Big thanks to the guys at California Golden Blogs for the Q&A. You can find my answers to their questions here.
1. What's been the key to the Bears' success over the last two weeks (besides the fact that Washington State is awful)?
NorCalNick: Well, it has to be mentioned that the quality of opposition declined. You already mentioned Washington State, and although UCLA is clearly improved, they're still not USC and Ohio State, or even Arizona State.
But I think the biggest change is that the coaching staff might have figured out how to scheme around Cal's offensive line deficiencies. After getting absolutely crushed by pressure during Cal's three game losing streak, the Bears came out with a quick strike passing attack against UCLA that got the ball out of Maynard's hands quickly. UCLA still got pressure (and Maynard still got hit) but the amount of sacks or plays ruined by pressure significantly decreased. Against Washington State there weren't any sacks at all.
Stanford will be a much bigger test to see if Cal's ability to keep Maynard's jersey clean can continue, and in my mind it's the single biggest factor of the game.
Berkelium97: Playcalling has been better suited towards the team's strengths and limitations. More consistent (and better overall) play from the O-line has greatly improved consistency on offense.
DC Pendergast seems more comfortable with the secondary and is trusting them to execute their assignments while sending blitzes. His traditional, disruptive defense has been working very well over the past couple weeks.
LeonPowe: Schedule. Also finding a more consistent offensive identity with a run game and short passing game which takes better advantage of Zach Maynard's strengths (or more accurately, minimizes his weaknesses)
2. How soon will we know if the good or the bad Zach Maynard decided to show up? What are the tell-tale signs?
NorCalNick: Well, I'd say that when you see him make throws into double coverage or airmail receivers by 10 yards you could be reasonably sure . . . except he did that on his first throw against UCLA that resulted in an interception, but turned things around in what was arguably his finest performance as a Bear.
Like I said above, if he's not under seige I wouldn't expect 'bad' Zach to show up. The only game of his career when I felt like Zach had an awful game without facing significant pressure was against UCLA last year. Pressure Zach and eventually something bad will happen for Cal.
Berkelium97: Maynard was great against UCLA and decent against Wazzu. Ironically enough, his first pass in each game was an interception. So if he throws an interception first, he should have a good game.
LeonPowe: I think you'll know by the middle of the first quarter - even his good games, he's started poorly. But if he's still sailing passes or missing reads in the middle or end of the first, it'll be a long day for the Cal offense. On the other hand, if he's breaking off 7 and 9 yard rushes, in between quick, decisive passes to Keenan Allen, Eric Stevens, Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper and Richard Rodgers, I'll be feeling pretty good.
3. What Cal player on defense should Stanford fans look out for?
NorCalNick: Chris McCain is probably Cal's most dynamic player - the guy most likely to change the game with a big sack or a forced fumble. He's quick, strong and has a big reach, which makes him a load to deal with on the outside.
Berkelium97: Chris McCain. He's been disrupting opposing O-lines all season but will face the best O-line to date this week. If Nunes is flushed out of the pocket, chances are good McCain will be chasing him down.
atomsareenough: Avery Sebastian, because if you don't look out for him, he's going to hit you like a fast-moving brick wall.
LeonPowe: Chris McCain and Avery Sebastian. Both young kids (sophomores? I can't be bothered to look this up) but McCain is a tall, rangy middle linebacker who plays really hard and puts himself in the middle of many many plays. Cali_Showtime4 (Sebastian) was a big twitter cheerleader for the Bears in the middle of the Tosh fiasco earlier this year (gah was it only this year) - but he's finally gotten on the field these last two games and is bringing the lumber with huge huge hits and a 15 tackle game against UCLA.
4. What Cal player on offense should Stanford fans look out for?
atomsareenough: The easy answers are Keenan Allen and Brendan Bigelow, because they are our biggest home run threats. TE Richard Rogers had a breakout game against UCLA though, so if he's healthy enough, he could be a potent weapon in the passing game. Anderson and Sofele tend to get overlooked, but they're a potent and capable 1-2 punch at TB. Really though, we have a lot of solid and capable players at the skill positions, but our offensive success is more or less predicated on O-line play, and after a horrendous start to the season, that unit finally seems to be getting a little better. That's the main thing I look for every week; which incarnation of the Cal O-line showed up? The one that seems to be good at opening holes for the tailbacks and can hold their pass blocks for a few seconds without committing a penalty, or the false starting, holding, swiss cheese O-line we've seen all too often this season?
NorCalNick: You already know about Keenan Allen, so I'll go with Richard Rodgers. Cal's young tight end missd multiple games with a nagging foot injury, but finally returned 100% against UCLA and turned in a monster 7 catch, 100+ yard performance. Cal hasn't had a stong pass catching threat from the tight end position in some time, and I don't need to tell Stanford fans what kind of dimension that can add to an offense.
