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Saturday, November 19, 2005
San Jose Mercury News: Big Game's big stakes
By Darren Sabedra
Two of Stanford's biggest goals this season were to qualify for a bowl game and beat Cal. It can accomplish both in the 108th Big Game today at Stanford Stadium. The Bears are a five-point favorite, but nearly everything else is leaning toward Stanford. The Cardinal has momentum (four victories in its past six games), more at stake (Cal already is bowl eligible) and far more experience at quarterback (Cal's Steve Levy will make his first career start). Stanford is confident but not overconfident. After all, the Cardinal doesn't have anyone who has played in a Big Game victory. It also doesn't have a running game comparable to Cal's Marshawn Lynch (929 rushing yards) and Justin Forsett (912), and that could easily make the Bears' shaky quarterback situation irrelevant. ``They are a great running team,'' Stanford Coach Walt Harris said. ``They're great up front. I know they've had some injuries, but they have played through those injuries. They have two outstanding backs who are probably faster than anyone on our defense. We have our hands full.'' Stanford ranks sixth in the Pacific-10 Conference against the run (139.9 yards per game) but has a strong front seven and has raised its play down the stretch. Last week, the Cardinal (5-4, 4-3) held Oregon State standout Yverson Bernard to 81 yards in 22 carries, more than 42 yards below his average. In the past five weeks, only USC (184) has rushed for more than 126 yards against Stanford. Cal Coach Jeff Tedford called the Cardinal defense the team's strength. ``Offensively, they've been efficient, made plays when they've needed to, but defense is really the key for them,'' Tedford said. ``They've been very good on defense.'' If Cal (6-4, 3-4) has to pass to win, it could be rough for Levy, a redshirt sophomore who played fullback last season. Stanford is tied with WashingtonState for the Pac-10 lead in sacks, averaging 3.2 per game.
Levy, the first Cal quarterback since Wes Dalton in 1999 to make his first start in the Big Game, has thrown 11 passes in two mop-up appearances. He takes over from Joe Ayoob, whose erratic play cost him his starting job. Ayoob will still have an opportunity to repair his confidence, because Tedford said both quarterbacks will play. Confidence is not a factor for Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards, who has earned admiration from teammates and coaches for his play this season. The redshirt junior suffered a thumb injury to his non-throwing hand against Oregon State but practiced all week and will make his first Big Game start. ``Trent has played tremendous for us,'' Harris said. ``We would not be in this situation that we're in if it wasn't for his tremendous play, tremendous toughness and great time after time examples of courage.'' Edwards had known only heartache since his arrival at Stanford in 2002. The former Los Gatos High star suffered a thigh injury so severe in the 2003 Big Game that it required surgery. Last season, he didn't play against Cal because of shoulder trouble. Despite Edwards' presence, the Cardinal ranks last in the Pac-10 in total offense and eighth in scoring, largely because of injuries at receiver and along the line. Stanford has overcome that deficiency by keeping turnovers and penalties to a minimum. Cal's defense will be among the toughest the Cardinal has faced. Only USC (343.4) allows fewer yards per game in the Pac-10 than the Bears (362.4). Ultimately, though, this Big Game is as evenly matched as any since 1996, the last time Cal and Stanford went to a bowl game in the same season. Stanford won the '96 Big Game and eventually stretched its winning streak against Cal to seven. But the Bears reclaimed the Axe in 2002 and have not given it back, a point that drives the Cardinal. ``There are not many of us who have touched that Axe anymore,'' said receiver Gerren Crochet, a redshirt when Stanford beat Cal in 2001. ``It may be a silly tradition, but what it stands for really does mean a lot to the seniors. ``It's a sense of pride that we have not been able to have for the last three years -- the sense of jubilation with the rest of the crowd, the fans on the field.'' Today, the Cardinal can change that as well as qualify for its first bowl game since 2001.