Big Game week is here and with it comes plenty of anticipation in regards to how the defense of the California Golden Bears will fare against K.J. Costello and the giants known as the receiving corps of the Stanfurd Cardinal. The Tree has certainly seen an interesting season to date. The year started off with national title consideration after a thrilling road win in Eugene and crumbled into a 7–4 season where the Cardinal share an identical record with the Bears. The Cardinal have lacked their traditional stout defense while the offense has shown an ability to score at a pace that hasn’t always been the norm down on the Farm.
The 2018 Cardinal still rank very highly both overall and on the offensive side of the football in S&P+. Advanced metrics have them as the 27th-best team in the country and the 18th-rated offense. K.J Costello has a good chance to eclipse 3,500 passing yards on the season and Bryce Love, while falling well off of his near Heisman pace set last season, is still averaging nearly five yards per carry. Cameron Scarlett—yes, that Scarlett—has done well in his time at running back along with Trevor Speights. The three are well on pace to collectively pass the 1,000 yard mark, as is so commonly accomplished when working with coach Ron Gould.
There was a brief moment last year when it started to look like K.J. Costello might not realize his lofty potential in his time at Stanford. Whether that might be from potential mismanagement by the Stanford coaches or his own progression, Cal fans around the world were not upset by Stanford missing out on what looked like to be the best Cardinal quarterback since Andrew Luck. Costello would move on from a season-worst performance at Washington State to beat Washington, Cal (damn it), and Notre Dame in succession while narrowly losing to USC in the Pac-12 title game.
In 2018, he has looked much more the part of his top-20 national recruiting rank and figures to play a key role in the Cardinal’s success on Saturday. Costello has rattled off three consecutive games eclipsing the 300-yard, mark including torching Oregon State for 342 yards and four touchdowns. Before we start to discount Oregon State’s historically bad offense, Costello also passed for 347 and 323 yards against Washington and Washington State the two weeks prior.
A Deep Dive into the Washington Performance
Washington is an excellent example of a defense that matches up similarly to Cal. They have an top-tier core of linebackers, tremendous talent in the secondary, and a disruptive defensive line. Cal’s defensive line isn’t there yet, but you would have a hard time arguing that our secondary and linebackers are not playing at or better than what Washington has seen this year. Below, you will find where Costello excelled, where he struggled, and how the Bears can slow him down on Saturday.
The Good: When you give Costello time, he is as good as anybody in the country in finding his receivers downfield. When Stanford started to turn around the football game in the second half, the Cardinal offensive line was doing a much better job at keeping Costello upright and passing from the pocket. And it bears repeating, when Costello gets time in the pocket, there is nobody better in the country at passing the football.
From a clean pocket, no FBS QB had a higher passer rating than Stanford's K.J. Costello this weekend pic.twitter.com/t5yjCsjgKx— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 12, 2018
Costello would lead Stanford to a near comeback with two passing touchdowns and without turning the ball over a single time. His touchdown pass to Trent Irwin with about three minutes left in the fourth quarter was vintage Costello, stepping up into the pocket and delivering the ball where only Irwin could get it.
The Bad: K.J. Costello, like most quarterbacks not named Sam Darnold, struggles with pressure. He turned the ball over against the Huskies twice in the first quarter and a third time just seven minutes into the second quarter. And thus the formula against Costello is a rather simple one, force him into bad decisions early and often by getting pressure on the quarterback. The Bears excelled in completely shutting down the USC offense for the second half of the game last week, but doing something similar against Stanford’s offensive line is always one of the toughest match-ups of the year.
What to Expect against Cal
The Cal defense has now shown across multiple games that the Bears’ secondary is strong enough to bottle up opponent receivers even when the Cal defense rushes four or more defenders. Getting pressure against Costello will be vital to preventing the Stanford offense enough time to utilize their size mismatches with both JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Kaden Smith. On the bright side, the Stanford offense isn’t too dissimilar to what the Bears faced last week against the Trojans with the big trade-off being speed for size. How well Camryn Bynum, Elijah Hicks, and Josh Drayden do in isolation match-ups against the Stanford receivers might ultimately determine which team wins this football game.
The Stanford Pass Catchers
JJ Arcega-Whiteside is listed at 6’3”, 225. Colby Parkinson is listed at 6’7”, 240. Kaden Smith checks in at 6’5”, 252. There is so much height on this team it makes you wonder why they don’t just call for jump balls on nearly every play. The Stanford targets for Costello are lengthy and Arcega-Whiteside is the superstar of the them all.
And there's JJ Arcega-Whiteside again. Not the best fake inside-step, but an excellent box out and his usual great hands and high-pointing ability pic.twitter.com/1QYOMRTs75— Fed Scivittaro (@MeshPointScout) September 23, 2018
Arcega-Whiteside grades out as a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft and someone who is a nightmare match-up even for any of the supremely talented Cal defensive backs. He has excellent hands, deceptive speed, and can still steam roll a defender as evidenced by the clip below.
Yet Arcega-Whiteside was carted off two weeks ago with a leg injury and is still listed on the Stanford injury report this week. In his absence, Parkinson scored four times against Oregon State and will be Costello’s go-to target should Arcega-Whiteside end up on the sideline for an additional week.
It will be very fun to see how the Cal secondary, which has shut down nearly every opponent this year, can match up against Stanford’s taller receivers. Judging by Washington’s early success and then late struggle to fully bottle up the Cardinal offense, it would be a bit surprising if 12 or 15 points were enough to earn a win, but I wouldn’t bet against Cal holding another opponent under 20 points for the fifth straight week.
How many points with Stanfurd score against Cal?
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