For the third straight year, the Axe will reside in Berkeley, as the California Golden Bears (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) secured a 27-15 win over the Stanford Cardinal. The Golden Bears pulled away toward the end of the fourth quarter, keeping their bowl eligibility hopes alive.
Despite playing poorly for most of the first half, the Cardinal found themselves down just eight points thanks to timely defensive plays and a couple of kicks from senior kicker Joshua Karty. After the Golden Bears took a 21-6 lead early in the third quarter, Stanford went on a 9-0 scoring run after a 41-yard catch from freshman Tiger Bachmeier and a 50-yard Karty field goal.
But despite holding only one-possession deficit early in the fourth quarter, Cal quarterback Fernando Mendoza engineered a 13 play, 75-yard drive to extend the Golden Bears’ lead to twelve. That was all Cal needed, as the Cal defense was prevented the Stanford offense from scoring again.
For Stanford fans, the game highlighted the team’s lack of offensive rhythm and running game, as well as issues with defensive personnel.
Lack of offensive rhythm
Throughout the game, sophomore quarterback Ashton Daniels failed to get in sync with his wide receivers. Throughout the game, despite some effective play calls by Stanford head coach Troy Taylor, Daniels threw to receivers off-target and off-time. The result was that Daniels had a pedestrian 51% completion percentage paired with only 188 yards. Much of Stanford’s offensive success in the Colorado and Washington games came when Daniels was connected with Bachmeier and Elic Ayomanor on perimeter throws, like comebacks and back-shoulder fades. These routes often required the quarterback and wide receivers to be on the same page. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, that was not the case yesterday.
Defensive personnel still an issue
Going into the game, Stanford fans knew they would see a steady dose of Cal running back Jaydn Ott. After yesterday’s game, Ott is now the Pac-12 leader in rushing yards. But Cal quarterback Mendoza identified another mismatch on the field with walk-on wide receiver Trond Grizzell. Grizzell had a career day against the Cardinal, accumulating seven receptions for 136 yards. He often leveraged his combination of size and speed to ward off Stanford defenders.
While Grizzell may have been an overlooked talent, his performance shows that Stanford needs to improve in identifying talented safeties and corners that can match up against Power-Five competition. This includes bringing in personnel that have the length and speed to keep up with good receivers and tight ends.
Additionally, the Stanford defensive line was consistently beat off the line of scrimmage against Cal. The Golden Bears excelled in pinning the Cardinal back on their gap-scheme runs and allowing offensive linemen to block in space against the back seven. While there were several times Stanford was in position to make tackles that would keep Ott’s gains minimal, the star running back was able to break tackles against the shaky Cardinal secondary. To prevent this from happening in the future, the Cardinal will need stronger linemen and secondary players who can tackle in space.
Lack of running game
Stanford’s rushing leader during the game was quarterback Ashton Daniels, who tallied 67 yards on twelve rushes. While on the surface, this may not seem horrible, it’s concerning to see a quarterback who had injury concerns going into the game lead the team in rush yards.
Despite running through a stable of talented running backs throughout the year, Stanford has not been able to develop a ground game thanks to its shaky offensive line. Senior running back E.J. Smith averaged just three yards a carry against Cal, and other people who had touches were not much better.
The absence of a traditional run game impairs the Cardinal offensively, as it makes them much more predictable and the run plays can certainly be telegraphed, such as when sophomore quarterback Justin Lamson comes into the game. This lack of run game puts the Cardinal in third-and-long situations, which makes it difficult to sustain drives. In order for Taylor’s offense to work in the future, the offensive line will need to drastically improve its run blocking.
Up next, the Cardinal will take on the No. 20 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (8-3, Independent) for the final game of the season. The Fighting Irish have a balanced team that possesses the 16th best scoring offense and 12th ranked scoring defense. The game will round out a challenging schedule for the Cardinal this year, which included six ranked teams. Kick-off is at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 25.