The 120th Big Game is just around the corner, and this matchup has plenty of importance on both sides. Stanford looks to stay in contention in the North, and Cal hopes to lock up bowl eligibility.
1. Which player on offense does Cal most rely on?
atomsareenough: Running back Patrick Laird. He's been our most reliable player on offense, all season long. QB Ross Bowers has been up and down with his performances all year, but Laird has been steady and reliable, and his play has been crucial since previous starter Tre Watson went down early in the year with a season-ending injury.
Leland Wong: Through the air, look for WR Kanawai Noa. Noa doesn't stand out in any one particular skill, but has become a reliable option for our young quarterback; calling him just a safety net would be an insult. He is a tough fighter who will shake past defenders and use his sheer will to gain first downs.
2. Which player on defense does Cal most rely?
atomsareenough: For the first half of the year, Devante Downs played like a star, all-conference-level player on defense. Since he developed a season-ending injury, there isn't as much of an obvious standout, though the defense as a unit has continued to be much improved from last year. Downs' replacement at inside linebacker—Jordan Kunaszyk—has been pretty reliable though, as have D-lineman James Looney and defensive back Darius Allensworth.
Leland Wong: I'll go with DE James Looney, based on the key word "rely". He (probably) won't have eye-catching stats, but as a 3-4 end, the whole defense hinges on his ability to consume blocks and give his teammates the freedom to be the stars of the plays. And in spite of this, Looney still has the skill to make a huge run-stuffing stop or get free for a sack if the offensive line doesn't contain him.
3. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most, how worried are you about Bryce Love?
Leland Wong: The answer to this question is just like me—a perfect 10. The Bears have struggled to stop the run all year. Couple a Heisman-caliber rusher with some injuries to three of our four preseason starting linebackers and I'm concerned that Ron Gould will have another running back lighting up the stat sheet at Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
4. Who could be the x-factor for the Bears in this week’s game?
atomsareenough: Bowers. If he can have a steady game, make the right reads, and not make crucial mistakes, the Bears should have a good chance to take home the Axe.
Leland Wong: I'm tempted to name CB Camryn Bynum, who has shown a remarkable talent for making plays on the ball to break up a pass—or even pick of the ball, as he grabbed his first two career interceptions against Luke Falk—but it'll be tough for him to change the game if Bryce Love just takes over.
Instead, I'll go with ILBs Kunaszyk and Gerran Brown. Our starting ILB at the start of the season were supposed to be Downs and Raymond Davison; as atoms mentioned, Downs got injured and Davison had to move outside because we were out of bodies there, leading to the rise of Kunaszyk and Brown on the inside. By virtue of their position, they'll be tasked with stopping Love and covering the underneath routes. Despite being "replacement" players, these two have stepped up and become reliable weapons in DC Tim DeRuyter's attack.
5. What does Cal need to do to win this game?
atomsareenough: Gang tackle Bryce Love, body up Stanford's physical receivers, run the ball effectively on offense, and not turn the ball over.
Leland Wong: Execute our long-term plan of having Ron Gould destroy you from the inside.
This is a cop-out answer, but we have to stop Bryce Love and force your inexperienced quarterback to win the game. Not just because Love—like all Gould-coached running backs—is a phenomenal player, but because we need to force K.J. Costello to beat a well-schemed and confusing pass defense that was able to outplay Luke Falk.
6. What does Stanford need to do to win this game?
atomsareenough: Don't fall behind early, have an effective game running the ball, and force Cal to make big plays to catch up.
Leland Wong: Wear down the Bears. Cal has some critical injuries so we're pretty thin at key positions. Combine that with some great Stanfurd recruiting and you guys should be able to just wear out Cal.
7. What’s your prediction for 120th Big Game?
atomsareenough: The Cardinal seem more beatable than they've been in years, and the Bears are finally competent enough on both sides of the ball to make this one competitive. I'm hopeful that the bye week allowed us to regroup and add some wrinkles for the Big Game. The Axe is coming home to Berkeley.
Leland Wong: I'm not as optimistic as the devilishly handsome atomsareenough. This will be a great fight and the Bears will scare you, but I just don't think we're there yet. Evil wins, 35–24.
