BERKELEY, Calif. – The buildup for the 115th renewal of the Big Game between California and Stanford more closely resembles a heavyweight title fight than a football rivalry, only with “physicality” being uttered again and again instead of a plug for the pay per view broadcast.
Taking a page from the playbook of boxing promoter Don King, the Golden Bears have seemingly uttered every variation, synonym, or analogy imaginable for the word ahead of Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium (noon, Fox).
“It’s going to be a great challenge,” right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin said. “They play a very physical game, real stout. Real tough guys, but we got tough guys too, so it will be a great battle.”
“It’s always probably one of the most physical games of the year, if not the most, and we always look forward to that,” center Brian Schwenke added.
That punishing style is best embodied by the Stanford (4-2, 2-1 Pac-12) front seven, the backbone of the seventh-best run defense in the nation, allowing just 89.5 yards per game and a conference-low 2.8 yards per carry.
The Cardinal stand in direct opposition to the Cal (3-4, 2-2 Pac-12) ground game, which has found its footing the last two weeks by amassing 503 yards during its two game winning streak. Four players had at least eight carries for 50 yards last week at Washington State, paced by 112 yards and two touchdowns from senior running back C.J. Anderson.
Finding running lanes will be far more difficult, as Cal head coach Jeff Tedford conceded.
“You’re not going to run through these guys,” Tedford said. “You are going to have to be patient. You are going to run hard. You are going to have to sustain blocks. Nobody just runs up and down the field on these guys. You can’t abandon it either.”
But the return of a key offensive lineman could provide an emotional and physical boost, as redshirt senior Dominic Galas is likely to make his first appearance this season after tearing his pectoral muscle shortly before the start of fall camp.
“He is coming off the ball hard and doesn’t look like he has any apprehension,” Tedford said.
Galas could play any of the three interior line positions, but is likely to see time at right guard, where he was projected to start before his injury.
“The thing Dom really provides is he has got that bulldog attitude,” offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said. “He is a warrior. He is a tough competitor and you love that about him.”
There will not be any reinforcements coming on the other side of the ball, despite defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast joking about adding a 6-foot-8 defensive back or two to challenge Stanford’s reliance on tight ends to compliment their power running game.
“I don’t think we can sign any. We’re out of scholarships.” Pendergast quipped.
Senior Stepfan Taylor has rushed for 100 yards or more in four games this year, including a season-high 153 yards to upset USC. Known for his consistency and completeness as a runner, receiver, and in pass protection, Taylor needs only 95 yards to pass Toby Gerhart for the school career-rushing record.
“He’s not the flashiest guy, but the biggest thing about him is you got to tackle him,” inside linebacker Robert Mullins said. “When one guy gets to him, you have to wrap up. We have to swarm to the ball because the first guy might not make the tackle. If we’re all running to the ball, if we get five hats on him the whole game, that’s what we key on.”
“They lead with the run,” Tedford said. “They are patient with it. They don’t give up on it. And their defense plays extremely well, which allows them to stick with the run game.”
Needless to say, Cal is energized by the chance to showcase its newfound aggression. The offense is ready to showcase its improving offensive line, while the defense is playing with more intensity, as demonstrated by safety Avery Sebastian knocking two Cougars out of the game last week.
“When you get those physical teams, you want to go out there and knock them down and really hit them in the mouth. That’s what we plan on doing. This is a good opportunity to show how physical we are,” Schwenke said.
“I’m really excited about it. I can’t wait to play this game.”
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.