Friday, November 21, 2008

Battle Royal


This one has the makings of a hard fought, spirited game with a lot of hitting. Both teams bring the lumber hard on defense and come after the QB with a vengeance. Stanford is a bit more physical in the run game, and Cal is definitely more physical in pass defense, but otherwise, this is a clash of two hungry teams looking to take each other's heads off. Should be a dandy.

Stanford is a hard team to to get a read on. They have had success in so many different ways, though none of them pretty. They actually do a lot of different things offensively and defensively, which makes them a tough matchup. They are very well coached in that sense - they seem to take opportunities in each games, depending on what the other team is doing.

Regardless of scheme though, the other thing that strikes me about Stanford is their effort and intensity. The old adage of a team taking on the demeanor of its head coach bears out in the case of this team under Harbaugh. His exuberance (annoying most of the time) has clearly infected his players. They play hard for him, they don't quit, and they have a nothing-to-lose attitude. Not that I'd ever want Hairball as Cal's coach, but frankly, Cal could use a little of that from time to time.

Does this picture annoy you?

How about this one?


Stanford's offense is generally a pro-style, though as I said they do a lot of different things, somewhat the way Cal does, though the offenses don't look the same. For the most part though, in run, they are a line up and come at you team, similar to Michigan State. They don't have what I would call "weapons" all over the field, such that they are spraying it all over the place trying to get certain people the ball in space.

First and foremost, they want to ride their #1 horse as far as he'll take them: Toby Gerhart. He's a battering ram, in the mold of great, white Stanford tailbacks who have been Cal-killers, like Brad Muster and Tommy Vardell (just typing those names makes me shudder in disgust). He's averaging 5.4 yards a carry and already has 1,000 yards on the season. For some perspective, Best has about 880, and only one other back in the conference is also over 1,000. They have a well-coached o-line that blocks very well. They were able to run for over 200 yards against USC, so I'd expect they'll try to do the same to Cal.

In terms of passing, Stanford is just not a very good passing team. Pritchard is a good athlete, and he made some clutch throws last year vs. USC and beat Cal last year, but for the most part, he's not a guy that's going to carry his team with his arm. Like Cal, Stanford will try to use its passing game to loosen up the defense, but will stick with shorter routes and screens.


They switched back to a 4-3 this season, after playing what looked a lot like a 3-3-5 stack the last couple years. While they're back in a conventional look, they still mix up looks and blitzes a lot. They are going to look at what Maryland and Oregon State did in terms of odd alignments, pre-snap shifts, and blitzing and see if they can disrupt Cal's run blocking schemes, especially with our young offensive line.

Similarly, they are averaging about 3 sacks per game, which is pretty impressive. They saw what USC and OSU did to Cal's o-line, and what an effect that pressure had on our entire offensive rhythm. I am quite certain we will see a lot of blitzing, stunting, and crashing until Riley proves he can burn them.


Gerhart vs. Cal's back 7

Last year, Cal struggled with teams that ran straight at them with physical runningbacks. This year, they've fixed that problem for the most part, and instead have struggled with shorter darting backs whom they can't see as they blow through the gaps up the middle. I don't think the LBs and DBs are going to struggle to tackle Gerhart so much as they may sometimes get caught out of position. This is particularly a concern at safety because Johnson (who has been an excellent hard hitting safety) is out this week, and Cattouse (a second year player) is starting for the first time. He's been in only on nickel previously on obvious passing downs, so this will be new for him.

Stanford is a well coached team, and they will undoubtedly try to expose holes in Cal's run defense. For example, when the safeties are deep or in man coverage, leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the field, Cal has been vulnerable up the middle when Williams or Felder has buried his face in the fullback's chest and the RB has blown by them. Similarly, at times, Cal's OLBs have gotten swallowed up on the edge and teams have gotten big gains where the CB has been well blocked by the WR. I suspect Stanford will try to expose these things.

Edge: Push. I think Gerhart is going to get his yards, mostly on scheme and execution, rather than individually overpowering Cal's defenders. But I think Cal is going to keep Stanford from just wearing them down with the run game.

Cal o-line vs. Stanford pass rush

Not much to say here. Cal's o-line is in trouble. I think we're going to see a lot more 2 TE sets and max protect looks. The good news is even with sending only two receivers out, Cal may still be able to complete some passes, because Stanford's secondary is not great. But Riley is going to have to get rid of the ball quickly because Cal's young o-linemen are going to have some difficultly.

Edge: Stanford

Riley vs. Stanford's pass defense

I think Riley is going to continue to struggle, partly because he is under pressure, and partly because he still seems to need a guy to be wide open before he'll throw. Other than the skinny post route in the red zone, or the streak down the sidelines, Riley does not throw before the guy breaks. That is why so often it looks like no one is open. I imagine he is getting better at this, but under duress, you just aren't going to have that much time.

The good news is Stanford gives up 231 pass yards a game (well over what Riley has averaged), so if he can buy some time, he should able to complete some passes.

Edge: Stanford. I think the pressure is going to be like it was vs. USC and OSU, which proved insurmountable for our passing attack. I think Riley will make some plays, but I don't see him getting into a groove.

Caveat: If the coaches roll him out a bit more and move the pocket around, it might get him going a bit.

Cal o-line vs. Stanford's run defense

Again, I think the o-line is going to struggle here. Stanford is going to bring pressure, mix up looks and try to frustrate Cal's blocking schemes. This has worked pretty well against Cal all year. No reason to believe it will change this weekend.

However, as always, Cal will get some big running plays taking advantage of tendencies.

Edge: Stanford, but this won't stop Cal from having success on a few big plays.

Pritchard vs. Cal's back 7

This is where Cal has a chance to win this game. If it can take away the pass, get turnovers and bring blitz pressure (all of which it should be able to do), it can make Stanford one-dimensional. One dimensional teams have struggled against Cal all year.

Edge: Cal.

Additional things to look for:

1. Big plays. This is becoming Cal's calling card. Stout defense and big plays on offense. Though I think Cal will struggle in many of the matchups, I still think the big play capability is how Cal wins this game. If the receivers and QB can get on the same page, and Cal can avoid costly penalties, this can be enough to beat Stanford.

2. Team demeanor if they struggle. If things get frustrating, it will be interesting to see how Riley does in terms of keeping the offense fired up and focused. Even if Stanford scores some points, Cal is always going to be in this game because of its defense. This will be a test of Riley's leadership ability to keep the team fighting until the end.

3. Special teams scoring. I think we'll see another big play or two on special teams by Cal this week. They've been working on it in practice hard this week, and they have better athletes on special teams than Stanford.


I think Cal wins solely because of home field advantage. The last team they lost to at home not named USC or Oregon State? Colorado State, 2003 (and even that was a last ditch drive by CSU to win it). I think this is going to be a bruising game, and I think all of Cal's deficiencies are going to continue to show themselves. But the same will be true for Stanford. The difference will be Cal's superior athletes playing at the top of their game because they are at home.


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