Stanford did just enough to leave Berkeley with a win and The Axe. Meanwhile, Washington has looked like the class of the Pac-12 North. On Saturday, the Cardinal and the Huskies will meet in Seattle. The Daily’s Ells Boone, Jeremy Rubin, Sofia Scekic and Jibriel Taha discuss Big Game, the running game and winning on the road.
Stanford took offense to Cal’s decision to put up “our axe” and reveled in the ability to take postgame photos in front of the sideline, holding The Stanford Axe. Looking back on Big Game, what was your favorite moment?
Jibriel Taha (JT): For me, it’s the blocked extra point with 58 seconds left on the clock. Twice the Cardinal found themselves in Cal territory leading by seven points in the fourth quarter, and both times they couldn’t manage any points to make it a two-possession game. That made conceding what appeared to be the game-tying touchdown even more frustrating than it inherently is. The blocked field goal to close out the half was in the back of my mind, but I didn’t seriously think that it would happen again. And yet, when overtime seemed imminent, junior defensive end Thomas Booker extended his arm and got a piece of the ball, sending the Cardinal sideline (and fanbase) into a frenzy.
Jeremy Rubin (JR): I have to go with those penalties that Stanford incurred right after the block Jibriel mentioned. Hear me out. Despite what has admittedly been one of the toughest stretches for Stanford football in recent memory, those final few seconds showed that the team clearly hasn’t let the losses get to them. They fought for all 60 minutes that game and, for me, the pure excitement following the blocked extra point was a great sight to see. It was going to take a complete team effort to beat Cal, and that’s exactly what happened with contributions across the board on both sides of the ball. The victory was a testament to the determination and fight of a team whose last win came more than a year ago. So although of course you never want to see your team get penalized, their celebration was well-deserved and long overdue. The post-game celebrations in front of Cal’s “our axe” were just icing on the cake.
Sofia Scekic (SS): My favorite moment was also the blocked extra point following Cal’s final touchdown, but I’ll shout out the special team unit’s overall performance as my favorite part of the 123rd Big Game. A shaky day on both offense and defense led to special teams being thrust into the spotlight, and they delivered with a forced fumble on a Cal punt return late in the second quarter, a blocked field goal to end the first half and the blocked extra point to seal the win. I had a feeling Cal wouldn’t struggle to move the ball down the field on their final drive like they had for the vast majority of the game, and of course the Stanford defense broke at the most inopportune time to give up a touchdown with less than a minute left on the clock. The special teams unit, specifically Booker, once again saved the day with a timely block that brought The Axe back to its rightful home.
Ells Boone (EB): While it may seem like a cop-out answer, my favorite Big Game moment was the immediate postgame celebration. It was great for the Cardinal to finally break their losing streak and get that monkey off of their back. Coach Shaw was visibly pleased to have The Axe back and the players made a mad dash for the trophy itself. As soon as the clock hit zero, the Axe Committee members whisked The Axe down a tunnel, only for it re-appear, being carried by Stanford players. It was a sign that Stanford was back to its winning ways — something that all fans of the Cardinal are happy to see.
While the running game as a whole has not been a strength, Stanford likes what it has seen out of sophomore running backs Austin Jones and Nathaniel Peat. Jones has been the lead carrier, but head coach David Shaw ’95 said on Saturday the team expects Peat to compete to start. As of now, has Peat done enough to earn more touches?
JT: Yes, but Austin Jones has done enough to keep the starting job. As Shaw said in his postgame press conference, “We believe that Nathaniel’s got the ability to be a starter. We’re gonna continue to roll him through. He does a great job of keeping Austin fresh… We’ll continue to work him in there.” Both running backs have looked great this season, being elusive in space and fighting for extra yards when they go to the ground. Having two promising running backs is a wonderful problem to have, and Jones and Peat will lead the way for a Cardinal backfield that should be very good for years to come.
JR: I agree with Jibriel with this one — Peat has done more than enough, but I don’t think his additional touches should come at the expense of Jones’. Both sophomores have shown they’re capable running backs and will hopefully continue to be center pieces for the offense for the rest of this season and beyond. Jones has scored five touchdowns in the team’s first three games, while Peat is averaging an astronomical (albeit unsustainable) 8.1 yards per carry. In Shaw’s run-heavy offense, the duo can balance each other out and keep defenses honest.
