- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Does Jim Harbaugh need a hug? Sure sounds like it. His poor, old Stanford team: How can it possibly survive this weekend at California in the Big Game?
Sure, Stanford is ranked sixth in the nation, and many educated eyes deem the Cardinal the nation's best one-loss team. Sure, Stanford's offense is among the most potent in the country. Sure, it's led by the likely top overall pick in this spring's NFL draft, quarterback Andrew Luck. Sure, the Cardinal are still in the running for the Rose Bowl, which Cal last played in 457 years ago.
But Cal has won seven out of eight Big Games, including a surprising 34-28 upset last year at Stanford.
"You mentioned last year, but you could really go back the last eight years," Harbaugh said. "We're trying to make this rivalry game a rivalry. But you can't really call it a rivalry when you've lost seven out of the last eight games."
Poor, old Stanford.
California darn near beat top-ranked Oregon last weekend before succumbing 15-13. The Bears' defense only allowed one offensive touchdown against the high-powered Ducks. Oregon rolled over Stanford 52-31. So what is the poor old Cardinal to do?
"It's the best defense we've played by far," Harbaugh said. "They really look like the best team in the Pac-10, especially at home."
Cal, by the way, is 5-5. It lost by 21 at Nevada, 34 at USC and 28 at Oregon State, which just lost to Washington State.
Ah, but the Big Game, which ninth-year Bears coach Jeff Tedford seemingly owns, will be played inside Strawberry Canyon, where Cal's only loss this season is the nail-biter to the Ducks.
"I've been asked that enough times, so I should have analyzed it," Tedford said. "If I had the magical answer it would have been taken care of a long time ago."
What we can understand with metaphysical certainty is that Cal is going to need to score to beat Stanford, and it hasn't done much of that since quarterback Kevin Riley went down with a season-ending knee injury and was replaced by Brock Mansion. In the 11-plus quarters since Mansion has been running the offense -- including starts against Washington State and Oregon -- the Bears have scored just five touchdowns. Mansion has just one TD pass with two interceptions and is completing just 46.8 percent of his throws.
Seeing that Bears running back Shane Vereen gashed Stanford for 193 yards and three scores on 42 carries -- 42! -- in last year's Big Game, you can imagine the basics of the Cardinal's defensive plan: Gang up on Vereen, force Mansion to make plays in the passing game.
"It's going to be very important for him to keep his composure and for him just to play within himself and not try to do too much," Tedford said. "He's still learning, there's no doubt about it."
So Cal's challenge is to figure out creative ways to move the ball and keep the dramatically improved Stanford defense honest.
But that's nothing compared to poor, old Stanford.
"We're really trying to figure out how we can move the ball against them," Harbaugh said. "This week preparing for Cal's defense is pretty much like preparing for an NFL team."
The matchup of Stanford's physical offensive line and the Cal front seven will be interesting. The Bears lead the Pac-10 in total defense and sacks (30). Stanford is 14th in the nation in total offense and has yielded just four sacks, which is tied for fewest in the nation.
When asked about last year's game, Harbaugh said the Cardinal "got the fuzzy end of the popsicle." After purchasing hundreds of different brands of popsicles, the Pac-10 blog was unable to find one with a fuzzy end, but Harbaugh provided clarity by noting that the problem for Stanford in the 2009 Big Game was "we didn't score as many points as the Bears did."
Nothing like cutting to the chase. And in Saturday's game, while there will be an intriguing strength-on-strength battle between the Cal defense and the Stanford offense, this one really comes down to whether Mansion and the Cal offense can rise to the occasion and score more points than poor, old Stanford.