of Tree (ROT): Obviously, you know about Bryce Love. He pretty much played on one ankle against Washington and still lit up the stat sheet. He’s a beast. Aside from him, the guy to look out for on offense is J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. He grabs about any ball that comes his way and finished with 130 yards against the Huskies. His height is difficult to defend, and Cal will need to shut him down, especially in the red zone, if they want to keep it close.
Go Mighty Card (GMC): Watch out for wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. Wide receiver is probably the only spot on the field that hasn’t seen a bonafide star during the David Shaw Era (Doug Baldwin was solid, but no one expected him to develop into an All-Pro in the NFL) and that’s probably equally due to the talent at the position and the nature of the playbook. Arcega-Whiteside, however, has developed into the focus of the offense, and his increased role has corresponded directly to the ascension of K.J. Costello. At 6’3” and 222 pounds he’s a big target, but he still has enough speed to be a downfield threat, especially with defenses cheating towards the line in response to Bryce Love’s presence in the backfield. The end zone fade to Arcega-Whiteside has become the primary red zone option for Shaw and he and Costello are proficient enough now that the result is typically either a touchdown or pass interference. He certainly won’t dominate the game, but he usually makes two or three big plays, which is enough to keep this offense humming.
2. Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?
ROT: Bobby Okereke. He’s coming off his best game ever and will try to keep that momentum going this weekend. Stanford has been lacking a dominant linebacker all season and Okereke filled that void against the Huskies.
GMC: Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips is an absolute lock for All-Pac-12—and probably one of the two or three leading candidates for defensive Player of the Year in the conference. Much was expected of Phillips, considering the early departure of Solomon Thomas and the lack of depth along the defensive line, and Phillips has delivered both in production and leadership. He’s one of the team captains and the clear emotional leader of the defense, a group that has improved tremendously over the course of the season.
3. Who's one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for the Cardinal?
ROT: Stanford will lose this game if QB K.J. Costello plays poorly. Costello needs to keep the defense honest—and he couldn’t do that versus Washington State. As a result, we lost. He bounced back however against Washington with a solid performance and the Cardinal offense looked really, really good. If Costello plays well, the Cardinal will be hard to beat.
GMC: I’m going to go with senior inside linebacker Bobby Okereke. David Shaw is fond of describing college football as a game best played by juniors and seniors—and Okereke is a prime example. Some observers were disappointed that he didn’t make much of an impact early in his career, but this season he’s suddenly become a tackling machine, often taking advantage of the Phillips double team in front of him to disrupt plays in the backfield. You’ll likely hear his name called an awful lot on Sunday night. If that’s the case, advantage Cardinal.
4. What do the Cardinal need to do to win the game?
ROT: At times, Stanford’s front seven has struggled to stop the run and put pressure on the quarterback. Until last game, defensive tackle Harrison Phillips was a one-man wrecking crew and finally, other guys stepped up. As a result, #PartyInTheBackfield was reborn. On the offensive side of the ball, Stanford needs to establish the run. When the run doesn't work, Stanford’s entire offense doesn’t work either. If Stanford controls the line of scrimmage, they won’t lose this game.
GMC: I don’t think the answer to this question will ever change as long as David Shaw is in charge. The Stanford offense begins and ends with the running game, so if Bryce Love can get going early—forcing the Cal defense to allocate more resources towards stopping the run and keeping the Cal offense on the sidelines—things will go well for the Cardinal and the Axe will stay where it belongs for another year.
5. What do the Bears need to do to win the game?
ROT: The game plan to beat Stanford is simple. First, stop the run. Second, continue to stop the run. Third, keep stopping the run. The Bears need to stack the box, dare Stanford to throw, and hope the pass doesn’t work. The passing game has been inconsistent for the Cardinal all season and they’ve lost two games simply because of poor quarterback play.
GMC: The Bears need to stone Bryce Love on 1st down. No offense likes to be in 2nd and long, but that’s especially true for Stanford. The passing game has certainly improved in recent weeks, but it’s a lot easier to ask a young quarterback to throw on 2nd and 4 than 2nd and 9. On offense, the Bears need to avoid turnovers. More than any Stanford defense in recent memory, this group has thrived on turnovers, thanks to a group of ballhawks in the secondary and some aggressive tacklers in the front seven. That combination has the Cardinal leading the conference in turnover margin at +11, far in front of Washington at +6 and three other teams at +4.
6. How do you see the game going?
ROT: I think Stanford wins 31–21, but never really puts Cal out of reach. It’s been a long time since the Bears took home the Axe, so I think they’ll be extremely motivated. Plus, the Bears also have the opportunity to knock Stanford out of contention for the North. Ultimately though, I think David Shaw and the Cardinal have finally found their identity—and the Bears won’t have an answer. They have their quarterback. They have a Heisman-deserving running back. And they have momentum.
GMC: I think Stanford is beginning to peak. If this were any team other than Cal, I’d be worried about a trap, as they’re coming off an emotional win over Washington last week and have Notre Dame coming to town next weekend. But this is Big Game, so everyone on both sidelines will be supremely focused. K.J. Costello is coming off the best game of his brief career—and I expect him to build on last week’s success. Bryce Love probably still isn’t 100% healthy, but he’s healthy enough. I think he’ll probably run for 180 yards or so and the Cardinal will win, 33–13.
7. Did you feel conflicted as a fan watching Ron Gould—who once coached Cal running backs to run all over you guys in the Tedford era—join your coaching staff?