SS: Peat has done enough to earn more touches, but it’s still Jones’ backfield. While Peat has a higher yards per carry average than Jones (on 33 fewer touches), the latter’s 3.9 YPC is not worth losing touches over and is still respectable enough to take pressure off senior quarterback Davis Mills and the passing game. Mills and the pass game also have not lived up to expectations this season, so relying more on the running back duo should lead to more positive outcomes on the offensive side of the ball. I think Shaw should hold the “don’t fix it if it isn’t broken” mindset and leave Jones as the starter while incorporating Peat into the gameplan a little more (he only carried six times for 24 yards versus Cal). Like Jibriel said, it’s never a bad thing to have multiple capable running backs, and relying on them more should only bring good things to the Cardinal.
EB: I agree with the other three. Both Peat and Jones have looked good this season, but Jones is pretty clearly the number one guy. Peat is a great complementary back though, who is capable of putting up numbers himself. We saw him explode for a huge run against Oregon, and also almost broke one off in Big Game. Peat deserves some more touches, but the question is where do they come from. We saw freshman running back E.J. Smith record two receptions out of the backfield against Cal, and junior running back Justus Woods has also seen the field. It may be too harsh on Smith to take snaps away from him, as he is a very promising back for the future. I think Peat will have to make do with his current workload, but I am very excited by the dynamic duo of him and Jones.
Since the matchup in Stanford Stadium in 2015, the home team has won every game in the series between Stanford and Washington. Is there any chance, without fans in Husky Stadium, that Stanford could pull off the upset?
JT: The Huskies open as double-digit favorites — so it’s unlikely, but definitely still possible for the Cardinal. Stanford needs to perform much better on both sides of the ball than they have all year to win this game. Offensively, it’s hard to read much into the first two games of the season for the Cardinal because of the false-positive COVID-19 test debacle, but it’s safe to say that the offense is not where it should be given what we saw against Cal. Stanford struggled to run the ball until the second half against a team that hadn’t stopped the run in their previous two games, and the offense overall couldn’t drive the ball unless the defense or special teams gave them a short field. Defensively, the Cardinal impressed with four sacks and seven tackles for a loss on Saturday, but it was against a depleted Cal offensive line and an offense that has struggled overall this season. Washington rushed for over 230 yards in their first two games this season, and even when the offense struggled early against Utah this weekend, the Huskies still managed to mount a 21-point second-half comeback. They’ll provide a much sterner test for the Cardinal and will demonstrate how far the Cardinal have come since the Colorado loss.
JR: Definitely. Stanford’s only gotten better as the season has progressed. The Cardinal have put up 40 points in their last five quarters of football and the offense is clearly rounding into form following a rough opener without its starting quarterback. Defensively, the team forced two fumbles and got to Cal quarterback Chase Garbers to the tune of four sacks, after recording just one in the team’s first two games. The defense is also finding its stride. Yes, Cal is a really, really, really bad football team (whose Axe is it now?) — but now the Cardinal have confidence and momentum with a win under their belts. These two intangibles will be the deciding factors on Saturday when Stanford pulls off the upset and evens their record at 2-2.
SS: There’s always a chance for an upset, but I wouldn’t say it’s likely. Although the Cardinal defense looked promising last week against Cal, keep in mind that Cal is, like Jeremy said, a really bad football team; I’m not surprised their offense made Stanford’s defense look good. Cal’s defense also isn’t anything too noteworthy, yet an offense led by the likes of Mills, junior wide receiver Michael Wilson and Jones only managed 24 points. Yes, it looks like the offense might be a little more consistent with each game Mills does play, but it still has been a disappointment through three games and severely underperformed against a bad Cal team. It’s worth pointing out that Stanford pulled off an upset against the Huskies very recently, but I’m not convinced after three games that this team has what it takes to even out their record to 2-2 after Saturday’s game.
EB: I feel the same about this game as I did before the Stanford-Oregon matchup. The Cardinal have the chance to win at Husky Stadium come Saturday, but they will have to play their best game yet this season. The defense has been getting better week after week, and that improvement will have to continue. I feel like we have been waiting for Mills’ play to turn a corner, and it just has not happened quite yet. Hopefully he brings his A-game to Seattle. Finally, Shaw and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tavita Pritchard’s play-calling will have to be top notch. There have been too many questionable play calls this season, and they will have to call a near perfect game if Stanford wants to come away with a win.