1. I . . . don't care about this year's Big Game. Tell me who Stanford is likely to lose from this year's team, and whether or not you expect them to be as good next year.
JB: It depends on which juniors declare for the draft, but Stanford is for sure going to lose MLB Shayne Skov, OLB Trent Murphy, DE Ben Gardner, G David Yankey, RB Tyler Gaffney and a lot of other starters. It's going to be tough for Stanford to be a Playoff-contending team, but they'll still have some young talent and Kevin Hogan to provide a little continuity. I think Stanford is probably a 7-8 win team in 2014.
HW: Before last season started I felt like 2014 was shaping up to be Stanford's best shot at winning a national championship, and that still might be the case. The recruiting class of 2012 was phenomenal, and by next season most of the marquee players from that group will be major contributors. (Alex Carter and Andrus Peat are already starting, and players like Josh Garnett, Kyle Murphy, Michael Rector, and Kodi Whitfield have also gotten significant time.) Even with all that incoming talent, it will be hard to replace All-Pac-12 performers like guard David Yankey, linebackers Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy, and running back Tyler Gaffney. I don't think it's a stretch to say that Stanford will be at least as good as they've been this season. There is a lot of talent waiting to fill in on defense, and the offensive line should be just as solid as it's been for the last four years. Things are still looking bright for the Cardinal.
2. David Shaw, Stanford lifer: True or false?
JB: I say true. He has said he wants to stay at Stanford until his kids graduate from college, and he's also said that he turned down offers to go to the NFL last year. So I think he stays for quite a while.
3. How is our good friend Pete Alamar doing?
JB: Quite well, actually. He's helped turn Ty Montgomery into one of the most dangerous kick returners in America and his punt units have been really good as well. The field goal kicking has been so-so (as you probably noted in the USC game), but he's actually been a quality addition to the staff thus far.
HW: I have to admit that I had always looked at special teams as something that got in the way of the rest of the game. Pete Alamar's arrival at Stanford, however, has made a huge difference. One thing you'll notice is that unlike most teams, Stanford plays an awful lot of starters on special teams, with the idea that the best players available should be on the field as much as possible. The result has been that Stanford's special teams are amongst the best -- if not the VERY best -- in the nation. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery is currently second in the nation in kick return yardage and has returned two kicks for touchdowns this season, but that's only the most obvious facet of special teams. According to the stat heads at ESPN, Stanford's special teams play contributes 3.42 points per game to the Cardinal's opponent-adjusted scoring margin, which is seventh-best in the nation. In 2011, before Alamar's arrival, Stanford ranked 28th, which is obviously a significant difference.
4. Kevin Hogan seems minimally involved with the offense as a QB. Can he lead the offense if Cal shuts down the Cardinal running game? (I hear your laughter)
JB: Hogan has shown that he can throw down the field against subpar defenses (see: Washington State) and he can also use his feet to create a run game if needed, so I say yes. But it's really hard to make Stanford's base run game totally ineffective.
HW: Kevin Hogan is perhaps the biggest variable connected with this team. I don't know if I've had a single conversation with a Stanford fan that hasn't eventually gotten around to Hogan's lack of development. A friend of mine summed it up perfectly during halftime of last week's loss to USC: "Last year he played the way I thought he would this year, and this year he's playing the way I thought he would last year." In a nutshell, he seems to have regressed. There are lots of possible reasons for this. Last year not even Stanford fans knew who he was, so there were no expectations at all; nothing he did was going to disappoint. Also, defensive coordinators had no film on him at all, so I doubt there was any specific preparation geared towards stopping him. Finally, he was throwing to two NFL draft picks at tight end, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. All of that has changed this year. After leading the Cardinal to six straight wins, including the Rose Bowl, most of us felt that he would only be better this season after an entire off season as the anointed starter. But instead of looking more confident, he often appears tentative. Instead of improving his mechanics, he seems to have regressed. Instead of showing a greater grasp of the offense, he often makes poor decisions. If we were to rank the Pac-12 quarterbacks, Hogan is probably somewhere in the middle right now, so the way to slow down the Stanford offense is definitely to make him do the heavy lifting. If the Bears can shut down or even slow the Cardinal running game, Hogan might struggle.
