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Cal vs. Stanford: Previewing the Cardinal Defense

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This column makes use of the traditional "Stanford" spelling, but feel free to copy it into your favorite word processor and replace all instances with "Stanfurd" for an improved reading experience.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I surely don't need to remind you of the importance of this game. A win for Cal means a successful season, the denial of Stanford's playoff hopes, the validation of all that is good in the universe, and a shiny new Top Dog for every child in all the land. A win for Stanford means the Axe returns to the Farm, a Pac-12 North championship goes along with it, the Big Game losing streak extends to six, and former friend of the Bears Brennan Scarlett gets eleven more years of eligibility to torture us. Lives—real metaphorical lives—are at stake here!

What, then, should we expect from Stanford in the 118th Big Game? Christian McCaffrey and Kevin Hogan have led a frustratingly good Cardinal offense, but their defense has been vulnerable at times. Can the Bears find something to build on from last week's #drop50 performance, or will they let the baddies win again?

The Story so Far...

I may get run out of CGB-land for admitting it, but the fact that Stanford has a presentable defense at all is remarkable, considering they lost nine starters from last year's D. Defensive coordinator Lance Anderson did the best he could to prepare his second string to take over this year, and the numbers say he's been successful. The Cardinal allow 22 points (31st in FBS) and 348 yards (27th) per game, performing a bit better against the pass than the run.

Things started out rough for Stanford with a season opening loss at Northwestern. Oh, how we laughed when they could only muster six points against the Wildcats! How naive we were! But even in defeat their defense was solid. They held the Wildcats, now 8-2, to just 16 points on one touchdown and a bunch of field goals. Cody Kessler would have more success two weeks later, throwing for three touchdowns and 272 yards, but Stanford's offense did enough to seal the 41-31 upset.

The offense would similarly carry them through their next few games, putting up 30+ points in six straight wins. Josh Rosen led UCLA to 506 yards and 31 points, but also gave away two costly interceptions as Stanford pulled the upset at home. Washington State also put up a fight, but the Cardinal D stiffened up on the last drive to force the Cougars to attempt a field goal. They missed, handing Stanford the 30-28 victory and a 7-1 record.

Oregon finally found the winning formula last week. Vernon Adams was effective, going 10-12 for 205 yards and two scores, but it was the running back crew of Freeman, Nelson, and Benoit that toppled the tree. Each contributed a touchdown, which provided the margin in a 38-36 upset. Now the Cardinal hope to resuscitate their playoff hopes with Cal and #4 Notre Dame left on the schedule. A win this week would seal their berth in the Pac-12 Championship game, while a loss would allow Oregon a chance to sneak in.

Defensive Line

Starters: 5yr #17 Brennan Scarlett, So #90 Solomon Thomas, Sr #7 Aziz Shittu

If the name Brennan Scarlett sounds familiar, it's because he played his first four years for the blue and gold. Though he struggled to stay healthy at Cal (earning himself an extra year of eligibility), he's been a consistent contributor on the Farm. He's got 3.5 sacks, but it is the official position of CGB that he should not get any more in the Big Game, lest he be accused of spying for the enemy.

Aziz Shittu and Solomon Thomas join Scarlett on the line. The two have combined for 15 starts, all this season, and have impressed with their ability to get into the backfield. Shittu has the second most TFL on the team with seven, and Thomas is close behind with 6.5.

Linebackers

Starters: Jr #34 Peter Kalambayi, Sr #4 Blake Martinez, Jr #44 Kevin Palma, So #32 Joey Alfieri OR 5yr #48 Kevin Anderson

The linebackers (only) lost two starters from last season, making them the most experienced unit on this side of the ball. Blake Martinez (23 consecutive starts) is the star of the unit and the defense as a whole. He's on a whole list of watch lists, leads the Pac-12 with 10 tackles per game, and leads the team in tackles with more than double the total of the runner up. The outside linebackers do their work by committee, shuffling a bit between Peter Kalambayi, Joey Alfieri, and Kevin Anderson. Also joining the rotation is Mike Tyler, who owns a team-leading 4.5 sacks. Kalambayi adds 3.5 sacks of his own, a big part of this corps' above-average havoc production.

Defensive Backs

Starters: So #13 Alijah Holder, Sr #5 Kodi Whitfield, Sr #29 Dallas Lloyd, So #23 Alameen Murphy, Fr #24 Quenton Meeks

Things are a bit bleaker in the secondary. All five projected starters are freshmen or first year starters now that CB Ronnie Harris is out with an ankle injury suffered against Oregon. Harris' absence could be significant, as he hasn't missed a game since 2012 and produced 10 pass breakups this season. Nickelback Quenton Meeks, the lone freshman starter on this defense, has been holding his own. He leads the team with two sacks, and has broken up three other passes. Also worth keeping an eye on is S Dallas Lloyd; he's Stanford's very own Luke Rubenzer, a converted QB who has cracked the rotation in the defensive backfield.

Andrew's Take

The Cardinal defense doesn't have many obvious holes, personnel-wise. They've done a good job replacing lost production, and have only allowed 30+ points in three games. Losing Ronnie Harris could be a problem for the secondary, but only if Jared Goff has time to work.

On the topic of stats I hope Tony Franklin is aware of, Stanford has been outrushed twice this season and lost in both instances. Obviously that fact has as much to do with Christian McCaffrey as it does with the defense, but I can't help but think setting the running backs loose would be a wise strategic decision. My prediction? The Cal Band beats the Stanford Band. Other than that it's too soon to say.

Now more than ever, go Bears!