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Before the raid: Previewing the Stanford defense

Mercifully, this is the last preview article of a 2013 football game for you to read this year.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow our Golden Bears take the field to face Stanford, the perfect football team. They win on the field and off. Living proof that in today's dirty world of college football, you can still win the right way. Why, Stanford would never have athletes that, say, commit crimes. Nor would they ever encourage athletes to give anything less than their best in the classroom. And when the Cardinal are on the field, they would never stoop to pathetic gamesmanship like Cal. Compared to awful, dirty old Cal, Stanford is downright perfect. Why, we should just forfeit the game rather than sully Stanford's perfect reputation by being on the same field as them - not that Stanford would ever be cowardly enough for something like that.

Unfortunately, as part of the perfection described above, Stanford's defense is arguably the very best in the country. They were really, really good last year, returned pretty much everybody in terms of coaches and personnel, and were really good again. I guess that's how football works. I wouldn't know.

A note: Stanford, because they are as pure as the driven snow, list their football players on the depth chart by academic year rather than football eligibility year. As a result, it seems like they're going to be graduating everybody when they really aren't. Below, I'll list what it says on their smarmy depth chart, but the reality can be found in this column from Wilner.


Defensive Line: Sr. DE Josh Mauro; Sr. DT David Parry; Sr. DE Henry Anderson

Obviously, the injury that ended the Stanford career of defensive end Ben Gardner is a critical one, although there hasn't been an obvious drop off in production since his departure.

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

The group that has been the heart of the Stanford defense for three years now. The forced departure of Murphy and Skov, and the potential departure of Tarpley gives hope that this unit won't be quite as fearsome next year, but that won't help Cal tomorrow.

It's tough to decide between Murphy and Skov as the defensive MVP. Murphy is the big play factory, as he essentially averages two tackles for loss and a sack per game. Meanwhile, Skov is the tackling machine while adding in occasional big plays of his own. Tarpley and Vaughters aren't as spectacular, but both are very, very reliable. Vaughters will likely be the one to sit when Stanford plays nickel defense.

Secondary: So. CB Alex Carter; Sr. FS Ed Reynolds; Jr. SS Jordan Richards; Jr. CB Wayne Lyons; Sr. NB Usua Amanam

Reynolds is the star of the defense, a guy with the typical speed of a free safety but the tackling ability and strength of a strong safety or linebacker. Richards has had plenty of success in coverage with three picks, while Lyons and Carter are very reliable tacklers in space. Expect to see plenty of Amanam, and hope that you hear the names of these guys, because that means that Cal is completing passes and they had to make tackles!

This Year

3.7 yards/play allowed in a 34-13 win over San Jose State
4.7 yards/play allowed in a 34-20 win over Army
5.2 yards/play allowed in a 42-28 win over Arizona State
4.8 yards/play allowed in a 55-17 win over Washington State
5.6 yards/play allowed in a 31-28 win over Washington
5.6 yards/play allowed in a 27-21 loss to Utah
4.0 yards/play allowed in a 24-10 win over UCLA
3.6 yards/play allowed in a 20-12 win over Oregon State
5.4 yards/play allowed in a 26-20 win over Oregon
4.9 yards/play allowed in a 20-17 loss to USC

Stanford is 3-2 in one possession games this year. It's a testament to how mediocre their offense is that they have two losses and could potentially have had mas many as five if their defense (and special teams) weren't so amazing. Utah and USC won because their offense maximized their points scored on very few yards and Stanford's offense couldn't do enough.

For Cal to win, they would likely have to follow that same formula and hope that their defense holds Stanford to 20 points or less. So, yeah.

Against the Run

2013: 3.03 yards allowed/attempt, 6th in the nation

Obviously, Stanford's run defense has been a point of pride for the defense for a few years now. They memorably held Cal to three yards rushing last year, although that includes sack yards. So really, Stanford's defense held Cal running backs to 18 yards on 19 carries, which I think makes us look much more respectable, doesn't it?

The only teams who have had any real success against Stanford's defense have managed to gain some traction on the ground. Both Utah (behind an at-the-time mobile Travis Wilson) and UW (behind Bishop Sankey) managed to break through. Unfortunately, Cal doesn't have players like that at the moment.

Against the Pass

2013: 6.0 yards allowed/attempt, 14th in the nation

Conversely, Arizona State was one of the few teams who managed to do damage through the air against Stanford, although most of that was in a very long, very extended session of garbage time. Stanford's secondary is plenty good, of course, but the real key is their ability to create pressure, as 32 sacks fully attest.

Advanced Stats

S&P STATS, 2013

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank






FEI+ total defensive efficiency rank: 2nd in the nation

Look at all those single digit numbers. The thing with Stanford's defense is that there isn't a single weakness. Oregon has some questions at linebacker. USC doesn't have depth. Stanford is just uniformly great across the board. God I hate them so much.

Stats of Dubious Value

As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.


2013: 14 forced turnovers, 96th in the nation (5 fumbles, 9 interceptions)

Actually, a rather poor performance compared to recent years. Stanford has recovered exactly half of the fumbles they have forced, so it's not that they have been unlucky in that regard. Of course, the numbers are artificially deflated because they haven't played Cal yet.

3rd Down

2013: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 33.56, 21st in the nation

Any time Cal faces 3rd and 4 or less that's a win.

Red Zone

2013: Opponent scoring percentage of 74.19%, 13th in the nation
2013: Opponent touchdown percentage of 51.61%, 23rd in the nation

Of course, it always helps when your opponents don't even reach the red zone. Stanford has allowed about three red zone possessions per game this year, and if Cal manages to exceed that average I might have to consider the day a success for the offense.


One-dimensional teams go to die against defenses as good as this one. Just ask UCLA, Oregon State, and even Oregon about their experiences when they were completely unable to run the ball. If we go out on a limb and assume that Stanford can adequately shut down Cal's run game, that puts an insane amount of pressure on Jared Goff and the offensive line.

For Goff, it means reading a defense with four spectacular linebackers, any of which can drop into coverage or blitz depending on the play call. For the line, it means picking up those blitzes. And this all has to happen without Chris Harper, one of the primary weapons of this offense.

Stanford's pass rush essentially allows their secondary to press forward, knowing that opponents don't have the time to beat them over the top. That should certainly work well this week against a team that has allowed 31 sacks of their own through 11 games.

As of this moment, there is zero reason for optimism. If Cal wins, it will be the greatest upset in the history of the Big Game, and perhaps the greatest upset in program history.

I'll still be at Erector Set Stadium wearing blue, praying to Oski for a miracle. It's what we do.