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SAN FRANCISCO -- We have a Big Podcast for the Big Game this week, as we welcome in guest Mike Silver, along with pre-recorded segments with senior wide receiver Michael Calvin and senior offensive lineman Justin Cheadle. Former California linebacker Jarred Price drops in for a visit, as we talk all things Big Game and Golden Bears athletics.
Also joining us on the phone from Bellflower, Calif., is Cal wide receiving legend Brian Treggs.
Treggs starred as a wide receiver for the Bears from 1988 to 1991. He ranks fourth on the Cal all-time career receptions list with 167, fourth all-time with 2,335 receiving yards and seventh in career receiving touchdowns with 15.
But, one thing that Treggs never had was possession of The Axe. Luckily, though, his son - four-star wide receiver commit Bryce Treggs -- will have a chance to cross that achievement off the list, when he comes to Berkeley next season to help open up the newly-renovated California Memorial Stadium.
Throughout the week, we've been talking to some of the current Bears about what they hate most about rival Stanford.
"At one of the basketball games when I was a freshman or a sophomore, our mascot got in a fight with the Tree, and that was awesome. I enjoyed that," senior linebacker D.J. Holt said earlier this week. "I've always wondered about that. I'm like, 'Cardinal? Tree?' I just don't get it. Sione Fua went there last year, and I played with him in high school, and I would talk to him about that. Some of the guys on the team I know, I ask, 'Your guys' mascot, what is that? What are you, a tree?' I'm kind of confused over here.
"I dislike the Tree. The Tree is definitely, I've seen some really good mascots, and I just don't understand -- the Cardinal, the Tree -- I don't understand it. I mean, hey, that's what they do over there, so they're the Tree."
Holt and the rest of the Cal defense will try to stop the No. 2 scoring offense and No. 2 overall offense in the Pac-12, which scores 46.4 points per game and gains 493.7 yards per game, headed by Heisman hopeful Andrew Luck.
"We're not a team that can be taken lightly. I think Stanford knows that," Holt said.
Luck leads the conference's No. 5 passing attack, which has gained 2,786 total yards through the air, 278.6 yards per game and a conference-best 8.6 yards per reception. Even playing most of the season without speedy wide receiver Chris Owusu, Stanford is tops in the league in passing efficiency (168.9) with 30 TDs, a 70.8 completion percentage and just seven picks. Owusu caught 35 balls for 376 yards and two scores in his nine games.
"I think they've got a very formidable receiving group, and I think what makes their offense very good in the passing game is the quarterback's ability to get the ball there, is, obviously, one of the best in the country," said Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "You're defending against a lot higher-velocity ball than you would with normal college quarterbacks. He makes a lot of people look pretty darn good."
That offense will be playing without tight end Zach Ertz, sidelined with a leg injury. Ertz caught 22 balls for 208 yards and three touchdowns in his eight games this season.
"It's tough to get a handle on them, because they move them around in so many different positions," Pendergast said of the Cardinal tight ends. "One time a guy's out at X and the next time, he's in the slot, the next time he's in a wing and the next time he's in the normal tight end position, so they do a lot of different things. It's hard to get a bead on playing one certain technique on a particular tight end, because of the nature of how they move them around.
"They're going to do what they do and having the tight ends involved in their offense is big. They've got five or six tight ends, so they've got guys ready and they've got talented guys behind him that I'm sure they'll just plug in and keep on doing what they're doing."
Cal has the No. 1 passing defense in the Pac-12, with opposing quarterbacks completing 54.7 percent of passes (the lowest mark in the conference) for 1,988 yards (also lowest). Opposing teams average a conference-low 6.5 yards per passing attempt for 198.8 yards per game.
"I've told the defense that I spent 15 years in the NFL, and when you're looking to get evaluated, when I'm looking at a player, I'm going to pull out the 'SC game, the Stanford game, the bigger opponents against the better people, so you're going against one of the better players that everybody's going to dissect every play that he plays, so whether you're a defensive lineman, a linebacker or a secondary guy, you've got a chance to make an impact," Pendergast said.
The Bears have only allowed 12 touchdowns through the air on the season, a figure tied for the best in the league with -- you guessed it -- Stanford.
Beyond just throwing the ball, Luck is adept at changing the play at the line of scrimmage.
"They do a good job of getting in and out of certain plays, and you just have to be aware of that. That's just part of their offense," Pendergast said. "They're similar that way to some of the teams we've faced this year. That isn't something that is really new to our guys. It's just something that we need to be aware of."
When the passing game was frustrated against Oregon State two weeks ago, Luck turned to his running game mostly by checking at the line, and it paid off, as the Cardinal rushed for 300 yards against the Beavers.
"Our D-line, we don't let people run up the middle," said senior defensive end Trevor Guyton. "They can try and run and do whatever they want to. At the end of the day, we'll see how many yards they get on the run, but they're not going to come up the middle … We're a very physical D-line, so they're not going to out-physical us on the line. That's not going to happen. That's what we hang our hats on. We play hard and we hit hard and all that type of stuff. If there's one thing that's not going to happen, nobody's going to blow us off the ball or run up the middle on us."
Stanford boasts the second-most prolific rushing offense in the league, churning out 2,151 yards on the ground (215.1 per game) led by tailback Stepfan Taylor, who ranks fifth in the Pac-12 with 99.0 yards per game on the ground and has the fourth-best yards-per-carry average (5.8) in the conference.
