Sometimes, it’s best to just move on.
After falling flat on the national stage last weekend, the Cardinal looks to regain its feet against Cal, which is riding a two-game win streak and looking to spoil the Cardinal’s BCS hopes in its last Pac-12 game of the year.
If the No. 9 Cardinal (9-1, 7-1 Pac-12) hopes to avoid being upset by the suddenly streaking Bears (6-4, 3-4), it will need to improve on, well, everything from last week.
The Cardinal had a season-high five turnovers, gave up a season-high five sacks and 53 points, scored a season-low 30 points and had a season-low 129 rushing yards.
“We really didn’t come up with much good things about that game,” redshirt freshman linebacker A.J. Tarpley deadpanned, but he said that the tough loss hadn’t sent the Cardinal fully back to the drawing board.
“I wouldn’t say it’s like a reset for our season, I kind of feel like we reset our mentality every week,” he said. “It’s the same when we try not to hang on the highs of the wins too long. The USC game, for example, we kind of reset. Yeah, it’s a great win, we got to enjoy it, but Sunday and Monday you’re preparing for the next game, preparing for Oregon State.”
But if Stanford wants to bounce back in emphatic fashion and take back-to-back games from the Bears for the first time in a decade, it might have to fight out a defensive struggle for the first time all season.
Led by seniors Mychal Kendricks (75 tackles), D.J. Holt (71 tackles) and Sean Cattouse (54 tackles), the Cal defense is ranked first in the Pac-12 in total defense, giving up only 319.1 yards per game–the only team with a better defensive mark than the Cardinal in the conference.
That said, the two defenses don’t exactly do things the same way. Cal holds passers to less than 200 yards a game through the air while Stanford keeps opponents under 95 yards rushing per game. Additionally, Cal has held its last two opponents to a combined 13 points, while Stanford gave up 53 last Saturday.
Even though the Cardinal defenders weren’t so impressive last weekend against the Ducks, defensive coordinator Derek Mason said that Stanford won’t change its stripes after one poor performance.
“We don’t second guess, we don’t micromanage, we just say that we learned a lot from this football game, let’s make sure we can correct the issues that need to be corrected, and let’s adjust it, because that’s last week,” he said.
If Stanford hopes to crack the Cal defense, it will likely lean heavily on the run game in order to take advantage of the weaker aspect of the Bear defense and try to establish some rhythm for quarterback Andrew Luck.
Junior running back Stepfan Taylor tallied 87 yards in the first half before the Cardinal was forced to abandon the running game, while Luck accounted for three costly turnovers last weekend due to a hawking Oregon defense that challenged the Stanford offensive line on every down.
Senior guard David DeCastro said that Luck’s protectors had to improve before the ball was snapped this week if they wanted to keep their superstar’s jersey clean.
“I think just communicating; that’s key to offensive line play, always being on the same page. When that doesn’t happen, Andrew’s getting hit,” he said.
When Luck does turn to the air, he will likely be looking to find senior receiver Griff Whalen, who has quietly become the passer’s favorite target over the last month. Whalen now leads the team with 45 catches for 641 yards and four touchdowns, with 36 of those catches and 540 yards coming in the last six games. Whalen’s sudden rise to the ace of the receiving corps has been particularly important, as senior receiver Chris Owusu and junior tight end Zach Ertz are both once again unlikely to play this Saturday.
The Bear offense will counter by looking to sophomore wide receiver Keenan Allen, who rivals USC wide receiver Robert Woods for the top spot in every receiving category in the Pac-12. Allen is second in receptions per game in the conference and third in receiving yards per game, as well as 10th in all-purpose yards.
The North Carolina native has 1,103 yards receiving and five touchdowns on the year, although he has been particularly quiet lately–Allen has failed to go over the 100-yard mark in his last four games.
“We know we’ve got to stop him in order to stop their offense,” Tarpley said of Allen’s importance to the Bear attack.
Of course, any matchup between Stanford and Cal includes an element of the unpredictable–one of the country’s oldest rivalries has certainly seen its share of unusual upsets and wild finishes over the past 114 years.
The Bears have been the superior competitors in the last decade’s Big Games, going 7-2 since 2002, including a 1-1 record against Luck. In his two starts against the Bears, Luck tossed a crushing last-minute interception to fall 34-28 at home in 2009, then got his revenge with a 48-14 thrashing in Berkeley that included a highlight-reel, 58-yard run in which Luck trucked over Cattouse in the open field.
Even though Oregon and USC eclipse Cal in terms of national prominence this season, the Stanford players say the Trojans and Ducks haven’t pushed the Bears to the back-burner of conference rivals.
“I would see how people would say that, but I don’t think it has been at all, there’s still just that extra excitement, that juice for the Big Game, you know, you walk on the campus and you see ‘Beat Cal’ hanging from the library,” Tarpley said. “Obviously people might not think of them as highly as USC or Oregon, but they’re coming in here excited and playing their best ball, and we’re going to need to do the same thing if we’re going to come out here and get the win.”
Stanford and Cal will rekindle the rivalry tomorrow night at 7:15 p.m. in the 114th edition of the Big Game. Television coverage will be on ESPN.