It's the preview I've been dreading all year long. And yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Our long national nightmare might be ending soon. This could be the final year in which Stanford fields an elite defense.
Don't get me wrong - they have recruited well enough to prevent some kind of collapse into mediocrity. But Stanford's defense took a small step backwards this year after losing three NFL draft picks. This year seven starters (including the entire defensive line) will see their eligibility expire*. The collection of defensive talent that tortured this conference for 4 seasons will finally be gone.
Except there's still one game left. Cal has one last chance to solve the defense that has played a huge role in four straight Big Game wins for Stanford. This is the best Cal offense since that streak started, and this might be the ‘worst' Stanford defense in that time frame as well. Even then, scoring enough points to win will be a tall order.
The hard part about previewing this Stanford defense is the lack of an obvious star. There isn't a single player with more than 5.5 sacks. Nobody has more than one interception. There isn't one player that obviously jumps out when you watch them play. What they are is a team without a weak link, a team that doesn't make many mistakes, and a team with an even distribution of above average talent at all levels of the defense.
DE: Sr. Henry Anderson ; NT: Sr. David Parry OR Fr. Harrison Phillips ; DE: Sr. Blake Lueders
Three 5th year seniors along the line. Most teams in the country would kill for this level of talent and experience. Parry is listed as a co-starter with Phillips, which I suspect is a nod to the nagging leg injury that kept him out of one game and has limited him since. Anderson is the biggest threat on passing downs, but all three linemen are adept at occupying blocker(s) and disrupting linemen so that Stanford linebackers can make plays.
OLB: Jr. Kevin Anderson ; ILB: Jr. Blake Martinez ; ILB: Sr. A.J. Tarpley ; OLB Sr. James Vaughters
Without a doubt the best linebacker unit in the conference. Tarpley and Vaughters have been around forever, but the two juniors who stepped in for the departed Shane Skov and Trent Murphy have actually been a bit more productive.
Martinez leads the team in tackles, but Stanford is perfectly willing to blitz him from his inside position and he's collected plenty of sacks and QB hits along the way. Anderson is probably the most dangerous pass rusher, but you have to watch out for Vaughters and backup outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi, who all have a similar number of sacks.
LCB: Jr. Alex Carter ; FS: Jr. Zach Hoffpauir ; SS: Sr. Jordan Richards ; RCB: Sr. Wayne Lyons OR Jr. Ronnie Harris
Carter is the undisputed #1 corner and leads the team in passes defended, with Lyons and Harris splitting time relatively evenly on the other side. Of course, against Cal I would expect to see plenty of all three, even if Stanford likely trusts their linebackers in coverage more than other teams might.
Richards isn't afraid to get forward in run defense, and he's a big hitter with 3 forced fumbles. Hoffpauir probably gets bored with so few plays getting to his level, and probably wishes every day that he signed for a team that would give him more opportunities to make tackles. Probably.
Season So Far
2.3 yards allowed/play in a 45-0 win over UC Davis
4.9 yards allowed/play in a 13-10 loss to USC
3.4 yards allowed/play in a 35-0 win over Army
2.6 yards allowed/play in a 20-13 win over Washington
4.9 yards allowed/play in a 17-14 loss to Notre Dame
3.3 yards allowed/play in a 34-17 win over Washington St.
4.5 yards allowed/play in a 26-10 loss to Arizona St.
3.3 yards allowed/play in a 38-14 win over Oregon St.
6.8 yards allowed/play in a 45-16 loss to Oregon
4.1 yards allowed/play in a 20-17 loss to Utah (2OT)
Yikes, yikes, yikes. What should you take away from the above? Firstly, that Oregon is really, really good at playing football. Secondly, that Stanford has lost five games this year despite only once allowing more than 4.9 yards/play. If Cal had Stanford's defense they'd be 9-1 at worst right now.
You can see a threshold, though. If you can move the ball just a little, you'll have a chance. USC, Notre Dame, ASU and Utah were hardly productive on offense, but they were at least semi-functional, and that was enough for them to get by. I would like to think that Cal's offense has more in common with USC, ASU and Notre Dame than Washington, Oregon St. and Army.
Against the pass
2013: 6.4 yards/attempt allowed, 18th in the country
2014: 5.3 yards/attempt allowed, 2nd in the country
So, this is counter-intuitive. Here I am, trying to argue that Stanford's defense isn't quite as good as last year, and yet they are allowing a yard fewer per pass attempt this year. I think I can explain, and it all comes back to the Stanford offense.
Last year, Stanford had a good offense, and as a result they frequently built up leads and forced other teams to try to throw the ball to come back. In 2013, Stanford faced the most pass attempts/game in the country. Some of those yards came in garbage time, and Stanford's defense excelled despite the barrage of passing attempts from a conference with more quarterback talent than any others.
This year, obviously, teams aren't forced to pass the ball nearly as much, and offenses have been significantly more conservative knowing that Stanford's defense is dangerous and that the offense . . . isn't. Teams haven't been throwing deep to try for big plays to stay with Stanford, but instead have been moving the ball with more consistent short gains.
Anyway, I'll admit it's a slight difference. The Stanford pass rush is statistically about the same as last year's, so that's a wash. Either way, this will be tough sledding.
