Four seconds left. Five lateral passes. Multiple missed tackles. The Stanford band storms the field halfway through the kickoff return. Cal running back Kevin Moen bursts through a sea of red, pummeling a Stanford trombone player as he somehow reaches the end zone.
It’s been thirty years since “The Play,” the iconic, miraculous kickoff return touchdown that gave Cal an improbable, controversial 25-20 victory over Stanford. Three decades might be a long time, but it’s a play that not many Stanford or Cal fans can forget.
Just ask head coach David Shaw.
“I was young and I remember being in disbelief,” said Shaw. “It happens on the schoolyard, it doesn’t happen in a major college football game. So many plays have happened since then that are similar, but none are in the category of that play. It’s iconic for college football.”
On the heels of its own controversial loss to Notre Dame, No. 20 Stanford (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) squares off against cross-Bay rival Cal (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) tomorrow at the newly renovated California Memorial Stadium for the 115th edition of the Big Game.
“We can’t really sit here and think about Notre Dame anymore,” nickleback Usua Amanam said on Monday. “We lost. The game is over. Move on to Cal.”
After losing eight out of the nine games played between 2002 and 2009, the Cardinal has defeated the Golden Bears in their past two meetings and currently leads the series 57-46-11. But the Stanford players know better than to underestimate their rival, considering that even with Andrew Luck at the helm last season, they only managed to squeak a three-point win over the testy Bears.
Players and coaches on both sides have commented on this year’s unusually early scheduling of Big Game Week, which is traditionally in late November. In fact, tomorrow’s game marks the earliest date that the two teams have met in the history of the rivalry series.
“I don’t like it,” said Shaw. “I think it’s weird…But it doesn’t matter when it is or where it is. We’ll be up for it.”
The Cardinal defense will face a mobile quarterback for the fourth straight week in Zach Maynard. Through seven games, the redshirt senior has amassed 1,537 yards through the air and completed over 61 percent of his passes. Despite tossing for ten touchdowns, his seven interceptions on the season indicate that consistency has been an issue.
Already having seen scramble-happy quarterbacks in the likes of Keith Price and Everett Golson, the defense feels more confident in figuring out how to contain Maynard. Stanford’s front seven looks to exploit a shaky Cal offensive line that has given up 29 sacks, which is worst in the conference.
“It definitely helps that we’ve faced some fast guys,” said captain inside linebacker Chase Thomas. “It’s definitely good preparation for what we’ll see from Cal’s quarterback.”
The Bears’ top threat at running back is senior C.J. Anderson, a Vallejo native who, despite accounting for just 71 rushing yards per game, has been quietly efficient by ripping off seven yards every touch. One of the most important matchups this Saturday pits Cal’s steady running attack, ranked third in the Pac-12, against Stanford’s stingy run defense, ranked behind only Oregon State in the conference.
The Stanford secondary also faces the challenging task of keeping Keenan Allen, Maynard’s brother, in check. The most explosive player on Cal’s offense, the junior receiver is widely considered to be one of the best in the country and averages over 90 reception yards per game.
“[Allen] can get to speed quickly, he runs strong, he runs great routes and he can catch the ball in traffic,” said Shaw.
After failing to find the end zone for the second consecutive road game, Stanford’s offense hopes to bounce back from its sluggish performance against Notre Dame last week.
Senior halfback Stepfan Taylor grounded out 102 yards against one of the best run defenses in the country last Saturday and came up inches short of sending the game into double overtime. Having already gone over the 100-yard rushing mark four times this season, Taylor needs only 95 more yards to surpass current NFL running back Toby Gerhart for second on the all-time Stanford career rushing list.
While quarterback Josh Nunes isn’t pursuing any records, the redshirt junior is still in search of his first road victory after an inefficient outing against the Irish that included two first-quarter interceptions. Nunes is currently in the bottom three of the conference in terms of passing efficiency and his subpar completion percentage stands at 53 percent.
“We still hold [Nunes] accountable on what we expect, like a high completion percentage,” said Shaw. “For the throws that we believe he can make, he’s got to make then…It goes back to footwork, being balanced. That’s what young quarterbacks need to work on a lot.”
But not all of the blame is on Nunes. Against the Irish, critical blocks were missed and third-down-converting passes were dropped.
“We have to play better, not just [Nunes],” said Shaw. “We haven’t played well
on offense on the road. We can play much better and we’re going to need to play much better.”
Under the guidance of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, Cal’s defense has learned to disguise its looks and confuse opponents with various schemes. The Bears will have anywhere between two-five linemen on a given play and mix blitz packages with nickel and dime coverage.
“[Cal’s defense] is very unique,” said Shaw. “It reminds me of stuff you see every week in the NFL.”
Despite dropping two of its last four games, the Cardinal has reasons to be optimistic midway through the regular season. A 4-2 record is by no means disappointing considering that Stanford has faced four teams that were ranked in the top 25 at some point this year — Cal is Stanford’s first opponent who comes into the game with a losing record. Though Oregon and Oregon State remain perfect in Pac-12 play, the Cardinal is still very much alive in the race for the Pac-12 North title.
“It’s a good place for us right now,” said Shaw. “I’m pleased with a lot of things I’ve seen so far from our team. We’re still in the conference race and we’ve got a chance to finish the year strong.”
Stanford and Cal battle for the Axe in the 115th Big Game tomorrow. Kickoff is slated for 12 p.m., with television coverage on FOX.