8. Can you tell me about Justin Wilcox? Stanford fans remember him at USC, and the Cardinal picked his defense apart. Do you think he’s the guy moving forward?
atomsareenough: The early returns are quite good so far. He exudes focus, calm, and thoughtfulness and it really seems like he has a clear vision for what he wants. His staff choices have been quite solid as well. There's been a drop-off in offense, but considering we are implementing a new system, have a brand new QB, replaced much of our offensive line, and lost two of our most talented skill position players to injury, this is about as good as can be reasonably expected. Meanwhile, on defense, the turnaround has been better than we could have reasonably expected. Our players look well-coached and disciplined for the first time in years. We are in position and usually make the tackle. I'm really excited to see how far this arc of improvement will carry over the coming seasons under Wilcox.
Leland Wong: A better-than-expected debut season has put Wilcox in the good graces of the fans. It would be unreasonable to expect every game he's coached to be gold, so I can't speak for any bad performances against you guys or any individual bad performances this year; overall, he has the team—and the defense in particular—trending upwards. I think the stats tell that story pretty well to any outside viewer, so I'll let them speak for themselves.
As for the off-the-field aspect, it's a bit early to tell, but Wilcox is showing great signs thus far of being the right person for the job. He hired an amazing team of coaches (with perhaps the one miss being an inability to bring Coach Ron Gould back home, which has benefited you) and seems to be continuing to build upon the solid culture that Sonny Dykes established. The players are giving insightful answers in interviews, have a deep understanding of working hard and working particularly on things they can control in life, and instilling respect among the team.
9. How’s Demetris Robertson doing? He was a top player out of high school, and Stanford was really hoping to get him.
atomsareenough: You may be sensing a pattern here, but he's... out with a season-ending injury. He's an exciting athlete for sure, but he's raw as a receiver, and hasn't yet developed the full complement of skills to be a star at the position. He's fast and able to run past the defense on a deep route from time to time, but so far he's only run a limited number of routes and hasn't been able to take full advantage of his athleticism to make plays on passes in traffic. But the coaches say he's a hard worker and he seems to be a smart guy, so hopefully he'll continue to develop and come back next year ready to show out.
Leland Wong: Robertson played for two whole games with a whopping seven catches before he needed surgery that took him out for the season. As for how he's doing, he's been tweeting about being patient and taking control of one's life, so there's that.
10. Every year, Cal has a hot start but falls apart following their non conference games. Why do you think that happens?
atomsareenough: I don't perceive this to be the case, really. This year we played well out of conference, but Ole Miss and North Carolina weren't very good in retrospect. We beat Texas twice in recent years, but they weren't good either. We've beaten San Diego State and lost to San Diego State. We've beaten and lost to Northwestern. We've lost twice to Ohio State, but also lost twice to Nevada. Basically, Cal hasn't been a very good team and when the non-conference teams aren't good either, sometimes we can win. The overall level of competition has been higher in the Pac-12 than in our non-conference schedule, for the most part, so we've done worse in conference.
Leland Wong: I'd agree with atoms here. If anything, the perception (fair or otherwise) is that we tend to fall flat when we have to play nonconference games on the road—especially when dealing with time changes or weather that's significantly different from what we get in the perpetually-perfect Bay Area.
11. How badly do Cal fans want this win?
atomsareenough: Very, very badly. We haven't beaten the Cardinal since 2009, and we haven't beaten USC since 2003. Both of those streaks are extremely frustrating to Cal fans everywhere, and as a football program, beating our in-state rivals is a key step on the path back to relevance.
Leland Wong: Eh, I could take it or leave it. It's a game that could clinch bowl eligibility for us against our archrivals, but it's just a football game. There are things I want far more, like this Amazon package I'm waiting on.
12. Who bugs you more, the Stanford band or the Stanford tree?
atomsareenough: Both are terrible to behold, but at least the tree is silent.
Leland Wong: It's easier for me to ignore the band, but I can't escape the visage of that monstrosity of a mascot. It creeps its way onto the TV and is plastered all over photographs. It haunts my dreams.
The game kicks off at 5 PT tomorrow on FOX.