View From the Booth: A chance to reclaim the Axe

Nov. 14, 2022, 11:32 p.m.

It’s that time of year again: Despite the disappointment and underperformance this season, Stanford football (3-7, 1-7 Pac-12) heads across the Bay looking to reclaim the Stanford Axe from Cal (3-7, 1-6 Pac-12) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. 

The 125th edition of the Big Game won’t be a classic by any stretch of the imagination. Stanford and Cal are deeply flawed teams facing significant offseason reckonings — indeed, the Bears jumped the gun, firing offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave Sunday night after a blowout loss at Oregon State. Neither team will be playing in December, so this is it for both: the opportunity to end on a high note and to achieve something in the 2022 campaign. 

Even though the thumping 42-7 defeat to Utah last Saturday confirmed a third losing season in four years, Stanford faces high stakes when it makes the short drive to Berkeley, Calif. First, there is the small matter of reclaiming the Axe. The Cardinal have dropped two of the last three games against Cal, ending a near-decade stranglehold on the rivalry. Since the Cardinal last hoisted the Axe with fans present to celebrate, Cal fans have twice stormed the field at Stanford Stadium to celebrate triumphs in the ensuing years. How sweet it would then be to repay the favor — especially given that this year’s Big Game marks the 40th anniversary of the 1982 contest, universally remembered by college football fans as the biggest officiating robbery in the sport’s 150-plus year history, and the 32nd anniversary of Stanford’s last-second victory in 1990 in the rivalry’s most remarkable chapter. 

But beyond the fervor of the rivalry, the stakes are high for the Stanford program, players and coaches alike. A loss Saturday would mean Stanford’s graduating seniors and fifth years would leave with losing records against the Bears. For the coaches, well, every member on Stanford’s staff may be coaching for their job. Changes are — and perhaps have been — needed at several spots among the position coaches and coordinators, while head coach David Shaw should be feeling the heat as well; given the talent on the roster and resources put into the program, results over the last four years have fallen well below standard and another embarrassing result in a rivalry game might compel Bernard Muir to break from form and make a change. And, coaching change or not, in the era of NIL and the transfer portal, ending the season on a positive note could play a role in swaying players considering their future to stay on The Farm. 

Although there isn’t a trip to the Rose Bowl hanging in the balance, a lot is on the line atop Hayward Fault Saturday afternoon. 

Coincidentally, Stanford’s rival is familiar in playing this game with no Rose Bowl implications at stake (this year will mark the 64th straight season in which Cal has not appeared in Granddaddy of Them All). After extending head coach Justin Wilcox’s contract in the offseason, the Bears limp in as losers of their last six. The offense has sputtered — for example, Cal managed only 13 points against a Colorado team that has given up 38-plus in every other contest this season — and the defense ranks in the bottom six of FBS against the pass. 

Indeed, Cal has gone bust over recent weeks — fitting for a squad that calls FTX Field home. On paper, the Bears may be the worst team Stanford has faced since the opener against Colgate, and their limitations will give a struggling Stanford a chance. That said, the same story applied to last year’s contest, and Stanford was thoroughly humiliated. The Bears always get up for the Big Game, and if Stanford fails to match that intensity, the Cardinal will fall flat.  

Personnel-wise, plenty of fresh faces will suit up for Cal on Saturday. Jack Plummer takes the reins of this new-look offense at quarterback, and though the Purdue transfer himself lacks the game-winning ability of last year’s starter Chase Garbers, Plummer has two quality weapons in wide receivers Jeremiah Hunter and J.Michael Sturdivant. Hunter and Sturdivant both rank in the top 11 of the Pac-12 in receiving yards, and the latter is third nationally among freshmen. Sturdivant is joined by fellow underclassman Jaydn Ott, a true freshman running back who burst onto the scene with 274 yards against Arizona earlier this year, as a foundational piece for Cal’s future. On the other side of the ball, Cal’s defense fails to impress (especially given Wilcox’s background as a defensive guru), but will relish the opportunity to take on a reeling Cardinal attack. 

Look, it has been a brutal year for Stanford football in 2022, but in spite of it all, who doesn’t get a spring in their step for Big Game week? Something about the sight of a stuffed animal impaled by an abstract sculpture really does that to you, doesn’t it? It’s Stanford against Cal: here are some keys for the Cardinal to ensure the Axe returns to its rightful home. 

