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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - October 19, 2012

New date, but same Big Game challenge

Stanford's wealth of linebackers are hoping to contain Cal's No. 3 rushing offense in the Pac-12

by Rick Eymer

David Shaw has a problem any college football coach would love to have. He has too many good inside linebackers.

The position was severely tested when Shayne Skov went down for the season last year and A.J. Tarpley and Jarek Lancaster were expected to carry the baton, which they did admirably.

Skov's return this season meant Tarpley and Lancaster were regulated to reserve roles again. But that has been a blessing for Shaw because it means one or more of them, with James Vaughters also in the mix, will be fresh for special teams action. Shaw considers his linebackers key to that aspect of the game plan.

Calling them reserves may not be the best description for them either. All four linebackers see plenty of action.

"We can consider ourselves starters," Tarpley said. "We all prepare as starters."

And Shaw has continually downplayed the starting role, saying it doesn't matter who participates in the first play of the game.

No matter who starts when No. 22 Stanford (2-1, 4-2) travels to Berkeley to take on California (2-2, 3-4) in the 115th annual Big Game on Saturday at noon, it's pretty clear someone else may be in as soon as the second play.

Skov, fourth on the team with 31 tackles, is credited with five starts (he sat out the game against San Jose State). Vaughters, with 15 tackles including a sack, has four starts. Tarpley gets three starts next to his name and Lancaster (19 tackles including a sack) zero.

Yet all have played in every game for which they have been eligible. Expect more of the same against the Bears, who have lost the past two Big Games — including a 31-28 nail-biter last year in the rain.

"With the loss last week (a 20-13 overtime setback at Notre Dame), we have to be as urgent as we can be," said Tarpley, who has 20 tackles, including a sack.

The annual showdown will feature the Pac-12's No. 2 rushing defense of Stanford (89.5 yards per

game) against the No. 3 rushing offense of Cal (195.0).

The Cardinal is back on the road again, where success has been hard to achieve. It's just Stanford's third game away from home, and even Shaw is concerned about the team's ability to make plays — with Stanford facing five of its final seven games on the road.

When it comes to the Big Game, Stanford has lost four of the past five in Berkeley.

"I'm concerned but we're closer to home," he said. "We have not played great offense on the road. We've dropped a lot of balls, we have too many long third downs and we're not as good in the red zone."

The offense has yet to score a touchdown on the road this season, though Jordan Williamson has connected on two field goals in each contest and the defense has added a score in each game.

While senior Stepfan Taylor rushed for 102 yards on 28 carries, he couldn't get into the end zone. He'll need to do that Saturday as he'll be looking to gain at least 95 yards to catch Toby Gerhart for second all-time in career rushing yards.

Overall, though, Shaw is upbeat about the first half of the season.

"Six games in and we sit at 4-2," he said. "Those two games we could have won however. Thinking about the conference race, it's a good place to be. We still have our main goal available to us and that is winning the Pac-12 championship."

Stanford has played up to 11 freshmen thus far in the season and Shaw thinks they will only get better as the season progresses.

"We're not a finished product," Shaw said. "And yet we went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation. The question is can we finish those games, particularly on the road? Can we pull these out?"

California would be a good start.

"A lot of us, from both sides, look forward to this game," Shaw said. "It doesn't matter when it's played, it will still be a hostile environment."

Shaw was a true freshman in 1990, taking in the sights and sounds of his first Big Game.

"It's still the most memorable Big Game in my mind," Shaw said. "I'm standing on the sideline and we score (with 12 seconds left) but fail on the two-point conversion and the fans rush the field. They clear the field, assess a 15-yard penalty and Stanford recovers the onside kick."

A roughing-the-passer penalty against Cal gave Stanford one last chance, with Jon Hopkins delivering a 37-yard field goal with no time left.

"I'm standing there watching all of this unfold," Shaw said. "I look over to Hopkins and he's looking to warm up for the possible field goal. There was no net. It had been taken away when the fans stormed the field. Hopkins just shrugged his shoulders and started kicking balls into the stands to get his timing down. Then he goes out and kicks the game-winner."

This is also the 30th anniversary of "The Play," on which the Bears scored the winning points on a 5-lateral, 57-yard touchdown run with Stanford trombone player Gary Tyrell famously getting bowled over in the end zone.

As for playing the game in October? (It's never been played any earlier than November).

"I don't like it," Shaw said. "It's weird. It's different but it's still Big Game week and still a snapshot in time. This week is its own entity."

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