Heading into the 119th edition of the Big Game rivalry at Berkeley, No. 24 Stanford (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12) rolls into Cal Memorial Stadium on a four-game winning streak, the last of which came in a rout of Pac-12 North-rival Oregon. Daily football writer Vihan Lakshman talked with football writer Hooman Yazdanian of The Daily Californian about the struggling Cal season and whether the Golden Bears can respond to Stanford’s potent dual-rushing attack.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How would you assess the state of Cal football in Year 4 of the Sonny Dykes era? What would a Big Game win over Stanford mean for not only the Golden Bears’ season, but also for the program as a whole?
Hooman Yazdanian (HY): The program is honestly struggling. It hit a peak last season in Year 3 of Jared Goff’s time at Cal, but after a whole bunch of turnover, the Bears are right back to rebuilding. It doesn’t help that they’re going to be doing this yet again next year when Davis Webb leaves. After all this time, it’s pretty obvious what to expect of Dykes’ teams: a pass-heavy offense that produces a lot of points but doesn’t run the ball nearly enough, combined with a defense equally prone to giving up big days on the ground and through the air.
A win would be huge. It gives Cal a chance at bowl eligibility, and it’s so important to maintain that level as a program after getting there last season. Also, it’d be a huge morale booster. At the end of the day, this game is always the one that matters the most. I think if Cal went 11-1 every year but never beat Stanford, fans still wouldn’t be happy. Finally, a win would be huge because it’d be Dykes’ first against any of Cal’s chief Pac-12 rivals: USC, UCLA and Stanford.
TSD: The Bears are fresh off maybe the most demanding three-game stretch of any team in the Pac-12, facing red-hot USC, Washington and Wazzu. How much has the three-game losing streak been on the minds of the coaches and players in Berkeley? Do you think it will serve as additional motivation heading into the 119th Big Game?
HY: I don’t really think they need much additional motivation to do well against Stanford. Losing three in a row might be a kick in the rear against a normal opponent, but Cal had better wake up to play Stanford, no matter what’s happened the previous few weeks.
TSD: Quarterback Davis Webb has done a fantastic job this season of filling in the massive shoes of Jared Goff to lead the Bear Raid. How has Webb been able to step into his current role so seamlessly, and how do you think he will perform against a Stanford defense that has held four of its last five opponents under 20 points?
HY: Webb has been able to produce big numbers just about every single week. The only time he didn’t was when he got injured on one of the first plays of the game against Oregon State.
Part of the reason he’s been so successful is that he came into Cal with a lot of experience. He started a lot of games at Texas Tech in a system pretty similar to the one Jake Spavital is running here. I thought Webb’s biggest problem coming into the year would be a potential lack of chemistry with his wide receivers after only committing in May, but that hasn’t been a problem.
Against Stanford, I think he’ll have a solid game. It won’t be near his best – Stanford is too good for that – but the Bear Raid pretty much ensures he’ll throw for 350 yards and a couple touchdowns no matter what. The biggest thing Webb struggles with is accuracy on intermediate passes in the middle of the field, so if he doesn’t rein that in, I’d expect to see him get picked off at least once on Saturday.
TSD: Besides Webb, who are some other weapons on this explosive Cal offense to keep an eye on?
HY: The key weapons are the obvious names: Chad Hansen and Demetris Robertson. Even in a downright terrible game for Cal against Washington State last week, both guys still got theirs, getting at least 130 receiving yards each. When they’re both healthy and at their best, Hansen and Robertson may be one of the best receiving duos in the country and their talent is what gives Cal a chance to win this game.
Other than that, I’d look for Bug Rivera to potentially have a solid game because he looked awesome in Tuesday’s practice. I think running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson could take on bigger roles as well, as Dykes should look to maintain some longer drives to keep his defense fresh given Stanford’s propensity to keep opposing defenses on the field for six minutes of game time every drive.
TSD: How would you rate this year’s Cal defense compared to previous units during the Dykes years? What will the Bears need to do to slow down Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love and the Stanford rushing attack?
HY: I think this defense isn’t that different than the other ones that have struggled. It’s definitely worse than last season’s, because Damariay Drew got a season-ending injury in spring and he was a star – I still think an NFL team should pick him up. But right now especially, things are bad for the Bears. There are injuries all over a defensive backfield that was performing decently well, and even though Stanford’s quarterbacks are perhaps the least scary the Bears will face all season, Cal may still give up more yardage than it’d like to through the air.
The biggest problem, though, has been the total inability to tackle. The Cardinal won’t have to throw it deep when a simple screen pass will probably result in 15 yards and three missed tackles. And that tackling sure doesn’t help when you’re facing someone like McCaffrey. I expect both Stanford backs to put up huge games, because Cal has really struggled to keep runners out of the second level of the defense.
The Bears’ best way to solve that is probably do one of two things: 1. Stack the box and hope the depleted secondary holds up or 2. Pray that everyone has learned to tackle.
TSD: Does Cal snap its six-game losing streak in this rivalry on Saturday? Do you have a prediction for the final score?
HY: A few weeks ago, I really thought this was the year. Stanford looked so bad and Cal didn’t look much worse than last year’s team. But now, with so many Cal players injured and Stanford seeming to have rediscovered its identity, I just can’t imagine the Bears winning. I have the final score as 38-20 in favor of Stanford.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.