What a difference one month makes. If you looked ahead to the Big Game in October, Stanford looked lost on offense and the Bears had the look of an elite offensive football team. Fast forward to present day and the situation has flipped. Stanford is riding a win streak, albeit against some of the lesser teams in the conference, and Cal is the team looking to relocate its offensive identity. What a joy it is to be a Bears fan.
The Cardinal arrive in Berkeley where two previously ranked teams have fallen at the feet of Bears and David Shaw will hope to continue his stranglehold on the axe. Without the strength of their defensive play, Stanford could have found itself with a much worse record than 7-3. The Cardinal are fourteenth in the country in points allowed per game and ninth in the country in defensive efficiency.
If there is any saving grace for the Cal offense, Stanford relies heavily on the blitz and Davis Webb has generally fared well against alike defenses. If the Bears can execute a similar level of offense that we saw against Washington and extrapolate that over a full game, the Bears should break the forty point threshold Saturday. Let’s take a look at some standout defensive units for the Cardinal.
If we take a quick look at the last big game, Cal actually ran the ball very well against a Stanford line that struggled all year. The Bears averaged 4.3 yards per carry and that includes four negative attempts by then quarterback Jared Goff. Flash forward to this years matchup, the game will be determined by the Bears offensive line’s ability to outplay Stanford’s touted defensive line.
Solomon Thomas is without a doubt the best player on the defensive line and the player to watch when the Bears are on offense. He leads Stanford with seven sacks and leads the team in tackles with 46 so far in 2016. How important is Thomas to the Stanford defense? Take a look at his statistical line against Notre Dame, 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks, that type of production is not standard for your defensive end.
Stanford's Solomon Thomas leads all Pac-12 interior defensive lineman in run stop percentage. He's made stops on 27 of 225 run defense snaps pic.twitter.com/7kKxsHlwa2— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 14, 2016
Harrison Phillips is another player to watch on the line as he returned from a serious knee injury last season and has put together a very solid 2016 campaign. If Cal can slow down those two players for the Cardinal, Webb will have the time to take advantage of a defense that has shown vulnerability this season.
Stanford had quite the haul last season when all world linebacker Curtis Robinson committed to play for the Cardinal. His presence this year has been surprisingly minimal, yet for good reason as the Cardinal have something the Bears do not. Depth.
The Stanford defense is flush with young players who also have a fair amount of game experience. Joey Alfieri leads the linebacking unit and has the third most tackles for loss on the team. Sadly for the Bears, Alfieri will be back next season and should lead a stellar unit for years to come.
The saving grace for Cal is that the Cardinal have performed just above average against both the pass and the run over the 2016 season. While the linebackers have depth, they weren’t exactly stellar when Stanford was facing the better offensive teams in the conference (Washington, Washington State).
Assuming Chad Hansen plays Saturday, he should see a lot of cornerback Quenton Meeks. Through last month, Meeks had allowed a Pac-12 leading 20.1 quarterback rating on passes thrown his way. Sophomore Justin Reid is the most active player in the Cardinal secondary, leading the unit with 43 tackles. Reid had his best game of the season against Oregon last week, recording 11 tackles and three of them for losses.
The Cardinal allow 211 pass yards per game through the air, roughly 44th in the country in 2016. That particular statistic is skewed due to Stanford’s competition in the last few weeks. Against Oregon, the only team who has what you can reasonably say is an above average offense, the Cardinal yielded 275 yards and two touchdowns through the air. In the loss to Washington State, the Cardinal surrendered 357 yards and four touchdowns. If there is a unit the Bears can exploit, it is the Cardinal secondary. Jake Spavital executing a similar game plan to what the Cougars did in October might be the formula for success for the Bears come Saturday.
In what was previously looking like a juicy matchup for the Bears early in the season, the dynamic shifts as Cal is riding a losing streak coming back to Memorial stadium. However the game isn’t by any means out of reach. If Cal can repeat their performance on the ground from last years matchup, Davis Webb and the Bears offense should have plenty of spark. In the words of my matchup preview brethren Andrew, let’s get that axe!