"You've got to just see how the game unfolds a little bit. Just like every other team, they're going to have their game plan that they want to do against you," Pendergast said. "Whether it's coming out throwing or coming out running, you've got to be prepared for either one. They're very physical up front. They're very physical running the ball, in terms of their backs, and they're very physical in blocking on the perimeter, so we'll have our hands full trying to stop the run. They're a dynamic offense. They can hurt you in a lot of different ways."
The Bears (6-4, 4-4 in Pac-12) will try to do what Oregon did last week in a 53-30 win over Stanford, by making life difficult for Luck and his tailbacks behind the line of scrimmage, forcing five turnovers -- two interceptions and three fumbles -- and tallying three sacks.
"They do a really good job in protection up front," Pendergast said. "They mix up their passing game between three-step, five-step and seven-step drops, so in the three-step drop, obviously, he gets the ball out of his hands quick, and then in the five- and seven-step drop, they do a lot of seven- and eight-man protection to make it hard to get in there and pressure him, so you've really got to win your one-on-one match-ups when you have the opportunity, when it is a pass, to get a chance to get your hands on it. Then, you've got to deal with him moving in the pocket and scrambling, as well, which I think he's very good at."
The Cardinal offensive line has allowed just seven sacks on the year -- second only to USC in the Pac-12 -- and only 21 tackles for loss.
"You've got to respect your opponent -- and we do; they're a good team -- but we don't like them," said Guyton, who is eighth in the conference with 4.5 sacks, tied with fellow senior defensive end Ernest Owusu, who ranks 16th in the conference with 7.5 tackles for loss. "It's something that you grow into when you come to Cal or Stanford. It's built-in. There's a mutual respect, but we definitely despise each other."
What in particular does Guyton dislike about the Cardinal?
"Everything," he said. "Nothing in particular. Whatever they represent, I don't like."
The Bears feature the conference's third-most prolific sacking squad (29 total) and the Pac-12's fourth-best rushing defense -- allowing 120.3 yards per game on the ground, and holding their last two opponents to under 100 combined rushing yards.
"Our biggest thing is that we play harder than any other D-line," Guyton said. "They do have a solid O-line and everything like that, but the biggest thing is effort, just getting in there, get the second effort, get in there and put pressure on them. As long as we keep doing that, and disrupting their plays, coach P is always talking about just affecting the quarterback. You don't always have to get the sacks and the QB hits. Maybe just change how he throws the ball or making the wrong decision or something like that. If we get in there and do that, we're going to get [Luck] on the ground a few times and it's going to help our case."
Guyton is fifth in the league in tackles for loss with 9.5, while Holt and senior inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks are tied for seventh in that category with 8.5 apiece.
Kendricks may very well return to his old outside linebacker position alongside true freshman Cecil Whiteside in the absence of freshman starters David Wilkerson and Chris McCain, and Guyton may even see some time outside in a 4-3 look as he did last week against Oregon State.
"That was a game plan deal, and it worked out pretty well," said Guyton, who had two tackles for loss and a sack last week. "That was the first time that I've played [outside linebacker]. Basically, it was just a 4-3 defense that game, and it worked out pretty well. It wasn't too much or anything too crazy. It was fun. I got used to it during practice, so it's a little awkward initially, but once you realize what you're doing, it's just a part of the game. It definitely adds another dimension to how you see the game. When you're standing up, you kind of see everybody, but it's not too bad."
Kendricks is third in the Pac-12 in total tackles with 75, and is fifth in tackles per game, averaging 7.5 stops per contest. Holt is right behind him with 71 tackles and 7.1 per game, good for fifth and seventh, respectively.
"Winning the Big Game makes a successful season," Guyton said. "That's the biggest game of ours. "We could have an undefeated season, but if we win that game, that's the bright spot, regardless. I don't care if they had zero wins. It's still going to feel good to beat them. It doesn't matter to me."
As of Thursday, the Bears stood as 18-point underdogs to the No. 9-ranked Cardinal (9-1, 7-1), but that doesn't matter much to Cal's veteran defenders.
"We like that," Holt said. "It's tough to say that we're an underdog, because in my first few years here, we were usually on top, so being the underdog is kind of good that these guys take us lightly, because we are still a great team, although we've had a couple bad games here and there and we were pretty inconsistent. The day that we show up, when we all want to play, we play well.
"It's probably the toughest challenge we'll have this year. They have a great quarterback, probably the best in the country. They have a great O-line, a great team, they work well together. And, it's the Big Game, so it's going to be a tough challenge. They're coming off a loss, as well, and we still have a little bit of the bad taste from last year when we played them, so, it's going to be a great game. We're looking forward to playing these guys and redeeming ourselves, but we can't go in and take them lightly, because they'll come back and fight even harder, because they lost last week."
Not even the fact that the Bears are now bowl-eligible takes any of the vitriol out of the annual contest.
"That comes secondary to just beating Stanford," Guyton said. "I don't really care. Whatever happens, happens. Whatever bowl game we go to, that's not really for us to decide. The biggest thing is just to beat Stanford. Everything else will follow. We have a chance to bring back The Axe. That's what we're trying to do."