Although Stanford has to be concerned with its level of play at this point of the season, it was difficult to be too disappointed with its 31-28 victory over Cal in the Big Game at Stanford on Nov. 19.
After all, it was a victory over its archrival in a matchup that has produced some odd results, so any time the Cardinal gets the better of its cross-Bay rival it is a satisfying moment.
In addition, three teams ranked in the top five were upset earlier in the day, and at least Stanford avoided that fate, keeping alive its BCS game hopes. Even a Rose Bowl is not out of the picture yet, although the odds of landing in that game are slim at best.
So Stanford has to feel pretty good about finishing with an 8-1 Pac-12 record and owning a 10-1 overall record heading into its final regular-season game against Notre Dame at Stanford on Nov. 26.
But there are concerns. Stanford will have to play better than it has the past two games against Cal and Oregon to control Notre Dame the way it should. The Irish are 8-3, having won eight of their last nine games and the last four in a row, and though the game won’t affect the Cardinal’s chances of getting into the Pac-12 title game, Stanford must win – and may need to win convincingly – to get to a BSC game, most likely the Fiesta Bowl.
The Cardinal needs to get a better performance out of QB Andrew Luck, who played pretty well against the Bears, especially in the second half, but was far from his dominating player he had been in the season’s first nine games. He simply did not play well in the first half.
It was Luck’s second straight game in which he was less that Heisman-like, and with the shortcomings of Stanford’s offense becoming more apparent as the season goes on, the Cardinal needs Luck to be a star every game for it to be an elite team.
Again the fact that Stanford lacks playmakers was apparent against Cal. Unlike most teams with its lofty national status, Stanford does not have a player capable of making big plays at any moment. It makes things a lot tougher on Luck, who must make a lot happen himself. The Cardinal’s running game, which had been so overpowering last season and through most of this season, is still solid but no longer scary.
Defensively, Stanford remains vulnerable to passing teams, and Notre Dame will provide a passing threat.
Cal QB Zach Maynard has been shaky all season, but he probably had his best game of the season against Stanford, which is the chief reason Cal was able to stay in the game. That does not reflect well on the Cardinal pass defense.
In fact, Maynard’s numbers were better than Luck’s, which was not only unexpected, but is symbolic of why the game was close and why the Cardinal has concerns.
— Stanford is no longer perfect in the red zone. Coming into the game, the Cardinal was the only team in the country that had scored every time it had been inside its opponent’s 20-yard line. Stanford scored on its first trip into the red zone against Cal, giving it scores on all 58 trips inside the 20 this season. But when Jordan Williamson missed a 33-yard field goal in the second quarter, the streak ended.
Stanford still leads the nation in that category, having scored on 61 of 62 trips in the red zone, including 48 touchdowns.
— After throwing just three interceptions in the first seven games – and one of those picks was on a deflection – Andrew Lucks has thrown five interceptions in the past four games, including at least one in each of those last four games.
Both he and Cal QB Zach Maynard were 20 for 30, but Maynard threw for more yardage (280-257), the same number of touchdowns (two apiece) and fewer interceptions (0-1). That is a matchup Stanford expected to win handily.
Luck is still fifth in the nation in pass efficiency and remains a significant factor in the Heisman Trophy race, which seems wide open at the moment.
— Cal led the game 13-7 in the second quarter, only the second time this season Stanford trailed in a game – the first being the previous week against Oregon. But Stanford also overcame a deficit for the first time this season, dominating the third quarter to take command in the game. Although the final margin was just three points, there was never a moment in which it seemed Stanford would lose. Cal scored its final touchdown with 14 seconds left, and Coby Fleener easily recovered the ensuing onside kick to end the suspense.
— For Stanford to get to the Pac-12 title game – and have a shot at the Rose Bowl — Oregon would have to lose to Oregon State in the Ducks’ final regular-season game. It makes no difference what Stanford does against Notre Dame in that regard.
If Oregon beats Oregon State, the Ducks play in the Pac-12 title game in Eugene. If Oregon loses to Oregon State, Stanford will host the Pac-12 title game.
KEEP AN EYE ON: WR Ty Montgomery – Although he dropped a catchable ball that would have been a touchdown, Montgomery, a true freshman, caught three passes for 45 yards and a touchdown. He also ran the ball once for 34 yards, and did a decent job on of kickoff returns. Montgomery has taken over for Chris Owusu as a starting wide receiver and has shown flashes of being the playmaker the Cardinal has lacked.
LOOKING GOOD: Stanford rushing defense. Cal had evolved into a running team midway through the season, and it figured to give the Cardinal defense problems in that regard. But the Golden Bears managed just 81 yards on the ground. Cal TB Isi Sofele, who had rushed for 190 yards the previous week and came into the game with more than 1,000 yards rushing, was limited to 92 yards on 21 carries. His longest run was 13 yards, and given the fact that the Cardinal has yielded a lot of long runs recently and the fact that Sofele has breakaway potential, that is a good result for the Cardinal defense.
NOT LOOKING SO GOOD: The Cardinal offensive line had shown steady improvement through the first half of the season, but it has regressed a bit lately. Stanford had just 149 yards rushing against Cal, which is about half what it had been averaging on the ground, and it yielded two more sacks. The Cardinal had given up only two sacks in the first seven games, but has allowed seven in the past four games. USC, Oregon and Cal accounted for all seven, and each has a strong pass rush, but that is still more than Stanford expects to give up.
QUOTE: “They made it tough on us in some respects. At the same time, we had some opportunities to make some plays in the first half and we didn’t make them. We’ve got to make those plays to beat a team like this and not let it come down to the last minute.” – Stanford coach David Shaw, after the 31-28 victory over Cal.
— TB Stepfan Taylor did not have a great game against Cal, gaining just 46 yards on 16 carries, but it put him over the 1,000-yard mark for the second straight season. He now has 1,035 yards, joining Darrin Nelson and Toby Gerhart as the only Stanford players to have more than one 1,000-yard season.
— QB Andrew Luck threw two touchdown passes, giving him 31 for the season (one shy of the school record he set last season) and 76 for his career (one shy of John Elway’s school record of 77).
— FB/H-back Ryan Hewitt led the team with seven catches for 64 yards against Cal, and he is third on the team in receptions with 30. He also had a touchdown reception, giving him five for the year, tied for second on the team.
— WR Griff Whalen had just two catches for 11 yards, breaking a streak of six straight games in which he had more than 75 receiving yards.
— DE Ben Gardner had one of Stanford three sacks against Cal, giving him 9.0 tackles for loss this season.
— TE Levin Toilolo had to leave the game with a shoulder injury, and his status is uncertain for the Notre Dame game.
— TE Zach Ertz missed his third straight game with a knee injury, although there is a chance he will be able to play against Notre Dame.
— WR Chris Owusu missed his second straight game with a concussion. He is not expected to play against Notre Dame, and his career may be over.
— K Jordan Williamson returned after missing three games with a pulled leg muscle. He missed a 33-yard field goal in the first half – his first miss of less than 40 yards — but hit a 35-yarder in the second. He has made 12 of 14 field-goal attempts for the season.
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