Against the run
2013: 2.89 yards/attempt allowed, 4th in the country
2014: 3.0 yards/attempt allowed, 8th in the country
Teams that can beat Stanford have at least a semi-functional run game. They get three yards on first down, rather than negative one. They can convert a 3rd and 2 run. Is Cal a team that can do that?
2013 S&P: 9th in the country
2014 S&P: 10th in the country
Interestingly, S&P stats indicate that the overall quality of defenses this year is down from 2013, as the raw numbers put up by Stanford last year would place them 2nd this year. Stanford HAS taken a step back relative to 2013, but so has the entire country, which is why their ranking relative to everybody else hasn't changed much.
2013 FEI: 1st in the country
2014 FEI: 13th in the country
Here's where you really see a decline, even if the decline is from ‘one of the very best defenses in the last decade of football' to ‘merely top 15.' I'll take it.
What FEI sees is a defense that is still very very good at preventing big plays, but a defense that is a little bit vulnerable to dink-and-dunk offenses, which wasn't the case for Stanford over the last few years. That's what Oregon, ASU and Notre Dame were at times able to exploit, and it's what Cal will have to exploit as well.
2013: 19 forced turnovers (13 interceptions, 6 fumbles), 81st in the country
2014: 9 forced turnovers (6 interceptions, 3 fumbles), 122nd in the country
This is the single biggest decline for Stanford's defense, and the main reason they aren't quite as good last year. And again, I think it is in part to blame on the offense. Opponents aren't risking big, dangerous throws when they know they only need to score 21 points to outscore Stanford's offense.
I will note that Stanford has been unlucky in terms of fumble recovery rate, grabbing just 3 out of 9 forced fumbles. On the other hand, 9 forced fumbles isn't really that many (Cal has recovered 4 out of the 7 fumbles they have forced) so they're only off by 1 or 2.
Stanford's defense has allowed 20+ points in three games: Against Arizona State, Oregon, and Utah.
Utah scored 7 points in regulation. Arizona St. required some turnover assistance to get their points. Oregon is Oregon.
I mention this, because when we set expectations for Cal's offense, an important factor are the expectations for Cal's defense. Do you think that the Cal defense can hold Stanford below 20 points in the fashion of USC, Notre Dame, or Utah? Those teams won because they made Stanford's offense utterly toothless. Cal probably cannot win this way.
Thus: Do you believe that Cal's offense can score in the 20s or 30s against Stanford's defense?
It's a tall order. There's no glaring weakness on this defense - no Oregon State defensive line, no easy-to-pick-on inexperienced cornerbacks, no areas with obvious depth issues, and no major injury absences. I'm hardly an Xs and Os expert, but I would wager that this isn't a defense you can out-scheme, precisely because they lack some sort of obvious Achilles Heel to attack. WARNING WARNING COACH SPEAK ALERT: You have to out-execute them.
Does Cal have the offense to out-execute Stanford's defense? It certainly helps that the offense should be close to 100% healthy, with all of their wide receivers relatively fresh. The team has only played one game in the last three weeks, and I'd like to think that we're ready to throw the kitchen sink at this game.
I think for Cal to win this game, the offense will have to do the following:
1) Zero turnovers. Field position really, really matters in this game, for obvious reasons. As bad as Cal's defense might be, Stanford will be hard pressed to drive 80+ yards. As good as Cal's offense might be, Cal will be hard pressed to drive 80+ yards as well. Cal handing Stanford free points on turnovers can't happen
Likelihood of happening: 50%? Cal has been good at taking care of the ball and Stanford hasn't forced many turnovers. Still, one tipped pass, one phantom fumble, one sack could be enough.
2) Some semblance of a running game, with a particular focus on avoiding negative runs. I don't think it makes sense to go full Air Raid - just look at how Washington St. faired when they tried it. Cal will have to successfully establish some runs. I will take 2nd and 7 or better.
Likelihood of happening: 33%? Let's be honest. When Cal has faced elite front sevens (Washington, USC) the running game hasn't done much. Stanford is at least as good as those two teams up front. If Cal's line can control Stanford, then we probably reclaim the Axe and start getting irrationally excited for next year.
3) Two or fewer sacks, limited pressures: As good as Stanford's coverage abilities are, I think Cal has enough talent at quarterback and wide receiver to move the ball . . . if Goff has time. Against USC, he generally did not. This is another chance for the line to prove that they can stand up against an elite defense.
Likelihood of happening: 40%? Mostly because I think Goff's freshman year taught him how to avoid the rush and manipulate the pocket pretty well, all things considered. Cal won't be able to prevent all pressure, but I feel like they can decently mitigate the impact. We'll see.
If all of the above happens, then this is a winnable game. In many ways, this is the perfect measuring stick game. We know Cal is better than the bad teams, but not yet in the category of the great teams. Where do our Bears stack up against the similarly mediocre? We're going to find out on Saturday, in a game that happens to be against our rivals, with pride, hardware and bowl eligibility on the line.
How we feel all off-season will be determined Saturday. Best show up, make noise, and do everything we can to help our Bears finish this season right*.
*Yes, I know that BYU is still on the schedule but I really don't give a damn about that team right now. I care about the Axe, and I care about is continuing Stanford's tailspin. OUR AXE!