2009 Big Game - #25 Cal Golden Bears vs. #17 Stanford (Full Game) (via CalBearsArchive). Stanford has lost exactly twice at home in the past five seasons (inclusive) at home - once to Oregon, once to California.
5. The offense hasn't broken the 30-point barrier since Week 6. Is the team maximizing its talent on offense? How satisfied are you with the new offensive coordinator?
JB: No, the team is not maximizing its talent on offense. We've written about this many, many times at ROT, and come up with a million different ideas to kickstart the offense, but Hogan and company have been very frustrating to watch this season. I don't know that the blame should fall on new OC Mike Bloomgren, but should instead fall on Shaw, who actually calls the plays.
HW: A lot of this is covered in my response about Kevin Hogan, but there are issues beyond the quarterback. Stanford fans will tell you that this 8-2 team could be 10-0 and ranked #3 in the BCS were it not for some questionable play calling. (Of course, the Cardinal also could easily have lost to Washington or even Oregon State, but that's another story.) Stanford trailed by six when they got to 3rd and 2 at the Utah 6 with a minute to play, but instead of relying on the strength of their running game, they watched their chance at victory disappear with two incomplete passes. Last week they had a late 1st and goal at the USC 4 during a tie game, and again the play calling was a bit questionable. Instead of simply pounding the ball into the end zone, there was a botched wildcat run, a failed screen, and an interception. What these plays have in common is that they were all called by head coach David Shaw, not offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren. Shaw has repeatedly said that he calls all the red zone plays, and while he's correct in saying that the plays have to be executed well (Hogan's interception was thrown directly at a USC linebacker that he apparently never saw), there are those who suggest Shaw should give up his play calling duties. Beyond those red zone issues, the offense has appeared inconsistent for much of the season and even though Tyler Gaffney has rushed for 1201 yards, good for tenth in the nation and third in the conference, the offense hasn't quite settled on an identity. There are three games left in which to find it.
6. What player on defense besides Shane Skov should Cal fans know about?
JB: Trent Murphy. He looks like Ivan Drago, and he has 18 tackles for loss and 12 sacks this season. I think he may get acquainted with Jared Goff at some point Saturday.
HW: The best player on the Stanford defense, and perhaps the best defensive player in the conference, has been outside linebacker Trent Murphy. First of all, he's a physical freak. He's listed at 6'6" and 261 pounds, but he's still athletic enough to get out in coverage, and he's even had a pick six both this season and last. Where he's the most fearsome, though, is as a pass rusher. He leads the nation with 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss, and he spends much of his time in the backfield generally disrupting the opposing offense. He has been phenomenal all season long, and you'll probably hear his name early and often on Saturday afternoon.
7. What player on offense besides Hogan and Gaffney should Cal fans know about?
JB: Probably Ty Montgomery. He's been quiet lately, but he still has 662 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns this season - and Stanford has been using him on jet sweeps more frequently lately. He's mostly been a stud this year, even though his hands have failed him at times. Also, Barry Sanders. Number 26 in your program, number one in Stanford fans' hearts.
HW: The offensive line at least deserves a mention, as Andrus Peat, David Yankey, Khalil Wilkes, Kevin Danser, and Cameron Fleming have been dominant all season long, but the single player who might impact this game the most aside from Hogan and Gaffney is wide receiver Ty Montgomery. He showed huge promise as a true freshman in 2011 before falling prey to injuries and inconsistency in 2012, but he's been Stanford's leading receiver this season. But after a huge game against Utah (8 catches for 131 yards), his numbers have dipped severely as he's totaled only 148 yards receiving in his last four games and hasn't reached the end zone since the first Saturday of October. Last week was probably rock bottom for Montgomery, as he dropped three passes, including a deep ball on the opening drive. I think he's due for a bounce-back game this weekend.
8. Predict a score
JB: I'll say Stanford wins, 31-10.
HW: I think it's time for the Cardinal to work out some frustrations after last week, and the Bears will have to pay the price. Stanford 48, Cal 10.
9. Who do you want to punch in the face?
JB: The people who made the Pac-12's bowl deals. This is the point of the year I'm always frustrated that the Pac-12's only marquee bowl is the Rose Bowl, while the SEC and Big Ten get half a dozen bowl games on New Year's Day. And I want to see more Pac-12 vs SEC matchups in bowl games.
HW: I was at the Coliseum last Saturday. There are about 80,000 people I want to punch in the face.