Photo credit: gostanford.com
By: Ana Kieu
The Stanford Cardinal brings a series-best eight-game winning streak to Memorial Stadium in Berkeley on Saturday against the Cal Golden Bears in the 121st Big Game, but players know it’s going to be a fresh slate.
“It’s one of the more competitive games we play all season,” said Bobby Okereke. “They’re scrappy guys and have a good offense. Their running back (Patrick Laird) is really good, so we’re expecting a dogfight.”
Okereke and upperclassmen will explain the significance of Stanford’s oldest rivalry to young players, especially out-of-staters. But there is only one way to understand and appreciate the atmosphere, emotion and tradition that rewards the winner with year-long bragging rights and The Axe.
“You just have to experience it,” Okereke said.
Bryce Love has faced Cal three times and rushed for a combined 200 yards and two scores, including a 48-yard dash his freshman year. He ran for 101 yards and contributed a key 57-yard scoring run in last year’s 17-14 win.
Love knows the Bears will be wired Saturday as they’re tired of losing. They boast a stout defense, but he welcomes the challenge on the other side of the Bay Area.
“In my mind, playing in hostile environments…that’s fun,” Love said.
Love’s advice to teammates is simple.
“Just every away game, concentrate on what you can control,” said Love. “You know it’s going to be loud. Focus on the little things, like the offensive line calls and your reads. The rest will take care of itself.”
Stanford (6-4, 4-3 Pac-12) and Cal (6-4, 3-4) became bowl eligible with wins last Saturday, the Cardinal downing Oregon State (48-17) and the Bears surprising USC (15-14).
David Shaw competed against Cal as a player and is 7-0 as a head coach. Asked if winning the Big Game has more meaning than upsetting a No. 1-ranked team, he didn’t hesitate.
“This game for me is in a different category,” said Shaw. “There’s something about holding that Axe after the game.”
In a series that began in 1892, Stanford leads 63-46-11. The Cardinal scored 2,097 points while the Bears have tallied 1,926.
Shaw isn’t surprised how quickly Cal head coach Justin Wilcox has improved the program. The Bears play with passion and for each other.
“They’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Shaw said. “They’re playing fast and physical and are on the attack all the time. We’ve got to start fast because I know they will.”
Back on the Field
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside returned to practice after missing the OSU game with an injury and could play. He leads the team in receiving and ranks fourth nationally in touchdown catches with 11.
“He’s got a chance if he makes it through the week,” Shaw said.
Trevor Speights is also back and should play, while junior offensive lineman Devery Hamilton is questionable.
Jet Toner and Joey Alfieri are expected to resume practicing but the latter will not play Saturday. Also sidelined are Casey Toohill, Nate Herbig and Drew Dalman.
Only Time Will Tell
Connor Wedington could see action depending on the progress of Arcega-Whiteside. Wedington has appeared in only three contests this season due to injury and will likely redshirt.
“He’s geared on getting that,” said Shaw. “We’ll use him wisely.”
Under the new NCAA rules, a player can compete in four games during the season without sacrificing a year of eligibility.
“That’s what I love about this new rule,” said Shaw. “It gives him flexibility.”
The Cardinal has used six different offensive line combinations to start the game this season due to injuries. Only Walker Little has started all 10.
“It’s been different, but a lot of guys have responded,” Shaw said.
Last week, Nick Wilson, Dylan Powell and Henry Hattis stepped up.
“We’ll probably see some combination of those guys,” said Shaw.
According to Pro Football Focus, KJ Costello achieved the highest passer rating of Power-5 quarterbacks when kept clean last week (155.7). Arcega-Whiteside has the highest targeted passer rating when targeted of any Pac-12 wide receiver (140.6).
“K.J. is an awesome leader,” said Colby Parkinson, who caught four touchdown passes from him against Oregon State to match the school record. “It’s great to see him grow into that role.”
Last week, Costello became just the third Stanford quarterback to collect six 300-yard passing games in a season. John Elway did it six times in 1982 and Steve Stenstrom accomplished it eight times in 1993.
Stanford’s four losses this season have come against No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0), No. 8 Washington State (9-1), No. 17 Washington (7-3) and No. 21 Utah (7-3). They are a combined 33-7.
The Cal defense ranks No. 15 nationally and first in the Pac-12, allowing 4.7 yards per play. The Bears also rank No. 16 in the country in total defense (318.6) and No. 27 in points allowed per game (21.1).
The unit is led by Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunaszyk, who have combined for 222 tackles. Additionally, the secondary has pilfered 14 passes, returning three for touchdowns.
Offensively, Laird is the heart and soul. He has rushed for 771 yards, caught 43 passes for 269 yards, and has found the end zone eight times.
“He breaks tackles, he’s quick and explosive,” said Shaw. “A lot in this game comes down to willpower. This guy runs like his life is on the line every play and I appreciate it.”
In addition to beating to USC, Cal upset No. 10 Washington (12-10), and had No. 10 Washington State on the ropes in Pullman before the Cougars escaped with a 19-13 victory in the final 32 seconds, their lowest point total of the season.
Stanford football players have conducted interviews in three foreign languages this season: Arcega-Whiteside (Spanish), Jesse Burkett (Japanese) and Osiris St. Brown (German).
Jack Richardson grew up in Salinas and both parents were standout student-athletes on The Farm. His mother, Teresa, was a two-time All-American in volleyball and is a member of the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame. His father, Kevin, was a standout linebacker and recorded a team-high 113 tackles in 1987.
Kevin proposed to Teresa by hiring a plane to fly over Stanford Stadium during the 1991 Big Game.
The contest will be televised on Pac-12 Network … Stanford has permitted one touchdown in the third quarter and no more than seven points to any opponent … Parkinson’s 166 receiving yards against OSu were the most by a Cardinal tight end since Coby Fleener (173) in the 2011 Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech … Parkinson averages 17.8 yards per catch … Costello ranks in the top-20 nationally in seven statistical categories. He leads the conference in passing efficiency (156.9) and yards per attempt (8.65) and is second in passing yards (2,854) … Arcega-Whiteside’s 11 receiving touchdowns are tied with Ken Margerum for No. 2 in Stanford history, three behind all-time leader James Lofton … Shaw said sophomore quarterback Davis Mills could be available to play in a bowl game.
“He’s a mismatch everywhere.”
— Shaw on Parkinson