Defense shines as Stanford stuffs the run

BERKELEY, Calif. -- It wasn’t flashy and it won’t be all too memorable, but Stanford’s 21-3 win over Cal in the 115th Big Game was exactly the type of game Cardinal coach David Shaw was looking for.

“Very proud of our guys for bringing the [Stanford Axe] back home to Stanford,” Shaw said. “It was a great effort, in particular on defense. Dominating, suffocating defense.”

His description wasn’t an exaggeration. The Cardinal held the Pac-12’s No. 3 rushing team to just 3 yards on the ground and kept the Bears out of the red zone on all but two occasions. On their first trip, the Bears couldn’t punch it in after facing first-and-goal from the 2, and the second ended on sophomore Wayne Lyons' first career interception.

“This was a blueprint game,” Shaw said. “This is what we want to do. We don’t care about stats. We don’t care about any of that other stuff.”

What he does care about is staying true to the model the program has been built on. That hasn’t necessarily been the case at times this year, but Saturday’s win fit the bill.

“We want to stop the run, we want to run the ball, limit the big plays in their pass game, make the big plays in our pass game, and in special teams, try to control where the ball is,” Shaw said.

Easy to say after the fact, but Shaw could have put check marks next to each of those five priorities on Saturday.

In building a 21-3 halftime lead, the Cardinal took Cal out of its element. The Bears were forced to rely on quarterback Zach Maynard to make plays, and he didn’t make enough of them. He was 19-for-31 for 214 yards and was sacked four times. His half-brother, standout receiver Keenan Allen, was held in check, too. Allen finished with four catches for 43 yards and didn’t factor into any of the Bears’ red zone trips.

“Their defense is as good as any defense we have played in this conference for years,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “They are very experienced, very physical and very multiple.”

And Cal was very overwhelmed.

“We preach stopping the run every week,” senior linebacker Chase Thomas said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. First things first, stop the run, and make them one-dimensional and then get after them in the pass rush.”

Thomas, an All-American candidate, finished with seven tackles, four for loss and a sack. He also forced two fumbles and returned one for 7 yards.

The standout performance falls in line with the expectations for Thomas, who considered leaving for the NFL after ranking second in the Pac-12 in sacks last season (8.5).

He credited the offense’s job in running off time-consuming drives as a major factor in the defense’s ability to stay fresh. Stanford held the ball for 36 minutes, 58 seconds, compared to 23:02 for Cal.

“I think that our defense played with a big chip on its shoulder from last week [against Notre Dame],” Thomas said. “I think, actually, the whole team did. The fact that our offense kept their defense on the field gave us a lot of time to catch our breath, get our legs back and have plenty of time to rest.”

Thomas probably owes an individual thank-you to running back Stepfan Taylor, who ran for a career-high 189 yards on 29 carries. He passed Toby Gerhart for No. 2 on the school’s all-time rushing list (3,616 yards) and, with five games left in the regular season, needs 418 yards to pass leader Darrin Nelson (4,033).

“Can’t say enough about [Taylor] as a person,” Shaw said. “Can’t say enough about him as a player.”

Taylor scored on a 7-yard touchdown with 4:42 left in the first quarter to end the Cardinal’s recent road scoring woes. Before Saturday, Stanford hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown in two games away from Stanford Stadium this season. Its last touchdown on the road -- not including the neutral-site Fiesta Bowl -- came in the fourth quarter of a trip to Oregon State on Nov. 5, 2011.

Stanford added two more touchdowns in the first half. The first was a 9-yard strike to tight end Levine Toilolo on freshman Kevin Hogan's first career pass attempt to make it 14-3.

The athletic freshman quarterback, who is listed as No. 3 on the depth chart, had been used sparingly to run option plays, but will factor into the game plan every week moving forward, according to Shaw. Stanford shied away from using read-option plays last season as it wanted to protect Andrew Luck while keeping him on the field as much as possible.

“That whole package has been called the Hogan package,” Shaw said. “The last two weeks, that package has gotten better and better.”

A 20-yard pass from starting quarterback Josh Nunes to tight end Zach Ertz with 8:15 in the first half resulted in the game's final points. Ertz set a career high with 134 yards receiving and tied his career best with six catches.