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Stanford Q&A: Talking with GoMightyCard.com

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NCAA Football: California at Stanford
Nov 18, 2017; Stanford, CA, USA; California Golden Bears Axe committee begins their stare down during the fourth quarter against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?

I suppose Cal fans already know about the bigger stars, like Bryce Love and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, but the player who probably has the brightest NFL future is junior tight end Kaden Smith. A few years ago, David Shaw began comparing him to Zach Ertz, who has probably been the best tight end in the NFL this season, and this year we’re beginning to see why. Arcega-Whiteside leads the team in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns, but Smith has been almost as impressive. At 6’5” and 252 pounds and faster than a typical tight end, he’s a matchup nightmare for linebackers. Quarterback K.J. Costello excels at using Smith’s height by placing balls where only he can get them. Look for him on seam routes up the middle for big chunk plays, or boxing out smaller defenders for 3rd down conversions. He’s a Mackey Award finalist, but that doesn’t really matter because Stanford players don’t win national awards. It’s like a rule or something.

Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?

Oh, the Stanford defense. This answer to this question would’ve been obvious last year (Harrison Phillips) or the year before (Solomon Thomas), but since the defense has struggled in 2018, you have to look a bit deeper. I’ll go with sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo. By all accounts Stanford is enjoying the most impressive run of talent the program has ever seen in the secondary, thanks in equal parts to the NFL success of Richard Sherman and the arrival of defensive backs coach Duane Akina. Akina coached a couple Jim Thorpe Award winners at Texas, and he has said that Adebo has the potential to be one of the best he’s ever had. He’s tall enough to matchup with most receivers, has the speed to keep up with them, and the length and skill to play the ball in the air. He has only one interception, but he’s tied for fifth in the nation in passes defended. He’s a stud.

Who’s one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for Stanford?

If the Cal defense plays as well as you hope and the Cal offense is as bad as you fear, we could be in for a low-scoring slog deep into the night. If that’s the case, the x-factor for Stanford could be punter Jake Bailey. He’s probably the best Stanford punter in recent memory, regularly pinning opponents inside the ten or unleashing 50-60 yards bombs to shift field position when necessary. Stanford’s special teams have been weaker than usual this season, but Bailey has been brilliant. I fully expect him to have a huge impact on Saturday evening. Speaking of kickers, another important thing to watch will be Stanford’s placekicking. Jet Toner has had a great career, but he’s been out the last couple weeks, and his replacement has missed two extra points. It didn’t matter last week, but it certainly changed the game against Washington State and could affect Shaw’s decisions in the red zone. If Toner doesn’t play on Saturday, it will be a big concern.

What does Stanford need to do to win the game?

I’m one hundred percent sure how David Shaw would answer this question: “We have to be able to run the ball, and we have to be able to stop the run.” The question, of course, is how that happens. In the old days, the Cardinal would just get off the bus and run power, as Jim Harbaugh once said, but that hasn’t been working recently. The Stanford offense has been better the last few weeks because they’ve been throwing to set up the run. That needs to continue, not just to put points on the board, but to keep the Stanford defense off the field. If Stanford wins time of possession, they’ll win the game.

What does Cal need to do to win the game?

If Cal can consistently pressure K.J. Costello, the offense will probably struggle a bit. That’s obviously a good formula for success against any team, but Costello is still young enough and brash enough that he tends to make mistakes when he feels pressure. Sometimes that means taking a sack when he could throw the ball away, but other times it means throwing the ball up for grabs instead of taking the sack, which is obviously even worse. Probably the most important statistic to watch will be Costello’s completion percentage. If it’s over sixty percent, the offense will be difficult to stop; if it’s under fifty percent it could be a long night for the Cardinal.

How do you see the game going?

Stanford’s going to win this game, and not just because they’ve won eight in a row in this series. The offense has been getting better recently, and Bryce Love should be about as healthy as he’s been all year long. Even though this is the best Cal defense we’ve seen in several years, I have faith in this Stanford offense. I expect the game to be close throughout the first half, but the Cardinal will take control in the third quarter, which has been its strongest quarter all year long. Let’s say Stanford 34, Cal 22.

Stanford has been pretty dependent on JJ Arcega Whiteside, but he missed the OSU game due to injury. Is he expected to play and be 100%? How much of a problem would his absence or ineffectiveness be for Stanford’s offense?