LeonPowe: KA21 is everyone's (correct) answer, and Richard Rodgers is young and super talented (and a son of one of the heroes of the Play) - but I'm going to call out RB CJ Anderson. Not blessed with the speed of Brenden Bigelow, nor the shiftiness in space of Isi Sofele, he's worked his ass off to become the de-facto starter/feature back in a three back committee. He can run pass routes, run between the tackles, run outside, he's got some moves, and some speed and some power. He does a little bit of everything at a plus level, which adds up to a pretty good running back.
5. What's Cal's biggest weakness on defense? (I hope it's allowing touchdowns because Stanford has a bit of a problem doing that on the road.)
LeonPowe: Finding the tight end. Where did he go? I thought you had him!
NorCalNick: That's a tough question to answer in part because Cal's defense hasn't had any glaring weaknesses or obvious strengths. At times they've been gashed on the ground (against USC) but at times they've done well against potent rushing attacks (Ohio State). There have been some bad coverage mistakes (Ohio State and ASU) but some solid games as well (UCLA).
I will say that the defense has been improving in part because a number of younger players have been elevated into the starting lineup and have been producing results. We'll see if that continues to play dividends on Saturday.
Berkelium97: Cal has struggled against the run this season. Fortunately the past two opponents opted for pass-happy attacks. Our run defense suffered against teams like OSU, USC, and Nevada, who were proficient with both the pass and the run. Whether Cal puts together a solid run defense against the one-dimensional Stanford offense remains to be seen.
atomsareenough: Same as it's been for many years now. Covering the tight end down the middle. Apart from that, I'd say we've been inconsistent at pressuring the quarterback, and our run defense hasn't been as stout as we were hoping. So I guess what that means is, perhaps our D-line isn't as good we thought it was.
6. How many points would Stanford need to beat Cal by for Tedford to get canned on Monday morning? Has his hot seat cooled?
LeonPowe: Cooled, but not cool. I think if we go into a tailspin it would heat back up again. I don't think we're firing him midseason - but a bad loss would put that many more monied alums on the change bandwagon.
NorCalNick: I'd be shocked if Tedford didn't make it to the end of the season. But in terms of how a Big Game loss would impact his job security at the end of the year? Only Sandy Barbour knows the answer to that question for sure. Some Cal fans might tell you that any defeat, combined with the general mediocrity over the last few years, would be the last straw. Three straight losses to Stanford (and four in five year) has made even the most patient of Cal fans restless.
Berkelium97: His seat is still pretty toasty, but it's unlikely a loss will get him fired this weekend. Had we lost to UCLA and Washington State, he may have been fired following a Big Game loss.
It's hard to picture him getting fired if Cal brings home the Axe, unless Cal loses out.
atomsareenough: Well, his hot seat has cooled a small amount, in that we're not spending all our time talking about potential replacements, and I suppose we expect him to make it at least to the end of the season now, whereas 2 weeks ago even a mid-season firing seemed conceivable. Still, unless he wins out, which is extremely unlikely, I don't think he should feel safe, per se. Anything less than 6-6 and I'd probably like to see a new coach.
I suppose if the Cardinal came into Memorial and beat us by 50 points, there would be a very small chance Tedford would be gone by Monday. I'm imagining it would require a 2011 USC-UCLAesque beatdown scenario, though.
7. For Stanford fans making their first visit to the renovated Memorial Stadium, are there any can't-miss concessions or other things to check out?
LeonPowe: Top Dog. Either in the stadium or on Durant. Also, I'd probably avoid walking up to the game via Frat Row. The view of the Bay from the actual stadium is unbeatable.
NorCalNick: The view of the Bay has always been spectacular, but in the past you had to climb to the top of the stadium rim wall to enjoy it - and that's not very easy to do during Big Game unless you hang around well after the game ends. But the new concourse along the east side of the stadium has a number of windows/balconies and there are plenty of places to catch the view. It should be particularly spectacular after the game with the sun setting over the water, the perfect cap on the day . . . for whichever fan base just watched a win.
atomsareenough: Get a Top Dog. Be jealous.
8. What's your score prediction for the game?
atomsareenough: I am constitutionally incapable of envisioning a Cal loss in the Big Game, regardless of the circumstances.
Berkelium97: Cal 2, Stanford 0.
NorCalNick: I was dreading this question. I never feel comfortable offering a prediction on the Big Game. . . especially when the general consensus is that the game is close to a toss up. For one, any semblance of rationality and impartiality get thrown out the window this week. For another, it feels defeatist to predict that Cal will lose but it's bad juju to predict that Cal will win.
My not-so-bold prediction? It's going to be a one possession game, and it's going to swing on a few key plays. A made or missed field goal. A key interception. A blown call by a ref. Something painful and exhilarating, depending on your point of view.
LeonPowe: Cal 4 - Stanford 0