If you believe the early betting line, Cal should beat Stanford by nine points Saturday in the 111th Big Game at Memorial Stadium.
I have some serious doubts about that hefty point spread. To me, this looks more like a flip-a-coin game.
I realize that Cal coach Jeff Tedford is 5-1 against Stanford overall and 3-0 at Memorial Stadium. I understand that the Bears haven’t lost at home to Stanford since 2000 when they fell 36-30 in overtime and that they’re 5-0 at home this season.
But consider these facts from the flip side. Tedford’s five wins against Stanford came against teams coached by Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Tedford is 0-1 against current Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh, suffering a 20-13 loss last year at Stanford Stadium.
When Teevens and Harris were in charge, Stanford was basically an automatic win for Cal. The once-proud Cardinal football program was in shambles. Under Tedford, the Bears beat Stanford five straight times by a combined score of 152-49. Each time, they physically dominated the Cardinal.
Teevens was simply overmatched. The perpetually cranky Harris blamed most of his problems on Stanford’s high admission standards. Neither one was a good match for Stanford.
Enter Harbaugh last season. Taking over a 1-11 team, Harbaugh finished 4-8 with huge wins over USC – on the road, no less – and Cal. This year Stanford is 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the Pac-10, one win shy of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2001. Stanford suffered heart-breaking losses to Oregon and UCLA, both on the road, in the final seconds. They lost to Notre Dame by just seven points on the road.
Stanford is no longer a Pac-10 weakling or a pushover. On offense in particular, Stanford is pushing back. Harbaugh has turned Stanford into a physical, power-running team with a one-two punch of Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble.
Gerhart has rushed for 1,033 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s 51 yards shy of tying Tommy Vardell’s single-season rushing record set in 1991. Gerhart rushed for 101 yards last week against USC, which boasts one of the nation’s best defenses. It was his seventh 100-yard rushing game of the season, tying Vardell’s single-season mark. Kimble has rushed for 688 yards this season and has 1,911 for his career.
I have the sense that Harbaugh, unlike Teevens and Harris, truly gets this rivalry and understands how to push the right psychological buttons during Big Game week. Maybe it’s because his father, Jack, is a former Stanford assistant, and he went to high school in Palo Alto. Maybe it’s because he played quarterback at Michigan and took part in one of the nation’s greatest college football rivalries against Ohio State. Maybe it’s because he’s an emotional, slightly twisted coach who’s well suited for this type of emotional rivalry game.
Harbaugh should have no problem tapping into his player’s sense of desperation. Their bowl game hopes are riding on this game. Win and they’re in. Lose and they’re out. Cal, on the other hand, is already bowl eligible. Although the Bears are still trying to land the most prestigious bowl possible, Stanford gets the motivational edge in this case.
I don’t know if Stanford can pull off the upset Saturday. Its defense has produced 33 sacks, tied for first in the Pac-10, and could cause problems for Cal’s injury-plagued, makeshift offensive line. But the Cardinal ‘D’ has a bad habit of getting worn down then collapsing in the fourth quarter. And it’s been vulnerable against the pass, which means quarterback Kevin Riley and Cal’s sputtering passing attack should have a chance to get back on track, as long as Riley gets time to throw.
Cal has the better defense, the home-field edge and a home-run threat in Jahvid Best. If this were 2006, 2005, 20004, 2003 or 2002, Bears fans could rest easy and plan their victory parties.
But it’s 2008, which means both Cal and Stanford fans should be very nervous ,and we can all expect, a close, exciting Big Game.