There was a lot of talk coming into this year's Big Game, but on Saturday afternoon in Berkeley, Stanford reminded everyone which team owns the Bay Area right now.
What made the win especially sweet (as if Stanford fans need to feel better about a win over Cal) was that the Cardinal seemed to execute its game plan almost to a T for most of the game. Here is a look at how Stanford fared in several key areas.
1. Take an early lead. Stanford opened the scoring about 10 minutes into the game, although of course it could have been earlier if Jordan Williamson had connected on his 40-yard field-goal try the possession before. Still, getting the early touchdown was a big boost for the offense, which had not scored on the road all season up to that point. Just as important as taking the lead is extending the lead, and the Cardinal did that with two more touchdowns in the second quarter.
2. Establish the run early and often. Stepfan Taylor racked up 58 rushing yards in the first quarter, including a beautiful 39-yard run and an impressive 7-yard touchdown run. It became clear early in the game that there would be running lanes for Taylor and the other Cardinal backs, and Stanford took advantage by carrying the ball 46 times for 252 yards, both season highs in regulation.
3. Stop the run. This was pretty much the deciding factor in the game. The Stanford defense absolutely stifled the Cal running game, holding the Golden Bears to a whopping 3 yards on 28 carries. Cal's longest running play was an 11-yard run by quarterback Zach Maynard in the fourth quarter, but Maynard still was held to negative rushing yards thanks to sacks. Discounting Maynard, the Cal running backs carried the ball 20 times and were tackled for a loss on seven of them. Of the 20 carries, none went for more than 4 yards. For comparison, Stanford had 21 different carries of 5+ yards, and only two of Taylor's 28 carries went for a loss (one of which was a botched, ill-advised trick play).
4. Win the turnover battle. Stanford did not start auspiciously, as Josh Nunes lost a fumble on the fourth play from scrimmage. Luckily for Nunes, the Stanford defense had his back, not only holding Cal scoreless on the ensuing possession, but forcing three Cal turnovers, two of which helped Stanford maintain its lead in the second quarter, while the other virtually iced the game in the fourth.
5. Don't let explosive skill-position players make big plays. Cal's most explosive players (Keenan Allen, C.J. Anderson, Isi Sofele, and Brandon Bigelow) combined for 125 yards on 28 offensive touches. Zach Ertz had more yards (134) on six offensive touches, including the longest play of the game, a 68-yard catch.
6. Win high-pressure situations. The Stanford offense struggled on third downs, converting just four of 14 attempts, but the Cardinal still won on third down thanks to the defense holding Cal to just one third-down conversion in 14 attempts. Meanwhile, the Cardinal reached the red zone three times in the first half and scored touchdowns all three times. Stanford struggled in the second half, failing to score on either of its two trips, but the defense once again picked up the slack. Cal's offense reached the red zone just twice all game. On the first trip, the Golden Bears had first-and-goal at the 2-yard line but were held to a field goal. Cal didn't make it back inside the Stanford 20 until midway through the fourth quarter, when Maynard's fourth-down prayer was intercepted by Wayne Lyons.
Stanford was far from perfect overall: Nunes had two turnovers, Williamson missed both his field-goal attempts, the offense failed to score in the second half, the team committed nine penalties for 90 yards, and there were a few questionable play calls. Still, if the Cardinal is as successful as it was on Saturday at executing its game plan, Stanford will usually be in good shape.
As for the Cal game plan...
Stop Stepfan Taylor (he set a career high with 189 rushing yards) and make Stanford one-dimensional (Stanford's passing yards and rushing yards each eclipsed Cal's total yards).
Keenan Allen will play well (Allen had only four catches for 43 yards, his second-lowest receiving total in his past 22 games. Oh, and he fumbled deep in his own territory, which led to Stanford's third touchdown).
Use short passes to get the ball out of Zach Maynard's hands to avoid the Stanford pressure (the Cardinal recorded four sacks and 11 tackles for loss).
Go to the Bears' many other receiving threats, like the revelation that is Richard Rodgers (Rodgers had one catch for four yards).
Hold Stanford to zero offensive touchdowns (at least Cal had zero).
Pretend that Cal has any semblance of academic superiority over Stanford and that "half-brother" is an opinion (hey, they accomplished that!).