By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Given where he grew up, you would expect Zach Ertz to be pulling for Cal on Saturday in the 115th Big Game at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. He played football at Monte Vista High School in Danville, where one of his good friends and teammates was Taylor Tedford, son of Golden Bears head coach Jeff Tedford.
Instead, Ertz wound up attending Stanford, where he has established himself as one of the top tight ends in the country. This week, Ertz and teammate Levine Toilolo were named to the John Mackey Award Midseason Watch List.
"We were good friends and hung out together," said Ertz. "We had a few dinners over at their house. I know them pretty well."
How did Ertz, who caught 56 passes for 756 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior, elude Cal?
"They offered me before my senior year," he said. "It was an option, but not one I seriously considered. I liked it because it was close to home and a lot of people from the East Bay are big Cal fans and alumni. I didn't really feel a strong connection with the coaching staff."
Ertz went to a few Cal games growing up and attended one Big Game. He specifically remembers Stanford wide receiver Teyo Johnson having a huge day.
"He was a beast," said Ertz.
The same could be said about Ertz. At 6-foot-6, 252 pounds, he has great size, sure hands and deceptive speed. A senior with one year of eligibility remaining, Ertz leads the Cardinal in receptions (25) and yards (371), and caught a game-winning 37-yard touchdown pass from Josh Nunes in the 21-14 win against USC.
"Zach is a wide receiver in a tight end body," said Craig Bergman, his head coach at Monte Vista. "That's what makes him so difficult to defend."
Bergman, who still coaches at Monte Vista and is also the athletic director, remembers a shuttle pass Ertz caught and carted the distance.
"You don't run many to 6-6 guys," he said. "He took it about 70 yards for a touchdown and ran away from people. That's when I knew he could be special."
Bergman, a former quarterback at Santa Clara University, has a close relationship with Ertz. They talk every week.
"He's like a son to me," Bergman said.
Bergman said he wasn't surprised Ertz chose Stanford.
"Cal didn't recruit him that heavily until the end," said Bergman. "You look at Stanford, an up-and-coming program with great academics ... it was a no-brainer." Initially, Ertz didn't realize the Big Game was such a big deal. Now he does.
"You obviously know it's a rivalry," he said.
Ertz missed last year's Cal game with a knee injury, but played two years ago at Berkeley, catching two passes, including a 13-yard scoring catch from Andrew Luck in Stanford's 48-14 victory.
His favorite moment?
"The big one that stands out was watching Andrew run over that guy (Cal defender Sean Cattouse)," he said, referring to Luck's 58-yard scramble. "That game was just a blast."
The No. 22 Cardinal enters Saturday's game 4-2 after a tough loss at Notre Dame, while 3-4 Cal has won two consecutive games.
"We know Cal is a good team," said Ertz. "They beat UCLA by 20-some points. They have some athletes; we've always known that. Keenan Allen is one of the top receivers in the country. They've got a big front seven, a lot like Notre Dame. We've moved on from the Notre Dame game and all of our focus is on Cal."
After scoring 54 points in an overtime win against Arizona, the Cardinal offense failed to find the end zone against Notre Dame.
"I think we're close on a lot of things," Ertz said. "We get down in the red zone and one person messes up or we get a penalty. Just little things kind of add up in the end. I think that's where we have to make our hay and just put all those bad plays behind us."
While Ertz would like to contribute more, he simply goes hard every play and tries to be ready for each opportunity.
"You run every route like you're expecting to get the ball," he said. "If you don't get the ball, somebody else is probably open and there's a reason they got the ball. You just have to control what you can control in most aspects of this game."
Ertz will have family and friends in Memorial Stadium on Saturday, and admits it's not just another game.
"Growing up in the East Bay, this is a big game," said Ertz. "You hear how good Cal is, and Stanford is always the second school. Obviously, I don't believe that. This is a big game for me, Brett (Nottingham/Monte Vista) and some of the East Bay guys. I know this is going to sound cliché, but this is just another game for the team. You have to put all the personal vendettas aside. The only thing that matters is a win."
Stanford's two losses have come by a combined 11 points.
"One break here, one break there, and the game is completely different," Ertz said. "I don't think there's any reason to panic. We know we have a good team and we're looking forward to proving it this week."
There's also the matter of retaining The Axe. The Cardinal has won it two straight years.
"It would be big as a program and a team," said Ertz. "We just have to get that momentum back. Getting The Axe back would be a big step in that direction."