The California wildfires postponed the originally scheduled Big Game, and it provided a much needed reprieve for Stanford's injured stars. After being listed as questionable for the first scheduled Cal matchup, Stanford's most important player was able to returned for another big game against UCLA. No, it wasn't Bryce Love; it's Stanford wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside. Stanford underwent a slow transformation this year; from one built around Bryce Love and how many ways they could give him the ball with 14 offensive linemen and 6 tight ends blocking for him, to one built around QB KJ Costello throwing jump balls to his big receivers. Since we're all probably still thinking about that streak Cal broke last week, I have to bring up another: Stanford has won the past 8 Big Games, also the longest win streak in the series to date. Cal's last Big Game victory came in 2009, when a glorious Mike Mohamed interception on an Andrew Luck pass sealed the deal over the Harbaugh-led Cardinal. It was a day in which we Cal fans booed Tiger Woods at halftime (before it was cool), and then stormed their mediocre field after the victory.
Also returning from injury for Stanford's UCLA matchup was standout linebacker Joey Alfieri, although he played sparingly as LB Jordan Fox continued in the starting role for (the presumably still-recovering) Alfieri.
First, what happened to Bryce Love? He looked okay in their games against San Diego State and USC, but both teams had a year to gameplan for Bryce Love, and they frequently stacked the box against Stanford, to which Stanford stubbornly stuck to their gameplan of frequently running the ball anyway. So why wasn't it working? Well, for one, the Stanford offensive line has taken a big step back this year. If I had to single out their biggest weakness on the offensive line, it's #72 LT Walker Little, who has been beaten an embarrassing number of times in individual matchups this year. But it's not just him, the entire line has struggled at times. Here's one such sack that Costello took in their matchup against FCS team UC Davis:
I'm already going to go overboard with GIFs, so I figured I'd go with the first one that came to mind. Stanford also struggled with the small but speedy defensive ends in this game as well.
The 2017 Bryce Love was a touchdown waiting to happen: if he had good blocks at the line and could reach the second level, he was gone. In 2018, however, the offensive line blocking has been lacking... but more importantly, Love has been struggling with an ankle injury all season (he sat out their game against UC Davis, and sat out the game against Utah a couple weeks later), and simply hasn't looked 100% since that USC game, their second game of the year. He's clearly lost a step. For reference, here's 2017 Bryce Love breaking off touchdowns after reaching the second level of the defense:
And here's 2018 Bryce Love facing one of the worst run defenses in the country:
Even OSU was able to stop him. That's not to say that Bryce Love is not a threat, as Stanford will still use him in a variety of ways hoping to get Bryce Love the ball in space. In my totally amateur opinion, he looks to me like he's still pretty fast, but it's trying to make cuts that's a problem with his ankle. But David Shaw can still be stubborn with his gameplan, and so Love is still a player that will always need to be accounted for.
I mean, how is this play supposed to work, other than hope that Love can beat 2 UW defenders? Maybe it has a chance in 2017, but not today.
Against UCLA, Bryce Love did look healthier, and he took as many carries as he has all year (22) for 85 yards and 1 TD. I'll save you the trouble of searching and include the sole Love-highlight from the UCLA game here:
Normally I would expect not to see too many carries for Bryce Love, but if there's one game all year where you're going to use him as much as you can, it'd probably be this one. As a quick word on their other RBs, Trevor Speights has seen a lot of action spelling for Love earlier in the season, even though Cameron Scarlett (brother of
Benedict Brennan Scarlett) is much more talented, and likely the next McCaffrey/Love/future Ron Gould protege. I expect this is because Speights is a better blocker than Scarlett and hence he sees more play time from Shaw, but you will see a lot of Scarlett on kick returns. Dorrian Maddox, a big power RB, has also been seeing increased playing time recently as well. Trevor Speights is listed as questionable for Saturday's matchup, which likely isn't a huge loss for Stanford.
So what is the Stanford gameplan these days? I'll list them out:
And tell me, in what universe are these plays not blatant offensive pass interference? Look at how he creates separation with the UCLA DB:
Or how about this one, which drew no flag. "That's just good hand-fighting there.":
Looks pretty clear to me that he's "[preventing] the opponent the opportunity of receiving a catchable forward pass."