We haven’t gotten definitive word on JJ’s availability for Saturday, but that’s because we never get definitive word on any injuries. Shaw has said that he’s likely to play, but that doesn’t really mean anything. He’s obviously the team’s best receiver — and one of the best receivers in the country — so his presence in the lineup would make the offense dramatically better. The thing about Arcega-Whiteside is that he forces defensive backs into situations they rarely see. He’s just fast enough to be a legitimate deep threat, but he’s most dangerous in closer quarters when he can use his size and strength against smaller defenders. In between the 20s you’ll see him catching balls over the middle just as often as along the sidelines, but it’s in the red zone when he’s the most dangerous. With big targets like Arcega-Whiteside, Kaden Smith, and Colby Parkinson, who had four touchdowns in the first half last week, Stanford’s red zone offense is fairly simple. Costello comes to the line of scrimmage, identifies the receiver who’s drawn single coverage, then throws the ball in that direction. Arcega-Whiteside has eleven touchdowns, but he’s drawn more pass interference penalties (15) as helpless defenders often have no choice but to clutch and grab. It will be unfortunate if he’s in street clothes on Saturday, but there will still be enough options for Costello. I don’t think his status will determine the game.

When I look at the statistical profile of Stanford’s defense, I see a defense that’s just kinda mediocre across the board - no major weaknesses, but no obvious strengths either. What’s behind Stanford’s across-the-board decline in defensive production?

The main problem has been the lack of impact players on the defensive line. There were depth issues last year and the year before, but Harrison Phillips was good enough by himself last year to mask those issues, just as Solomon Thomas was the year before. There’s no one there like that right now, and the entire unit has struggled as a result. It’s rare that the Cardinal gets pressure on the quarterback just rushing the standard three or four guys, so no matter how good the secondary might be, even average receivers are eventually able to get open. There is a fair amount of talent on the roster, but it’s young talent. Two different freshmen, Thomas Booker and Andres Fox, have shown enough over the past couple weeks to give hope for the future, but this is still the biggest area of concern on the defense and the root of its problems. Like any defense anywhere, the key will be success on 1st down. If Cal is able to run the ball effectively and put themselves in 2nd and 5 or 3rd and 2, I’ll be worried.

Stanford’s pass blocking numbers look pretty excellent, but their run blocking numbers look weak. Are the Stanford run game struggles due more to offensive line issues, or injuries that have sapped the effectiveness of Bryce Love?

There are a lot of things going on here. Love’s injuries haven’t helped, but the biggest problem has been injuries to the offensive line. This was expected to be one of the best offenses we’ve seen in the David Shaw era, mainly because there were four returning starters on the offensive line, but they’ve been decimated by injuries all season long. It seems like there’s been a different starting five each week, and even when they’ve been on the field, some of the starters clearly haven’t been healthy. Shaw has had to manage the line more like a pitching staff than a football team. Not only does he have to gauge who’s healthy enough to start, he’s had to consider how many snaps the marginally healthy members of the line can play. With all of this juggling, we just haven’t seen a consistent push in the running game, and there’s also been a slight increase in holding penalties and false starts, things we’re not used to seeing from a Stanford offensive line. When you then consider that Love hasn’t really been healthy either, it’s perhaps less surprising that the Cardinal currently ranks eleventh in the conference in rushing, something that would’ve been unthinkable prior to the season. Things looked a lot better last week, but everything looks better when you’re playing Oregon State.

Whom do you most want to punch in the face?

I’m fairly certain that I’ve given you this answer before, but I stand by my desire to punch Larry Scott in the face. There are just so many ridiculous things going on that could easily be fixed. If the Pac-12 wants anyone to take them seriously, they can’t play games on Friday night. Scott would say that it’s a good thing to be the only game at that time, but there’s a reason Power 5 conferences don’t schedule games then — it feels like high school football. Also, why in the world would the conference schedule interdivisional games on the final weekend, opening up the potential for the same two teams to face each other again the conference championship game? Which brings us to the next question — why in the world is that conference championship game played on a Friday night? Finally, the conference has consistently demonstrated that it isn’t concerned with player safety. I think most people agree that the targeting rule is a step in the right direction, but Pac-12 officials, who have become a national embarrassment, clearly don’t know how to interpret the rule, and conference leadership doesn’t seem to care. So it’s easy — I’d like to punch Larry Scott in the face.

Poll

What is your prediction for the 121st Big Game?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    Big Cal win
    (22 votes)
  • 70%
    Close Cal win
    (103 votes)
  • 9%
    Close Stanfurd win
    (14 votes)
  • 5%
    Big Stanfurd win
    (8 votes)
147 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What is your actual prediction for the 121st Big Game?

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    It will be played as originally scheduled
    (24 votes)
  • 71%
    It will be postponed/cancelled/moved
    (60 votes)
84 votes total Vote Now