Despite the proximity of the Stanford and UC-Berkeley campuses, Saturday’s Big Game is very much a road game for the Cardinal.
“You know right off the bat that you are in hostile territory,” said Stanford coach David Shaw, who is well-versed in the rivalry as a player and a coach. “You know that most of the people in the stands don’t want you to have success, and they let you know that. Physically we’re not a long ways away. But it feels like you are a long way from home.”
This is important. Because if you’ve followed Stanford this year, that’s not good news. The Cardinal’s offensive inefficiencies away from Palo Alto have been well-documented. They haven’t moved the ball effectively. They have 13 total three-and-out drives in both road games (they had 14 all of last season, and have 24 so far on this one). Most important, they have scored zero offensive touchdowns away from home and -- not surprisingly -- both of their losses have been on the road.
“We just have to play better,” Shaw said. “We have to make the plays that are there to be made. We have to score points. Defensively, we’ve played well on the road. We played two really good games. On offense, we haven’t mustered a touchdown. That’s not us. That’s not what we’ve been at home and that’s not what we’ve been since we’ve been here. We’ve looked at a lot of ways to make sure we utilize our personnel and make sure we’re as aggressive as we think is prudent. But at the same time, we have to make plays.”
This is an odd installment for the 115th Big Game because of the unusual timing. Usually reserved as an end-of-the-season showdown, the game is being played in October. There are a lot of considerations that went into the scheduling, such as a new TV contract, Stanford’s commitment to the rivalry with Notre Dame and the fact that the conference added two new teams last season. While neither coach expects this to be a regular occurrence, it’s still unusual.
“It doesn’t help to get worked up about it,” said Cal coach Jeff Tedford. “We’re excited to play the game. It is what it is. ... The odd part is going to be afterwards. Typically, it’s the last game of the year and there is all of the buildup. But as far as what’s going on this week, we have a game, it’s a great game. There is a lot of excitement and energy and emotion, and there’s no other way to look at it.”
Cal, which has won back-to-back games, could even its record at 4-4 with a victory. That puts the Bears back in bowl contention -- a notion that seemed unlikely when they were sitting at 1-4 following a 27-17 home loss to Arizona State on Sept. 29.
Last week, wide receiver Keenan Allen continued to climb the Cal record books, catching 11 balls for 166 yards and a touchdown in the 31-17 victory over Washington State. Clearly, Allen is a concern for the Stanford defense.
“There are three or four times a game he does something you have to rewind and just see again,” Shaw said.
Surely, Tedford has studied Stanford’s road losses at Washington and last week at Notre Dame. But while Shaw upped the significance of this being a road game for his team, Tedford downplayed its significance as a home game.
“It seems like our fans outnumber the Stanford fans here,” he said. “Years ago, when you went to Stanford you had more Cal people than Stanford people. That’s changed in the last few years. Now there is a slight home-field advantage, but both teams are well-represented. Stanford will have its crew here and it will be loud and it will go back and forth.”
Regardless of the records, the location or what month it’s being played in, the Big Game is usually never short on drama, with 42 of the contests being decided by seven points or fewer. And given the way Stanford’s game ended at Notre Dame last week -- with a controversial call in overtime -- Shaw said this week gave his players a good chance to redirect their frustrations.
“You need a place to place your emotion,” he said. “What better game to have to try to forget last week than the Big Game. That’s helped a lot.
“... They know us, we know them. Every year something crazy happens. Every year it’s an exciting game. There is a lot of emotion and it’s something you feel in the course of a week. When your rivalry week shows up, you feel it on Monday and it builds all week. It’s not the same as just another game. It might be a big game, but it’s not the Big Game. This is different.”