ROT: It’s always great to convert a Bear into a Cardinal, so I’m more relieved than conflicted. At Cal, he turned players like Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best into stars and now, he’s doing the same on the Farm. I guess he just finally left the dark side...
GMC: Next question.
8. Under Gould's tutelage, Bryce Love is in the midst of a Heisman-level year. How much of this was expected? Do you even remember the name "Christian McCaffrey”?
ROT: We all knew he’d be good, but not this good. He’s pretty much been unreal and the name “Christian McCaffrey” seems like a distant dream. Still, Stanford does miss McCaffrey plenty, specifically as a return and pass threat. We haven’t any returns go all the way to the house this year and guys are constantly shifting around. McCaffrey was also deadly with the screen pass and we haven’t seen that play all year.
GMC: No one could have expected he’d be leading the nation in rushing and breaking records along the way, but it was certainly expected that he’d be great. He went over 100 yards in both of his starts last season and he showed flashes of brilliance while backing up McCaffrey, enough so that some of us began to say as long ago as the summer of 2016 that if it weren’t for McCaffrey, people would be seeing Love as the greatest running back in Stanford history. The surprise, of course, is that even after watching McCaffrey for three years, some of us still think Love is the greatest running back in Stanford history. (I’d say McCaffrey is the best player, but Love is the best back. I realize that’s a cop-out, but I’m sticking with that answer.) And if it makes you feel better (or worse?), Love has given Ron Gould a ton of credit for his success. Of course, it’s possible that he’s only saying that to be polite. He’s incredibly polite. He also rescues babies from burning buildings in his free time.
9. Once again, we all assumed David Shaw had lost his magic touch when the Cardinal lost to USC and San Diego State in consecutive weeks. The Cardinal have since won five of six and have the inside track to the Pac-12 title game. Why does this early-season ineptitude followed by late-season dominance keep happening every year?
ROT: I was so fliipin’ angry at David Shaw following the SD State lose. He was too stubborn to try Costello and he wouldn’t open up the playbook, but I wasn’t too surprised. The same thing happened two years before against Northwestern and Shaw sacrificed a playoff berth. I think this happens annually because Shaw is afraid of exposing our entire playbook to teams late in the year. Washington was caught off guard a couple times last week and I’m sure Shaw has a few more tricks up his sleeve for the Bears.
Side note: Stanford doesn’t have the inside track to the PAC-12 title game. They need to beat Cal and then hope that Washington State loses to Washington.
GMC: Like any successful program outside of Tuscaloosa, there are plenty of fans who are incredibly critical of David Shaw—and this is one of the primary criticisms. The answers we hear most often have to do with the size and complexity of the playbook and the development of the offensive line. This season, though, one of the biggest variables has been at quarterback. I don’t think the team was every going to be great with Keller Chryst at quarterback, but now that Costello has won the starting job, all things are possible. Well, most things are possible. The truth is that early-season losses have prevented at least two different Stanford teams—and maybe even this one, you could argue—from earning a spot in the College Football Playoffs. That might not be the case next year, however, as most of the offensive line, the starting quarterback, and maybe even Love, will all be returning. So you’ve got that to look forward to.
10. What has K.J. Costello done to seize the QB job—and is there any chance Keller Chryst sees the field against Cal?
ROT: I attended the Stanford vs UCLA game in September, and from that moment on, I knew Costello deserved to start. Stanford was losing and when he came in, his mojo fired up our team and they went on the score like seven straight times with him behind center. Still, Chryst remained the starter when he returned from an injury and from there, Chyrst pretty much lost the job. Costello didn’t earn it. Against Oregon State, Chryst was historically bad and Shaw finally realized that enough was enough. We haven’t seen Chryst since and bearing any injury, I doubt he plays against Cal.
GMC: Costello is the best of the three quarterbacks who were in competition for the job. In addition to having the best arm of the three, he’s also more mobile than the other two. He’s probably not as much of a threat as Andrew Luck was—or maybe even Kevin Hogan—but he’ll likely pick up a 1st down or two and he’s comfortable rolling out to throw. He’s the best option right now and he’s also got the most eligibility left, so it’s nice that Shaw finally made the switch. As for Chryst, I’m sure he’ll see the field if the outcome isn’t in doubt in the fourth quarter, but he won’t take any meaningful snaps. We will probably see the third quarterback, fifth-year senior Ryan Burns. Burns comes in exclusively to run the ball—and that’s probably best.
11. Whom do you most want to punch in the face?
ROT: PAC-12 refs. They call targeting penalties on everything. I understand the whole idea behind protecting the players, but the refs can’t tell the difference between a good tackle and a penalty. Let the kids play!
GMC: Not long ago I went with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and while he still deserves my fist for several reasons (incompetent officials, nonsensical scheduling, and the P12N-DirecTV impasse, to name a few), I should probably think of someone different. I’ll go with Washington State’s Mike Leach. I mean, have you looked at that face? It’s practically begging for a right hook. And when you consider that his team’s defeat of the Cardinal last month still stings today, he’s an easy choice.
Thanks to Charlie & Rule of Tree and Hank & Go Mighty Card for giving us some insight on Stanfurd heading into the 120th Big Game. Check out how we answered their questions on the Bears for Rule of Tree and Go Mighty Card and let’s all hope they’re both wrong about the victor.
How do you see the 120th Big Game going?
This poll is closed
Big Cal win because I’m a homer
Big Cal win objectively
Close Cal win
Close Stanfurd win
Big Stanfurd win