Here is "basketball player" JJ Arcega-Whiteside's specialty, boxing out defensive backs. Notice that these plays (including the defensive pass interefence call against the same defender as the touchdown above, UCLA DB Elijah Gates) happened earlier in the game, and likely affected how he defended Arcega-Whiteside later in the game:
And here's a better angle of that second play, that was called defensive pass interference. He's allowed to be physical with you, but don't you dare put your hands on him back:
In summary, JJ Arcega-Whiteside is a bullshit player.
The stars of this defense are unquestionably the linebackers Joey Alfieri and Bobby Okereke. Alfieri has NFL-potential and is Stanford's best pass rusher, and he's also pretty good in pass coverage too. Alfieri has missed the past 4 games prior the the UCLA game with an injury, but he returned for minimal playing time against UCLA, backing up LB Jordan Fox. Okereke is good at defending the run and does a great job at shooting the gap.
In the secondary, DB Paulson Adebo has emerged as a shutdown corner (he's the Stanford Cam Bynum). Adebo struggled with tackles in the first game against SDSU, and in their 2nd game USC QB JT Daniels went after Adebo repeatedly (although in retrospect, this was likely because Daniels stubbornly stuck with his high school teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown as his target despite the tight coverage). On the other side, cornerback Alijah Holder is potentially a late-round NFL Draft pick, but he will miss the first half of the Cal game due to a targeting suspension from the UCLA game. Malik Antoine is the better safety, but he also struggles with tackling at times. The other safety, Frank Buncom, is the definite weak spot in the defense. He's been out of position and on the wrong side of explosive plays against Oregon, Utah, and Washington State; all of whom went after him.
There hasn't been any stand outs on the defensive line, as Stanford is fairly mediocre against the run, and only has 2 more sacks than Cal this season, if that gives you an idea (although Cal's run defense is much better than Stanford's).
Cameron Scarlett is a speedy and elusive kick returner, but I've already went overboard on the GIFs, so hopefully you take my word on this one. Stanford normally has a good kicker, despite his stupid Printer Name (err, Jet Toner), but he's also missed the past 2 games with an undisclosed injury, and is listed as questionable for Saturday. Their backup kicker Colin Riccitelli has only made a 21 yard FG and has actually missed two PATs (8/10 on the year), so Stanford might be uncharacteristically aggressive on 4th down if they lack faith in their field goal kicker.
Miscellaneous things to watch for that didn't fit anywhere else
Mostly every team in the FBS elects to defer to the second half when they win the opening coin toss, but Stanford insists on receiving the ball first. Why? I don't know, probably some harebrained philosophy of David Shaw's. Also, teams very rarely return the kickoff against Stanford, as P Jake Bailey reliably kicks the ball out of the back of the endzone. Expect Stanford to try to get the run game going, fail, and then resort to jump balls on deep passes if they fall behind. Stanford has the ability to keep the game close with anyone, as they came back from a 24-7 deficit at halftime against Oregon to win 38-31 in OT, and they came back from 21-0 at halftime against Washington to ultimately lose 27-23. The key thing to watch in this matchup is just how eager refs are to call offensive pass interference on the Stanford receivers. Refs have not shied away from throwing flags at defenders who played "just as physical" against Stanford receivers, but they have rarely thrown offensive PI flags for anything other than typical pick routes. Cal has the best secondary in the Pac-12 (scoreboard, UW fans), but Stanford will look to take advantage of size discrepancies and create mismatches in the secondary by using their tall TEs against the shorter Cal DBs. Arcega-Whiteside struggles to get separation outside of his shove-offs (he's strong, but not particularly speedy), so it will be critical just where the refs draw the line as to what constitutes pass interference. The final thing to watch for is that Stanford suffered a number of injuries to their second-string defenders (linebackers and defensive backs) in the UCLA game, so although Joey Alfieri has returned for their defense, they'll be a little thinner depth-wise, and we might see the Stanford defense slow down late in the game if Cal can keep them on the field for long time of possession drives.