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Roll On: Previewing The Stanford Defense

While Stanford's offense has struggled this year, the same cannot be said for the defense. Points may very well be at a premium in the 115th Big Game.

Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

I'm jealous of ManBearCal. He gets to preview the Andrew Luckless Stanford offense. I get to preview the unit that might arguably be better than last year's solid Stanford defense.

No need for any fancy intros this week. You all know the team, you all know the stakes. What is it going to take to get back that axe?


Defensive Line: So. DE Henry Anderson; Sr. NG Terrence Stephens; Jr. DE Ben Gardner

Gardner is the big threat along the line, and beyond that Stanford hasn't gotten much from Anderson and almost nothing from Stephens, who tends to get taken off the field in Stanford's nickel packages. Gardner would be a candidate for a double team, but that just leaves one less blocker left to stop the real heart of Stanford's defense . . .

Linebackers: Jr. OLB Trent Murphy; So. ILB A.J. Tarpley OR So. James Vaughters; Sr. ILB Shayne Skov; Sr. OLB Chase Thomas

The heart of the defense in every way. Murphy, Thomas and Skov are all talented, veteran, versatile players. They have combined for 99 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Any one of them can blitz at any moment. Picking them up will be a huge challenge for the offensive line. I'll be thrilled to see Skov and Thomas leave for the pros and I'll be hoping that Murphy decides to join them a year early.

Secondary: Jr. LCB Terrence Brown; So. FS Ed Reynolds; So. SS Jordan Richards; Jr. RCB Barry Browning OR So. RCB Wayne Lyons

Based on what happened against Arizona, Stanford's potential weak spot (more on that below). Even then, the results don't indicate that. Reynolds and Richards have 5 of Stanford's 8 interceptions, and Richards leads the team in pass break-ups and passes defended.

Brown is the #1 cornerback, and Browning and Lyons tend to split snaps relatively evenly from what I've seen. I wouldn't expect Stanford to use a ton of nickel against Cal's hopefully balanced attack, but if they do junior Usua Amanam is listed at the nickel back.

This Season

  • 288 yards allowed (4.65 yards/play) in a 20-17 win over San Jose State
  • 385 yards allowed (4.48 yards/play) in a 50-13 win over Duke
  • 280 yards allowed (4.06 yards/play) in a 21-14 win over USC
  • 313 yards allowed (4.40 yards/play) in a 17-13 loss to Washington
  • 617! yards allowed (5.99!! yards/play) in a 54!!!-48 win over Arizona
  • 334 yards allowed (4.64 yards/play) in a 20-13 loss to Notre Dame

In five games this season the Stanford defense has been remarkably consistent no matter the quality of the opposition. Duke and San Jose St. faired almost exactly as well as USC and Notre Dame. About 300 total yards, about 4 to 4.5 yards/play, and somewhere in the range of 17 points.

Except Arizona. For the life of me I can't figure out what happened to Stanford against Arizona. That game might be the single biggest outlier performance in the Pac-12 so far this season. It makes absolutely no sense. Presumably there's something in that game for the Cal coaching staff to look at, but I have no clue if Cal's offense can do what Rich Rodriguez's offense can do.

Against the Run

Now that enough games have been played, we'll be adding in some advanced stats to the equation. If you want to read up on S&P+ (and other advanced metrics), head on over to footballoutsiders.

2.84 yards allowed/attempt, 10th in the nation

Rush defense S&P+ ranking: 20th in the nation

The good news is that, believe it or not, Cal is arguably the best rushing offense Stanford has faced. This is only if you ignore the advanced stats that I just endorsed. But still, Cal averages more yards/attempt than any team on Stanford's schedule except USC. This game will be a good barometer for the offensive line's hypothetical improvement. Was Cal's success against UCLA and Washington State solely a factor of playing UCLA and WSU and not USC and ASU?

Conversely, Stanford is almost certainly the best run defense the Bears have faced. Cal has found success on the ground against every team on the schedule (although we abandoned the run so early against USC that maybe that game should be thrown out of the equation). Even then, running for consistent success against Stanford would mildly surprise me.

Against the Pass

6.2 yards allowed/attempt, 25th in the nation

Pass defense S&P+ ranking: 10th in the nation

You'll note something of a discrepancy between the standard stats and the advanced stats - the standard stats prefer Stanford's run defense, the advanced stats prefer Stanford's pass defense. I think much of that is a function of the NCAA's insistence on counting sacks as negative run plays rather than negative pass plays. Stanford's biggest strength might be their ability to pressure the quarterback - it certainly was against USC and Washington.

Even against Arizona Stanford still recorded 3 sacks, though it took 72 drop backs to get to that number. Other than the Arizona anomaly, Stanford's strength is an ability to get consistent pressure. Sure, the 5 sacks were huge. But there were even more plays in which Barkley was forced to throw too early or make a poor decision because of pressure.

If there is a potential weakness in Stanford's defense, it might be in the secondary. For the majority of the year quarterbacks just haven't had the time or opportunity to get the ball away. But Arizona did, and when they did those passes tended to get caught and their receivers tended to keep running. Perhaps Stanford's cornerbacks and safeties are reliant on defensive pressure to avoid giving up yardage? Stanford typically plays zone, so it will be up to the coaching staff to find the soft spots in the zone and for Zach Maynard to identify the right guy to target.

There's not a ton of evidence to support this half-baked theory, but if you're the optimistic type it's something to hope for on Saturday.

Stats of Dubious Value


14 turnovers forced (6 fumbles, 8 interceptions), 23rd in the nation

Two interception prone quarterbacks will enter. Only one will walk away.

3rd Down Opponent conversion percentage of 32.67%, 18th in the nation

If you browse through the advanced stats linked above, you might note that Cal's offense is actually pretty good on so called 'Standard downs' but pretty bad in 'passing downs,' which are defined as:

  • second down with 8 or more yards to go
  • third or forth down with 5 or more yards to go

Sure, our patented 3rd and long draw play isn't helping these numbers, but let's avoid downs in which Maynard is forced to throw the ball.

Red Zone
Opponent scoring percentage of 82.61%, 71st in the nation; Opponent touchdown percentage of 47.83%, 23rd in the nation.

Cal will never again face a team that struggles at red zone defense.


By any metric, Cal is facing a top 25 defense on Saturday. Is this the best defense Cal has faced so far this year? If you believe the advanced metrics, then yes. Arizona St. and perhaps USC and Ohio State have defenses not too far behind the Cardinal, and only ASU keeps up by standard stats.

That's obviously bad. The potential for an ASU spike factor level of offensive execution is there. All we can do is hope that the last two weeks has been much more than just playing weaker defenses. Maybe the coaching staff has figured things out, maybe the offensive line has improved, maybe the team has gelled.

Maybe Stanford's offense will be so bad that Cal can win 10-9. I'd be just fine and dandy with that. But last year Maynard, Allen, Sofele and company proved that they could move the ball against Stanford. Do it again this year and the Axe could come home.