  1. Trust Tanner and air it out

Stanford’s offense is broken. Coming into the season, Cardinal fans expected an explosive offense to keep games competitive while the defense struggled. Right now, though, the offense is the liability. Stanford has scored under 17 points in each of the last five games, and in Salt Lake City last Saturday, the Cardinal managed a meager 177 yards of total offense. Utah running back Tavion Thomas eclipsed that yardage total by himself, rushing for 180.

There are no easy solutions here, but at a time when the unit is in disarray, Stanford needs to rally behind Tanner McKee and trust that the junior quarterback can produce the sort of game we hoped to see coming into the year. Moreover, Cal struggles versus the pass, and the Cardinal cannot run the ball; it’s time to air it out. 

In that spirit, Stanford should shelve the slow mesh RPO package. The running game doesn’t work out of the package, and if anything, just interferes with the passing game by disrupting the timing and route combinations on throws. Too often against Utah, the slow mesh was called predictably –– the concept fails in obvious passing situations due to its vulnerability to pressure, yet Stanford routinely went to it on third- or fourth-and-long. Unsurprisingly, Utah continually brought five or six, meaning McKee often had a defender in his face before he was in position to even begin his throwing motion. 

The slow mesh hasn’t worked since the USC game, and defenses have tape to study. Time to return to the world of quick throws and standard dropbacks. And get creative with the play calls: the usual isn’t working; now’s the time to throw in the kitchen sink.  

  1. Establish a no-fly zone

Cal is a pass-first offense, and though the Bears have talent at receiver, the aerial attack is not dynamic enough to overwhelm the Cardinal secondary on its own. Some uncertainty persists with regards to availability, but given the recent play of senior safety Jonathan McGill — the ball-hawking Texan’s interception in the end zone last week is one of the plays of Stanford’s season — and reappearance of fifth-year cornerback Ethan Bonner, the unit remains the strength of the defense. Pair that with an ever-improving pass-rush (Cal is one of the most sack-prone teams in the country) and this too could make for a favorable matchup. 

Of course, this discussion ties into a recurring theme: for Stanford to win, it needs to make opposing offenses one-dimensional. Balanced teams have killed the Cardinal this year, and Ott is a danger at back, even if the Bears average south of 100 yards rushing per game (so too did Washington State entering the game a fortnight ago, and we saw how that went). In contrast, the Notre Dame and Arizona State games demonstrate that if Stanford can limit the passing attack, defensive playmakers can get enough stops on the ground to stymie the opposition. The same logic holds here, though the challenge may be greater: the Fighting Irish and Sun Devils each had one dominant receiver while Cal boasts two in Hunter and Sturdivant. 

If Stanford cannot clamp down against the pass, then the Cardinal won’t be able to play as aggressively downhill against the run and a familiar story could ensue. Yet, the Stanford defense showed a lot of fight early last week — senior linebacker Levani Damuni produced perhaps his best game in his Stanford career — and if it can derail Cal’s pass-first approach, Saturday could make for fun watching. 

  1. Win the big plays

Saturday’s game features two struggling teams. It could very well descend into an ugly slugfest. That is, this is the sort of game that will have several key, momentum-changing moments, and whichever team wins in those moments will ride the momentum to a low-scoring victory. 

Such moments demand that someone step up and make a play, and though Stanford has played as less than the sum of its parts, the Cardinal have the personnel to step up in key spots. McGill, Damuni and senior wide receiver Elijah Higgins played with fire in Utah, while edge rushers Stephen Herron and David Bailey have each produced in key spots this year. Others still have shown up in big ways over their Stanford careers but still await a defining moment in 2022. 

Case in point, look back to Stanford’s last Big Game triumph in 2020. The Cardinal, decimated by pandemic restrictions and losers of six in a row, limped to the East Bay, and though the performance was far from classic, defensive end Thomas Booker ‘22 produced such a moment to block what would have been a game-tying extra point, securing a 24-23 win for the Cardinal. 

Yes, the season has been tough, but Saturday’s contest affords two sets of players the opportunity to leave a legacy in the venerable history of the Big Game. The only question remains: who in white will seize their shot? 

Pablo’s Picks of the Week

  • Stanford 27, Cal 17
  • Game I’ll be Watching: No. 10 Utah at No. 12 Oregon
  • Upset of the week: Baylor over (4) TCU 

Pablo is a columnist for the sports section. You can also find him in the booth calling Stanford football all season long on KZSU 90.1 FM. You can contact Pablo at sports 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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