It’s big game week, the inarguable best week of the year. The optimism floweth freely in Berkeley with many Cal fans plotting how the axe will inevitably return to Berkeley come Saturday. There is always something magical and special about this week whether it be the pregame banter with our enemies across the bay or the countless activities hosted by Rally Comm.
This year the matchup against Stanford is one that is much more exciting than in years past. Cal is on the precipice of bowl eligibility in year one for coach Wilcox and the defense is at a level that Stanford will be unfamiliar with. On the other side of the ball, Cal will face a Cal legend in coach Gould along with his newest star running back Bryce Love. The Bears defense, which has struggled against the run, will have their hands full all night controlling the Cardinal offense and stopping a potential Heisman winner.
2017 Season To Date
The Cardinal enter the big game with a top 25 rushing offense, averaging 218 yards per game. Those Cal fans that were concerned when Stanford started building “O-line U” should still harbor that concern as the Bears roll into Stanford Stadium. The Stanford offensive line coming into this season shares over 68 collegiate starts among them and have improved throughout this year, pacing the Cardinal this season. This potentially makes for an increasingly annoying display of offensive prowess by the Cardinal Saturday, executing methodical drives downfield that maintain possession and start to wear out the young Cal defense.
The Cardinal endured two early season losses this year, one to a healthy USC team who have now gone on to win the Pac-12 south and to San Diego State. More recently Stanford barely squeaked by Oregon State and fell to Washington State in back to back road games. The Stanford team Cal is most likely to see come Saturday is the more recent version that leans heavily on Bryce Love for their success.
Washington State vs Stanford Quick Analysis
Let’s take a brief look at Stanford’s loss to Washington State and see what Alex Grinch did to hold the Cardinal to 14 points. The biggest thing that changed the dynamic of the game was the fact that Bryce Love injured his ankle against Oregon and was held out the week before against Oregon State. While Love would respond early with a 52 yard touchdown run, he was completely bottled up for the entire rest of the game. If you take away the long touchdown run, Love was held to 15 carries for 17 yards. That is a world’s difference from Love’s season average of nine yards a carry and is as much of a testament to his health as it is to Washington State’s defense.
Stanford quarterback K.J Costello was incredibly inconsistent and unremarkable in that game as well. He finished with a sub 50% completion rate and his final line was 105 yards with one interception. In a nutshell, that is the most glaring hole with this Stanford team. They ride and die with Bryce Love, and that has been working extremely well when he is right but lord watch out should he get hurt. For those Cal fans wondering about his health, he exited last weeks upset win against Washington with a noticeable limp.
The Washington State defense held the Cardinal to less than 200 yards of total offense over the game and didn’t allow a single yard during Stanford’s last drive. They allowed just nine first downs all game and held the Cardinal to 3/12 on third down.
What does this mean for Cal? Stop the run against Stanford and you get an entirely different matchup as well as one that is winnable.
What to Expect Come Saturday
The Cal defense had a somewhat (and that somewhat is very generous) similar matchup against Oregon State before the bye week. The Beavers depended on Nall/Tyner to pace their offense and the Bears initially had a hard time slowing down that tandem down. The difference between Oregon State and Stanford is significant, if the Bears struggle out of the gates again it could mean a deficit of 14 or even 21 points quickly. The Bears defense desperately needs to be effective on third down and get off the field. The issue with Stanford is that each drive saving conversion means your defense is taxed that much more and with Cal dealing with many injuries that can’t happen too many times.
On the bright side, the formula for success is simple. Stop the run, win the game. Costello will not beat you through the air, particularly with the building secondary of the Bears. We have yet to see what this Cal team looks like after a bye week and Stanford has to be exhausted after the schedule they just completed.
In Cal’s biggest upset win of the season, the Bears defense totally disrupted Washington State’s passing offense with plenty of disguises. The Bears need to execute a similar game plan against Costello if they are able to stifle Love early in the game. Should the Bears take an advantage in the turnover battle, you would have to like the chances of Cal winning the game. Plus it’s about time the Axe returned to its more lovable home in the east bay.